Many people worry about their English pronunciation, but some things are more important than others. (For example, it’s not important to have a 100% British or American accent when you speak!)
Here are five common pronunciation mistakes to avoid, so that you can focus on the areas which make a bigger difference. Remember that your number one goal should be to make your pronunciation clear so that people can understand you.
1. Speaking too fast
Lots of people tend to speak fast when they’re nervous. But if you can’t pronounce the sounds correctly at normal speed, your English will be much more difficult to understand if you speak too fast.
Don’t rush when you speak. Focus on getting the sounds right (and on the correct word stress) and people will be able to understand you better.
2. Trying to lose your accent
We all speak with an accent – and your accent depends on where you’re from. The most important thing to aim for is “intelligibility” (= making sure other people can understand you). This might mean you need to work on certain sounds to make them clearer, and you probably also need to work on other things – like linking between words to help you speak more fluently.
But you don’t need to sound exactly like a native English speaker. For example, you don’t need to copy features like the “glottal stop” (where you don’t pronounce the “t” sound in words) which can make your pronunciation harder to understand.
3. Stressing every sound
When we speak English, we have both stressed and unstressed syllables and words. Normally, stressed words are information words, while unstressed words are grammatical words. These unstressed grammatical words fit between the stressed words.
If you stress every sound, your English will sound “choppy” or “robotic”. Listen to this example of the sentence “You can do what you want” to hear the difference between “all stressed” and “stressed / unstressed”.
Listen to the audio now.
You can hear the “you can” becoming “y cuhn” – and it’s half as long as the word “do”.
Then you can hear the “what you” becoming “wotchu”. These two unstressed words have the same length as “do” and “want” – and to make them fit between “do” and “want”, they need to be short and unstressed.
If you don’t use a mixture of stressed and unstressed words and sounds, your English will still be understandable – but you will be less fluent.
4. Limiting your intonation
English speakers use intonation a lot. In fact, if you don’t use intonation much in your own language, English-speaker intonation can sound “excessive”.
English speakers use falling intonation typically for questions, but we also use a rising intonation to show strong emotions. A good way to get practice with intonation is to listen to actors in TV series.
Listen to the audio for examples of intonation. The first doesn’t show much emotion, while the second shows a lot more pleasure at meeting someone. The third shows strong emotion.
Listen to the audio now.
5. Getting long and short vowel sounds wrong
It’s often more difficult to make a long vowel sound (the i: in sheep) than a short vowel sound (the i in ship). But because there are many words with both an i and an i: sound, getting them wrong can cause confusion. You can practise minimal pairs with i/i:
Remember the i: sound is like the sound in “cheese”. As you say it, your mouth opens, like in a smile.
ship / sheep
fill / feel
hit / heat
live / leave
bin / been
There are also some English words where the short vowel sound is a swear word. Make sure you make the longer vowel sound.
sh*t / sheet
b*tch / beach
Remember also, the long “a” (as in “father”) for the following:
c*nt / can’t
Listen to the audio here.
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