The Pronunciation Coach ~~~for learners of American English

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What does "American English" mean?

There are different regional accents in the United States. The most notable difference between these accents is in the vowel sounds.

One of the most complicated parts of English pronunciation is the vowel system. In addition to that, there are different vowel systems shown in different ESL textbooks. The textbooks are different because the authors are from different places.

There is no officially declared standard for American English, but there is an informal standard. Everything on this site is very close to the informal standard. Wikipedia calls it "General American" English.

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Laura Elias,
Pronunciation Coach
I am language teacher with an M.A. degree in ESL (English as a Second Language) and an M.A. degree in Hispanic Linguistics from the University of Minnesota. I have over 20 years of experience teaching English and Spanish from beginner to advanced levels. My favorite area in both languages has always been pronunciation!

TOP TEN TIPS

Pronunciation advice for ANY student of English!

Some pronunciation difficulties are related to which language you speak. For example, many Spanish speakers have trouble confusing English "B" and "V", Koreans often mix up "F" and "P", and many Arabic and Somali speakers confuse "P" and "B". Other students of English have difficulties with intonation or stress. For example, a Spanish speaker might have difficulty saying an English sentence with a smooth rhythm, but for a Portuguese speaker this is usually no problem. However, the tips in the list below are useful for anybody, no matter what your first language is.

#10- Listen to the Music
#9 - Master the Frequent Words
#8 - Find Your Special Consonants
#7 - Study the Vowels
#6 - Begin Early!
#5 - Repetition
#4 - Exaggerate!
#3 - Reverse Imitation
#2 - Watch Your Face!
#1 - Be Careful with Your Dictionary


TIP #1 -- BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR DICTIONARY  
Different dictionaries use different systems or symbols to show how words should be pronounced. If you use your dictionary to figure out how to say a new word, you need to know what the symbols mean. If you have more than one dictionary, each dictionary may have a different system.

Example One: Word Stress
There are different ways to show where a word should be stressed. Some dictionaries show the stressed syllable with bold or capitalized letters, and other dictionaries put a mark in front of, or after, or above the strongest syllable.
(Stress = the strongest part, or syllable, of the word)

Example Two: Vowel Sounds
There are different systems for showing vowel sounds. For example, the sound of the letter A in a word such as “name” (which is sometimes called “Long A”) could be shown with a variety of different symbols.

So be careful! You need to understand the system that YOUR dictionary uses so that you don't get mixed up.

A good dictionary should have a guide that explains what the symbols mean. This is usually located in the front, somewhere in the introductory pages.

TIP #2 – WATCH YOUR FACE!  
To pronounce English well, you need to learn to use your mouth the same way that a native English speaker does.

TRY THIS: Observe how a native English speaker moves their mouth and face. Watch some news, but with the sound turned off. Look at how the reporter's mouth and face move while they talk. Then watch a news reporter in your language (again, with the sound off) to see the difference.

You will pronounce English better if you learn to move your mouth the way that an English speaker does. You could also try video-recording yourself to see if you can make your face look right in English.

Some common problems that I see in students are:
--A stiff jaw. Some students do not open their mouth wide enough for clear English. Others seem to have a jaw that does not want to move freely.
--Not willing to let the tongue or teeth be visible. It is difficult to pronounce English well if you try to keep the teeth or the tongue hidden.

In English, the tongue, the face, and also the voice are all quite active.

TIP #3 – REVERSE IMITATION  
Listen to English speakers trying to speak your language. What kind of mistakes do they make? Do they slide around too much on vowel sounds? Do they articulate some consonants too strongly or too weakly? Do they make their voice sing too much, or too little?

The “foreign” sound that English speakers typically make while speaking your language can give you some clues about how you should try to sound when you speak English.

TIP #4 – EXAGGERATE!  
This is a key to practicing well.

I have often seen students try something new with their pronunciation, but the new sound is just barely noticeable -- just a tiny bit different from the way they normally speak. On the inside, they feel like they have produced a big change, but on the outside it does not sound so big. I often tell students to try to say the new sound too strongly. When they do that, it usually sounds just right. 

When you are learning to pronounce a new language, you are training your mouth muscles, your voice, and your breathing muscles to do new things. You are using them in new ways, and it feels different. You need to exaggerate when you first practice something new, so that those muscles can develop new patterns adequately. It may feel strange – but that's ok! Be brave. Be bold. Go ahead: exaggerate!

TIP #5 – REPETITION  
Repetition is key – you are training your speech muscles. This is similar to an athlete training their body, or a pianist training their fingers. 
  ~ It is best to practice every day (or even twice a day)
  ~ 10 minutes every day is better than an hour once per week

THINGS TO TRY
  ~ listen and imitate a news reporter
  ~ find a brief conversation in a DVD movie - repeat it over and over until you
      can say it simultaneously
  ~ get an audio book, plus a hard copy of the book, and read along out loud

TIP #6 – BEGIN EARLY!  
The best time to focus on pronunciation is sooner rather than later. If you train your mouth correctly when you begin, then you will not have to unlearn bad habits and relearn good pronunciation later.

If you can already speak English, but your pronunciation is your weak point, then you will need to be patient and persistent. Making new pronunciation patterns a normal part of your speaking will probably take some time.

STAGES IN PRONUNCIATION DEVELOPMENT
Level 1: awareness of an sound or pattern
Level 2: ability to hear, notice, or recognize the sound or pattern
Level 3: ability to control it in a single word or short phrase
Level 4: ability to maintain control in a sentence or simple dialogue
Level 5: ability to integrate it into everyday speaking

Moving from one level to the next usually gets harder the higher you go.

Going from Level 1 to Level 2 usually happens quite quickly and easily. Then, depending on your first language and the particular aspect of pronunciation you are working on, it may or may not be easy to get to Level 3. It is harder to get to Level 4, and reaching Level 5 requires a lot practice and self-discipline.

TIP #7 – STUDY THE VOWELS  
Almost all students of English have some kind of difficulty with vowel sounds. That is because there are 15 different vowel sounds in English.

They can be tricky to pronounce, because there are 2 types of vowels:
1) some need to be pronounced with a relaxed tongue,
2) others require a very active tongue because they have 2 parts (2 different sounds) in one vowel.

Another problem is that there are only 5 written letters to show the 15 different sounds in the spelling. The secret is knowing that each vowel letter has 2 or 3 different sounds that they normally use. You need to know what the normal sounds are for each vowel letter, and learn when to use them.

TIP #8 – FIND YOUR SPECIAL CONSONANTS  
The consonants are usually less difficult than the vowels. Most students pronounce most of the consonants well. However, there are often one or two that are particularly difficult because of a difference between English and your first language.

Some examples:
Arabic & Somali speakers usually have difficulty with P & B
Spanish speakers usually have problems with distinguishing B & V
Korean speakers tend to struggle with F & P and L & R

Pay attention to the consonants that are especially tricky for those who speak your language and be extra careful. These kinds of mistakes can always cause some funny mix-ups!

SPECIAL CONSONANTS FOR ALL: TH & R

The TH sound is difficult for most learners, but it is also a sound that is mispronounced very often, so usually people don't notice it too much. However, there are some words that can be confused, and if your goal is to speak English very well, then you should work on this. I have some blog posts on TH.

The R sound is difficult for almost all students. English R is somewhat unusual – it sounds almost like a vowel (and it does act as a vowel sometimes). The biggest piece of advice for pronouncing R well is this: the tip of the tongue should not move or touch the top of the mouth when you say it.

TIP #9 – MASTER THE FREQUENT WORDS  
Be careful with the frequently used words. – make sure that you are pronouncing these words right. You need to use them every time you speak English.

If you started learning English years ago, and you learned some of them incorrectly at the beginning, then you probably have been practicing saying them wrong for a long time.
If you are a beginner, make sure you know how to say these correctly now, so that you don't have to fix them later.

NOTE: there is a higher percentage of unusual spellings among the most frequent words – so you have a higher chance of mispronouncing these words if you are trying to say them by looking at the letters of the words.

Check yourself. Practice the 150 most frequently used words of English. Get a pdf copy then listen to the list.

TIP #10 - LISTEN TO THE MUSIC  
Have you ever heard someone speaking a language that you do not speak, but you were pretty sure that you knew which language it was just by the way it sounded? Perhaps you have thought: “That sounds like French” or “I think they are speaking Russian” or “That must be Chinese”. Many people can recognize certain languages, even if they do not understand a single word of the conversation. But the question is: How?

Well, each language has it's own special sound – or music. The musical part of a language comes from the rhythm of the words and syllables, the stress patterns, and the intonation patterns (how the voice moves up and down).
If you learn to imitate the musical part of a language, you will sound much more natural, and people will understand you more easily.

English has very active “music” patterns, with strong words and weak words, and high notes and low notes all together in each sentence. Pay attention to this sound when you listen to English, and try to imitate it.

But be ready – it may feel or sound strange to hear yourself speak that way. I have heard a lot of different reactions to learning the music of English, such as, “I feel like I have to speak with an angry voice” or “It makes me feel silly”. It might feel strange, but if you do not speak with enough “music” in English, then you might sound like you are bored, or boring, or sleepy, or sad, or not very smart. However, using sufficient “music” can help make you sound like your are somebody who is friendly, positive, and intelligent.
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