5 tips for perfect pronunciation
I recently released my English pronunciation course in the Canguro Academy, and to celebrate I want to share my top 5 tips to help you get perfect English pronunciation. Let’s get started.
1. Do nothing
So my first tip is to do nothing. That’s right. Absolutely nothing.
As a learner of English you are surrounded by marketing that promises to teach you a British or American accent, and unfortunately, this is really problematic.
Firstly, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the difference between pronunciation and accent. Pronunciation describes the way you pronounce sounds, and accent describes the way those sounds work together to create identity.
So British or American is a description of identity. So unless you plan to change your identity, you don’t need to imitate a British, American, or any other foreign accent.
But, because of all that marketing, you probably have the idea that if you imitate a specific accent, for example RP, then more people will understand you. That is absolutely not true. There is no particular English accent that will give you any communication advantage.
But, unlike accent, pronunciation is absolutely vital.
But how do you know if your pronunciation is good? There is only one way to measure it: successful communication.
If you’re using your English, and you are communicating successfully, then you have perfect pronunciation. You don’t need to read the rest of this article, and you don’t need to waste any more time, energy, and money trying to imitate a British or American accent.
You can have an accent, and great pronunciation.
Let’s just take a moment. Take all that anxiety, all that stress and worry about how you sound. Take all that learned prejudice about how your accent makes you sound stupid, or difficult to understand, and let it go.
Your accent is your identity, and it’s beautiful.
Now let’s, look at something a bit more technical.
2. Use the rhythm of English
In English, words generally fall into two categories: lexical words, and grammar words. The simple explanation is that lexical words transmit meaning, and grammar words transmit grammar.
So table, remember, yellow, and suddenly are lexical words, and she, at, the, and so are grammar words.
And those lexical words are the most important, because they carry meaning, and in language, meaning is everything. I can communicate in a basic way using only lexical words:
christian – pizza – eat – today
But I can’t really communicate anything using only grammar words:
it – the – through – on
And this brings us to the rhythm of English. You may have heard about syllable-timed and stress-timed languages, but that’s just another myth.
What we do have in English is an alternating up and down pattern of stress between lexical words and grammar words, which sometimes gives the appearance of a regular rhythm.
To demonstrate how this works, we can use a metronome.
Here are four lexical words. Let’s say them to the beat:
RED – – BLUE – – GREN – – PINK
Now let’s add some grammar words, but let’s keep the lexical words on the beat:
RED and BLUE and GREEN and PINK
Now let’s add some more grammar words:
RED and then BLUE and then GREEN and then PINK
And some more:
RED and then it’s BLUE and then it’s GREEN and then it’s PINK
The important thing is not that we are keeping the lexical words on the beat, but that we are reducing the length of the grammar words.
Now obviously if you just follow that up and down pattern then you will sound really robotic. That’s why you need nuclear stress.
3. Use nuclear stress
When we are producing language we normally produce it in small pieces, and each one represents a complete thought. Research has shown that when we’re speaking these pieces are usually about 2 seconds long.
We can call them thought groups.
Look at this phrase, which doesn’t contain any punctuation:
he ate the pizza she saw him eat it
Take a moment to read it, or say it out loud and ask yourself where there seems like a natural break, or pause in the language. It’s highly likely that you chose to put a break here:
he ate the pizza || she saw him eat it
Because we are all humans, with the same human brains, we all tend to divide information in the same way. It’s not something you need to study or practice.
But what is absolutely vital, is how you use stress inside these thought groups.
Look at this phrase:
you can have tuna salad or chicken
Again, take a moment to think about how you would divide it up.
In this case, there are various options, but with different meanings. For example:
you can have tuna salad || or chicken
We can divide it here, which creates two food options, tuna salad and chicken.
you can have tuna || salad || or chicken
Or we can divide it here which creates three food options, tuna, salad, and chicken.
The question is, how do we indicate these divisions when we’re speaking?
Pausing is one way, but there is a far more important way: using nuclear stress. This is a strongly stressed word in each thought group that breaks that robotic up and down pattern and focuses attention.
In English, the general rule is that we put the stress on the final lexical word of the thought group. So in the example:
you can have tuna salad || or chicken
We would stress the words salad and chicken. But in this example:
you can have tuna || salad || or chicken
We would stress tuna, salad, and chicken.
Now, in any sentence, all nuclear stress positions are possible, but each one has a different meaning. And that’s why nuclear stress is so important.
Now, depending on your native language, the rhythm of English might be completely alien to you, but you should practice it, not to sound like a native speaker, but because it’s an important part of the way that English packages information to make it easier for others to process.
4. Focus on consonants
The Arabic language is written using something called an abjad. In an abjad you only write the consonants, and not the vowels. The vowels are flexible, and they depend on the person reading.
The thing is, you could also do this with English.
Children instinctively know how unimportant vowels are in English. Look at how this 5-year-old from California wrote the names of some common shapes in English.
Two of the shapes (square) and (star) are written with no vowels at all, and two other shapes (circle) and (diamond) with only one vowel.
The good news is this shows where you should focus your energy: on consonants. For example, let’s look at a specific consonant sound in English: the T.
Now, depending on your native languages, this sound might be easy for you, or it might be really difficult. This sound requires a lot of physical effort to produce. First we need to make sure that we have enough air in our lungs, and then we need to raise up our tongue to touch the front part of the roof of our mouth, to block the air, then we need to create some pressure, and then release our tongue and explode with air.
With all this effort, it’s not surprising that this sound is often deleted or substituted by many people, especially native speakers. But that’s a major problem, because English has a very simple grammar system for tense and aspect. For almost all verbs, to indicate the past simple, we add -ed to the verb, which is often pronounced as that T sound.
In other words, that single sound is the only thing that tells me if you are talking about something in the past, so you better make sure that it’s really clear.
And that brings us to the final tip:
5. Consider others
Now, at first, this might not seem like it has anything to do with pronunciation at all, but it is often the key to successful communication.
When people are learning a language it’s totally natural to want to pronounce the language like a native speaker. After all, they have had a lifetime of practice.
But this comes with a huge negative. Native speakers often only communicate with other native speakers, who have also had a lifetime of practice. They are all experts in the language. And as experts, they have the privilege of being able to take shortcuts with English that you do not have.
Today, English is a true global language, and you will probably never use your English with other native speakers, but with other learners, just like you.
So, trying to copy the things that expert native speakers do with their pronunciation, like eliminating that T sound, will not make you a better communicator. In fact, it will do the opposite.
When you enter into any type of communication you are making a social contract, and part of that contract is to take 50% of the responsibility for the success of that communication. Your job is to help the other person as much as possible to understand the meaning of your communication.
It might seem cool or authentic to use the same shortcuts that native speakers use, but there’s nothing cool or authentic about making communication difficult for other people.
When you consider others, and take the time and effort to follow the fundamentals of the English sound system, then you respect the fundamental goal of language, which is to share.