1. Know your weak areas
When starting to work on a problem, it is pivotal to have a good understanding of what the problem actually is. This is especially important when you want to improve your english pronunciation. You have to ask yourself: what sounds do I find most difficult to pronounce? How am I pronouncing them incorrectly? What is the correct way to pronounce them? Although each English learner may have their own individual sounds they find difficult to say, the biggest factor to improving your English pronunciation is your mother tongue. Think: what sounds does English have that my mother tongue does not? This is usually what learners find most difficult. For example:
- Arabic speakers: differentiating between the “b” sound and the “p” sound
- Korean/Japanese speakers: differentiating between the “r” and “l” sound
- Spanish speakers: pronouncing “v” and “th”
These are just some of the common difficulties that English learners who have different mother tongues face. So before going any further in improving your pronunciation, remember to ask these questions and pinpoint the exact issues that you face.
2. Pay attention to your mouth and tongue
The human mouth and tongue can make a number of sounds, but what students often forget is that even little changes and movements of your tongue or mouth can drastically change the way you speak a language! Take a moment to feel the way your tongue moves when you speak a sentence. How is your mouth shaped when you say “the”? What about “very”? Ask yourself, “How should my mouth be shaped? Where should my tongue be when I say these words?” This is where English teachers in particular can help you because they are trained in understanding the way English sounds are made in the mouth and properly articulated. When talking to a native English speaker, simply ask them to tell you where their tongue is positioned in their mouth when they pronounce a particularly difficult word!
For instance, speakers of Indian languages such as Hindi or Tamil often pronounce the “t” sound with the tongue slightly more inward and sometimes even more curled backwards than English speakers. This causes it to sound subtly different than when a native English speaker pronounces the letter “t”. Asking an English speaker to slowly articulate a word in front of you, such as “tractor,” while also slightly emphasising their tongue and mouth movements will help you to understand how to correctly pronounce particular sounds in a more effective and visual manner. Give it a try next time!
3. Record yourself
Sometimes you have to face reality: you don't know exactly what areas of your pronunciation you need to improve. What if you don't have a native English speaking friend or teacher to constantly correct you? The best strategy here is to record yourself! Find or write a passage, then record yourself speaking it in the most natural and comfortable way for you. Post it or email it to your English teacher or English speaking friend. Or even place it on any language learning community (such as italki)! Here you'll find plenty of people happy to point out some areas of weakness on which to focus. This way you can also get advice from multiple people who can help pinpoint the sounds and words to concentrate on and to make your English sound more natural and native.
If you are up to the challenge and at an advanced level in English, why not try a tongue twister? See what others think of your speaking and pronunciation skills! Write yourself a self-introduction or a short passage, then record yourself reading it aloud! This way you are practicing your writing and speaking skills!
Sometimes listening to a recording of yourself speaking English can be a way for you to find your own mistakes too! When we speak, what other people hear and what you hear yourself can often be slightly different. This is where recording yourself can help you find areas of concern that you can work on with your teacher or independently.
4. Be aware of different English accents!
English, as in most other languages, has numerous different regional accents as most of you probably know. As a teacher I find the two most significant accent students learn English from are the American and British accents. Although English can be understand mutually between all accents, if you are trying to sound PARTICULARLY more like a native English speaker, you'll have to realize that native speakers all have their own specific accents. For instance the pronunciation of simple words such as “car” can be different between American and British accents.
When trying to improve your pronunciation ensure that you are aware of the differences in English accents. Also make sure you are focusing only on one accent. This way it will be easier to effectively improve your pronunciation and mimic sounds.
5. SLOW. DOWN.
A weakness that almost all language learners have had at one point (including me), is trying to speak fast to sound like a native. Almost all language teachers, and not only English teachers, will tell you that this is an especially bad habit to have if you are looking to improve your pronunciation. Native speakers are able to speak fast because words naturally come out of their mouth with correct pronunciation. However, as English learners this is almost never the case. Speaking fast doesn't give you enough time to articulate words correctly (especially difficult words), and contrary to common belief, this will make you sound less like a native English speaker! Slow and articulated speaking always beats fast and muffled speaking; for native English speakers this is also true.
Try to say a sentence a third of your normal talking speed and just focus on the sounds and words you pronounce. If you ask your English teacher to listen to you, pronunciation mistakes will probably start to become more apparent, and he or she can accurately tell you which words you need to improve on. In the long run, when you are able to effectively grasp English pronunciation, speaking faster will become easier and more natural. However even as advanced or near-fluent English speakers, speaking slowly carries less risk when trying to sound appropriate with correct pronunciation.
Ok, are you ready? My last tip is (drum roll, please)…
6. Perfect pronunciation is not important!
I've told almost every single one of my students the same thing: “sounding like a native” should never be a goal for most English learners, even for advanced level students! It's true that often times having a perfect or near perfect pronunciation benefits you in work environments and leaves a favourable impression on employers, but if you're learning English to improve social networks, talk with friends, or to simply communicate with others, there is no need to sound perfect! As long as your pronunciation doesn't inhibit the way others understand the meaning of your speech, you should not be spending hours and hours trying to perfect it!
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try and how much time you spend, your vocal morphology will still create obstacles for you. The structure of one's throat and mouth plays a crucial role in enunciating subtle sounds found in the English language. Often times this acts as an obstacle to sounding 100% like a native English speaker, so there's no point in fretting about it! For some learners, pronunciation may be one of the hardest parts of English; for others it may be considerably easier.
This is why improving your pronunciation, especially at a high level in English, is a gradual process. Most English learners who have finally reached a level at which they can't be differentiated between native speakers have spent years or a considerable amount of time in an English speaking country immersed in the foreign language. The fact of the matter is, such a high goal like this can rarely be achieved in a non-English speaking environment!
So the next time you sit down and think, “I really need to improve my English pronunciation,” try using these strategies to help you tackle the challenge. Good luck!