Did you know that most native speakers notice a person’s pronunciation before their grammar?
That’s right, all those hours you spent trying to make your grammar perfect haven’t been as useful as you thought they were…
Grammar is not a total waste of time, but if you want people to understand you better, pronunciation is the most important skill to work on. The problem is, no one knows how to work on it. Most people just think that speaking will improve pronunciation automatically, but there has to be focused practice.
There are some lucky people who acquire native-like pronunciation almost effortlessly–I’ve seen English learners with Australian accents who’ve never been to Australia, Russians who speak like Brits, Turks who speak like Americans, and on and on. How do these people do it? They pay attention to the words that come out of their mouths.
They also watch a lot of TV and movies. However, this only helps if you pay attention to the accents. And it works even faster if you model the pronunciation.
So how can you model the correct pronunciation at home? Well you can watch TV series and try to repeat everything you hear. Your husband or wife will get irritated and tell you to shut up though…
And you also might have trouble keeping up, especially if the characters are speaking very quickly. Trying to study pronunciation from a live example is hard to do because you can’t control the speed.
You need to find somewhere with real examples from native speakers. You also need to be able to control the speed.
The Longman Dictionary: Native examples of pronunciation
Go to https://www.ldoceonline.com/ and search for your favourite word. For this example I’ll use “tough”
Now, see those example sentences? Those will be your best friend in getting perfect pronunciation.
Studying the correct pronunciation
First, click on the little grey speaker beside an example sentence. You will hear a real example from a native speaker. That’s right, no robots. This is why Longman is the most useful online dictionary for learners.
Listen to it at least three times. Listen again and again until you feel confident. Then, write it down on a piece of paper. Notice the little green lines? Listen again and see if you can recognize why I put these marks here.
That’s the stress. Every time you do an example, you should mark the words that are stressed. Note that speakers often change stress to change the meaning. Here the speaker puts stress on “lot” for emphasis.
Next, look at the red lines:
This is connected speech, or the places where the words overlap. Notice how “a lot of” is often pronounced “a lotta”. When looking for connected speech, you can also mark the places where the speaker pauses.
Finally, look for difficult sounds:
“Tough” is often a difficult word to pronounce because of its strange spelling. The “gh” is actually a /f/ sound. You will also noticed that the “ou” sounds like /ə/ (like “away”). So the word “tough” sounds like /təf/ in American English.
Practicing the pronunciation
Great, now that you’ve taken your notes, it’s time to speak! Take out your phone and open your voice recording app.
- Listen to the sentence a few times more.
- Then say it out loud a few times.
- Keep repeating this until you feel confident enough to record.
- Then, record yourself. Do it several times, again and again.
- When you think you’ve got a good recording, listen to it.
- Compare your recording to the original example. Was it similar? Different?
- Examine your stress, connected speech, and any difficult sounds. How did you do?
- Repeat. Do it again and again until it sounds like the original.
- Send it to your mom. She’ll be proud.
The path to perfect pronunciation
You may have noticed that there is a lot of repetition here. That’s because no one learns how to speak like a native speaker in one day. It requires a lot of practice and trying again and again. Luckily, it is 2018, and it is much easier to access native models than it was in the past, so you can do this practice right from the comfort of your home.
Remember, if you believe that you have terrible pronunciation, you will have terrible pronunciation.