Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Language learners often neglect improving their pronunciation because they can focus too much on grammar rules. Before we start; however, I want to ask you - is your pronunciation really the problem?
It would be a problem, for example, if you answer yes to any of these:
People continuously ask you to repeat yourself.
They don’t understand you when you give a presentation or when you speak in conversations.
You feel like people avoid speaking to you.
If you’re not sure, then ask someone you trust to give you honest feedback. If you answered no to the above, then ask yourself is your accent your number one priority?
Could other things be more important to work on first such as your confidence and mindset, building your vocabulary or sticking to a routine that works for you?
Often many of my students feel as though their accent is a bigger problem than they realise because they have made assumptions and never asked anyone.
Several studies (listed below) have shown that accent reduction classes can be useful for improving your accent if that is your primary goal. You can implement some of the techniques used in these studies.
If improving your pronunciation will help you to be better understood or to be more confident, here are my top 6 tips to improve your English pronunciation which come from both my experiences as a learner of languages and a teacher, but also based on research. However, more importantly, these techniques help to improve other areas of your learning: speaking fluency, listening comprehension and a better understanding of grammar patterns.
Make improving your pronunciation your number 1 priority, write it in your diary and assign yourself time every single day to work on it. Remember it takes years of work of specific and dedicated training but little by little every day counts. Try to make smaller achievable goals that are achievable and reevaluate your progress as you go.
Exposure. This means listening to the language without distraction. You can increase this by listening to the audio on repeat such as podcasts, audiobooks and radio. Try to analyse the sounds you’re hearing. Short episodes are good because you can listen on repeat.
Research suggests that extensive listening tends to see an improved understanding of grammar rules and considerable benefits for vocabulary development, accent recognition, and also pronunciation and speaking.
Read out loud to yourself. I often suggest to my students that they choose a short article from a magazine or blog post. When you read out loud, the pressure is off, and you’re training your brain as well as activating the muscles in your mouth. Have fun with it and project the sounds.
Focus on slowing down your speech and trying to nail consonant pronunciation. Try to vary the speed and use pauses to create emphasis. There are thousands upon thousands of videos on YouTube to help with this. But how do you know what consonants to practice? I highly recommend the mmmEnglish Youtube channel. There are also many others which focus on different accents - American, Canadian and British English. It can also be challenging to sort the good from the bad. I'll explain more about how you know which ones to choose at Tip number 6.
If you have trouble pronouncing a particular word, ask people to repeat it or even record it on your phone. You can then replay it and train your pronunciation as often as you want. One thing I do with my students is we make recordings of different words in the context of a sentence, and they listen to them. Sometimes, however, they might prefer to listen to a different accent. In that situation, I call upon my network of English speakers from around the world to record themselves saying certain words or phrases or I show my students different YouTube channels and pronunciation audio. For example, the Cambridge Dictionary has both British English and American English pronunciation as well as the phonetic spelling and is a great tool for listening to words.
If you want to improve your pronunciation of certain words, listen to them both as single words and in the context of a sentence. This is another reason why listening to podcasts can have a profound impact on your pronunciation.
Get to know the sounds that are commonly difficult for your native tongue. For example, many Chinese students learning English make similar mistakes because many elements of their native language are so different from English, such as the stress and intonation, words ending in consonants and vowel reductions. French students commonly have trouble with the ‘h’ and ‘th’ sounds.
Once you know these common errors, many English teachers on YouTube will address these errors with targeted practice. So you should write them down and make it part of your pronunciation routine to practice them.
You could find an article and record yourself reading it and analyse your accent. Ask a native speaker to record the same material and make comparisons between your pronunciation and theirs. I use voice recording with Mote to record myself, saying certain words and phrases.
Listen out for linking and intonation patterns. Remember it's okay not to sound the same, as long as you can be understood. With one of my students, before each lesson, they send me a recording of something they have prepared. We look at the pronunciation of certain words, speed, stress and intonation patterns, and then I record myself saying parts of the speech too, and we compare.
Speaking with a dedicated 1:1 language coach is a great way to give you practice. A teacher will be able to help you sort of which of the YouTube videos to watch from the thousands upon thousands of examples! They can tell you which sounds you need to focus on, how you can practice linking, intonation, and they can point these out to you with focussed practice tasks.
I'd love to hear from you about some of the techniques you use.
I've spent hours and hours researching these ideas - although these tips come from some anecdotal evidence, they are also heavily based on scientific research. If you're interested - some of the peer-reviewed research I base my teaching around you'll find a list of my resources below.
Want to improve your architectural writing with an English teacher who has experience in the industry? Find out more about my 1:1 coaching programs and follow me on Instagram for daily tips and English lessons.
In 2013 KT Hsieh et al. found that participants who implemented a shadowing technique successfully improvement in pronunciation, fluency and intonation.
In 2020 Sarhandi et al. demonstrated a technology-based accent reduction program significantly improved oral/aural communication for intermediate level speakers of English. Importantly they also concluded that the goal to sound like a native is something that learners of English should strive to achieve. Instead, they should be aiming for understanding, and this should be the goal of an accent reduction program.
In 2017 Behrman demonstrated changes in the degree of 'accentedness' and ease of understanding of Spanish speakers who undertook intensive training twice a week for five weeks.
Freysteinson et al. (2016) found that a group of ESL health professionals reported significantly higher self-esteem and overall competence in communicating with others after completing a 12-week accent reduction program.
In (2016), Brady et al. found improvements in the production of vowel sounds after specifically targetting them with the participants in their study.
Thomson and Derwing (2015) concluded that 'explicit instruction of phonological forms can have a significant impact on accent reduction. Accent reduction happens likely because it focusses learners' attention to phonetic information, which promotes learning in a way that natural.
Behrman's earlier research conducted in 2014 found training in intonation patterns and pronunciation of consonants, improved the accuracy of their participant's English pronunciation. They also found the participant's accents were easier to understand, and beyond the study, the participants maintained these improvements.
In 2013 KT Hsieh et al. found that participants who implemented a shadowing technique successfully improved pronunciation, fluency and intonation patterns.
Linebaugh and Roche (2013) found that delivering pronunciation exercises using different word pairs (minimal pairs) the participant's had better capacity to hear the difference in pronunciation between words.
Fritz and Sikorski in (2013) found an overall improvement in 167 Korean speaking participants ability to produce clear speech and an increase in confidence scores.
Khurana et. Al. (2013) found that phoneme training was highly effective in improving participant's ability to pronounce words, syllable stress and use of facial expression and body language.
Saito (2011) demonstrated that Japanese learners were more easily understood through instruction to modify their pronunciation of phonemes.