By Erin Hendry – ILSC-San Francisco
One request that I often hear from students is that they want to improve their pronunciation. Many students become frustrated that they have to repeat themselves many times when they try to speak to native speakers. It is a very common complaint among foreign students. But the good news is there are lots of ways to improve your pronunciation! Here are 5 easy tips to improve your pronunciation.
One word of warning – many of these tips involve acting silly, so it’s important to not worry about what your roommate is thinking of you.
Tip 1 – The mirror is your friend
One of the most important parts of correct pronunciation is the shape of your mouth and the position of your lips, teeth, and tongue. First, you need to know what the correct mouth shape looks like; here is a website with pictures and video – http://www.rachelsenglish.com/mouth_positions. To see if you are making the shape correctly, sit in front of a mirror and watch your mouth to see if you are moving in the right way. Once you have the correct position, practice making the sound at least 20 times. You will feel very silly, but this is one of the best ways to improve.
Tip 2 – Listen to yourself
This is something that people find very difficult, but it can be very helpful. To find out where are your trouble spots, it’s a great idea to record yourself and then listen to your own voice and hear the parts that are incorrect or not clear. It can be embarrassing to listen to your recorded voice but try to be objective and imagine that it is a different person that you are listening to. If you don’t have a voice recorder or a microphone, you can call your own phone number and record yourself using your voicemail.
Tip 3 – Be a parrot
Parrots are colorful birds that are famous for copying the voice of humans. Parrots learn to mimic the sounds of human speaking by repeating the phrases over and over again. This is a great way for Language Learners to practice rhythm and stress. When you are listening to the news on the radio or watching a movie in English, try to copy the exact rhythm of the speaker. Does their voice go up and down? Do they sound surprised or sarcastic? Is it a question or a statement of fact? The more that you practice copying the way that native speakers speak, the more it will come naturally when you are speaking. I recommend starting with something really funny or passionate so you can practice with extreme sounds. Like this, “OH my GOD! WHAT are you DOING!”
Tip 4 – Practice BIG!
The key when you are practicing pronunciation is to make the sounds much bigger than normal. You have to exaggerate and enunciate the sounds. So when you are practicing the sound ‘Ow’ like in ‘cow’ you should open your mouth very big and make the sounds loudly and clearly. Another way to practice this way is with a friend. Make the position with your mouth but don’t make any sound. If you make the position correctly, your friend should be able to guess the word or sound that you were trying to make.
Tip 5 – Practice often
This is probably the hardest tip. To improve your pronunciation, you have to work hard and practice often. If you only spend 5 minutes practicing, you won’t improve very quickly. If you are serious about improving your pronunciation, I recommend making a routine. Focus on 1 or 2 sounds per week and spend at least an hour a week using the different techniques here to practice. If you feel silly or self-conscious, find a place like a closet, bathroom, or other small room with a door to practice without being disturbed by others. Some people find that a glass of wine helps them to relax and not feel so strange.
If you follow these tips, your pronunciation will definitely improve. But remember, it isn’t necessary to lose your accent completely. In North America, it’s completely normal for people to have accents and it doesn’t make you look unintelligent (many accents are even considered attractive). So don’t worry about speaking just like an American or Canadian or Australian, the most important thing is that people understand you the first time you say something. And if they get your name wrong at Starbucks, don’t feel bad. I’m a native speaker and I have seen my name written as Ann, Karen, Aaron, Sharon, Erica, Ian, and Ellen (my name is Erin).