Obstacles blocking your way to better English pronunciation

Marian Herud

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1. Phonetic deafness

As we all, language learners know, learning a new sound or intonation pattern is not always a straightforward process. First, your brain needs to recognize that there is a difference between the sound you are trying to learn and a similar sound in your mother tongue.

As an adult language learner you have a well established set of sounds in your mother tongue. This set acts as a filter.  So when you hear a sound you’ve never heard before, it is automatically replaced by the most similar sound in your native language.

That’s basically why many students replace [ð] with [d] or [θ] with [s]

This inability of foreign language students to hear foreign sounds properly is called phonetic deafness. When you are learning a new language you shouldn’t just assume that all sounds are the same across languages. When learning new words check also their pronunciation. In that regard, it is also useful to learn some basic IPA symbols, so you can also read pronunciation.

2. Ditch those stereotypes and myths

People are often driven by various myths and truisms. Language learning is also rife with them, such as you need to live in an English speaking country to learn the language well, or you need to start very early in life or that pronunciation is unlearnable and therefore you should focus on something easier and similar hogwash.

Do yourself a favor and ditch all those myths, preconceptions and false beliefs. They are not founded on facts and they just set your mind on a failure. Approach learning new sounds as if you knew nothing about it.

Don’t be afraid to start with pronunciation training from the very beginning, don’t be put off by what people say you can or can’t learn.

Every single time you practice pronunciation you take a step towards sounding better and becoming more understandable, more confident … and that's what matters.

3. Activate all your senses

It’s not just careful listening that your pronunciation depends on. Use also your eyes to understand how sounds are formed. Many English sounds need to be seen to pronounce them properly.

Make use of modern technology and media which allow you rewind parts of a recording and say them out loud as many times as necessary copying sounds and intonation.

Remember that it’s better to practice using just one passage 10 times than practice with 10 different passages. If possible, it is also helpful to work with a movie you saw in your mother tongue before. You need to understand the material, because content and meaning are closely linked with pronunciation especially intonation. If you don’t understand what you are saying your intonation will suffer.

Also bear in mind that you can't effectively practice pronunciation just silently talking to yourself.

When I ask people how they work on their pronunciation, they often say that they watch English-language movies or listen to audiobooks. That’s definitely great for language input, but it may not be enough if your goal is to improve pronunciation. You simply have to practice out loud, end of story.

Some, however, might feel embarrassed when trying to emulate the English sounds especially in real communication. So after all it may not be your tongue, but your emotions that stand in the way.

4. Learn how to relax

Have you’ve ever wondered why your English sounds so great in a shower or on the way to work – it’s because you are relaxed. If you experience stress when speaking English, even a tiny bit of it – it’s hard to relax. As a result, your speech organs get tense, they become harder to control, your voice quality deteriorates and everything goes downhill from there. A lot of tension and good pronunciation never mix together well. Try to relax, breathe from your diaphragm, don’t take the whole thing so seriously, work on lowering stress levels when speaking English and your pronunciation will flourish.

5. Grammar is the king

Are you a person like me, living in a country where there are very few opportunities to speak English outside a classroom?

Well, chances that you’ll acquire native-like pronunciation are close to zero. But nativelikeness shouldn’t be your goal and instead you should focus on more realistic goals such as better understanding, boosting confidence, broadening your vocabulary, improving your fluency and, yes, reduction of your accent.

But here, we tend to put grammar on a pedestal. But even if your grammar is impeccable, people still may have a hard time understanding you simply because of your pronunciation. This bias towards grammar is understandable ‘cause grammar seems to be more explicit, more rule-based and easier to teach. As a consequence, many English teachers seem to downplay the importance of pronunciation. And it also pleases English language learners because they are often reluctant to embrace a little bit of chaos in learning languages and falsely believe that perfect grammar equals perfect English.

Don't fall into that grammar trap, pronunciation isn’t any less important.

6. Cogito Ego

Children are generally thought to be better language learners than adults. It is often claimed that they miraculously soak in language like sponges. Whereas this definitely applies to children fully immersed in a language, it certainly does not apply to children learning English as a foreign language in a non-English speaking country. In that case children don’t soak in English like sponges.

But to be fair, adults seem to be a bit more disadvantaged by their stronger attachment to their native tongue and to their culture. And this attachment may be hindering adoption of new sounds.

The key is to get comfortable with how you sound in English. It is important that your brain accepts your English self.

For example, I often address my students using the English versions of their names and speak with them in English at all times – even outside the classroom. It may sounds a bit silly, but it’s useful to get comfortable with that feeling that at least for those 60 or 90 minutes you are somebody else.

You know, there is a reason why people say that “As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being”.

It also helps a lot if you record yourself and then listen to those recordings. Not only will it help you to spot your pronunciation lapses, but overtime you’ll get more comfortable with hearing your voice in English, and this may help you learn new sounds and the language.

7. Afraid to exaggerate

From my experience, your English sounds much better when you exaggerate even mock it. If you start making fun of, say,  the American English, well it actually sounds better. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate. If you do, people will not perceive it as an exaggeration. They will think that your English just got better.

Yes, some people may make fun of you at first, often out of jealousy, but take no notice and keep improving.

Your accent, the way you sound, has a great impact on how other English speakers see you and treat you. And we all want to be treated well, right? Therefore, good pronunciation should be one of the top priorities when learning English.

8. Don’t outsource

English learners often imagine that paying for a course, ideally with a native speaker, is a gateway to success.

You know, learning language is like going to the gym. Even if you buy a thousand gym memberships, it won't get you anywhere if you’re not willing to do some serious lifting.

Stop outsourcing – nobody will learn a language for you. No language school will grant you a gift of languages. And, contrary to what is commonly assumed, no native English-speaking teacher is a miracle worker. Don't expect that good pronunciation will just stick on you along the way. You’ve got to be proactive. In language learning, more than anything else, it’s your deliberate practice that makes perfect.

9. But I am too old …

You are never too old. According to research your brain never loses its plasticity to learn new things including new words and sounds. It may be a bit harder for foreign language learners ‘cause they have to learn a new language on top of already existing language in their mind which will always negative interference.

I often hear how easy it is for children to learn a foreign language. Well, it isn't. Lack of exposure, language input, motivation, time, personality and quality of teachers are just a few factors that affect both adults and children equally. Don't be discouraged by your age, when it comes to learning a new foreign language, your age is far less important than you think.