Jared Spool, an oracle on the subjects of suitability, software, design, and research, once said, on the subject of versatility in software design:
Good design, when it’s done well, becomes obscure. It’s done imperfectly we heed it.
Pronunciation error, like the flawed plan, stand out severely. Just 1-2 slipups in a 10-minute discussion are enough. They’ll showcase your communication skills in low light, especially when those paying attention to you are perpetually at it.
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8 Tips to Improve Pronunciation Skills Quickly
Second, when you’re about to state words whose pronunciation you’re not sure of, you’ll have an anxious feeling that you’re about to make a mistake. You’ll delay speaking such words, thereby robbing your speech of appropriate words. Few instances of such words (test yourself and examine what the accurate pronunciation is):
Cache. Echelon. Gourmet. Hypocrite. Midas. Realm. Sleuth. Trio.
After correcting my pronunciation of 3,400 words, I can say with a lot of confidence – and experience – that pronunciation is as likely as to not the easiest and quickest piece of English to improve.
I started with words but then dilated to proper nouns (names, brands, cities, countries, and so on). I’m still improving. I still add words to my pronunciation bucket list, but now I encounter just a word or two a month, a trickle compared to the flood of more than 100 when I embarked on this journey. Now, I have started to find mispronunciation of English speakers even in news presenter. All this only to inform you that you too can make subs advancement.
In this post, I’ll widely cover how most people are not even aware that they’re committing dozens of pronunciation bungles every day, how you can find out words you’ve been mispronouncing for decades, and then how you can right them for good.
Let’s start with a compact exercise.
Test yourself: a Pronunciation Exertion.
I bet you’ll master a lot about your pronunciation through this exercise. Pronounce following words audibly without looking at the answers in the table below:
Pronunciations in this post are scribbled in non-phonetic form, which is more intuitive than phonetic/ IPA form (more on this at the end of the post). In order to bring out the distinction between the two, the pronunciation of the word refrigerator has been written below in both the forms:
If you’re a beginner in reading pronunciations in the two right columns of the table above, here is a brief 101 lesson.
How to Read non-Phonetic Pronunciation?
How did you levy in the above exercise?
If not well, don’t lose hope. A profusing majority of non-native speakers of English are serial, cold-blooded mispronouncers. To give an instance from India, National Spoken English Skills Report (based on a sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges) by Aspiring minds finds pronunciation and fluency to be the most significant barriers to spoken English.
The same report says that only 15 per cent has pronunciation without a noticeable number of mistakes, of which only 6.6 per cent qualify in the high-ranked category:
Let’s come back to the above exercise.
Many of you may be taken aback at the accent of Wednesday. (Majority pronounce the word as it is spelt.) I had been pronouncing it wrong for years now, and still, I learnt it three years back.
Do you see the subtle distinction between the correct and incorrect accent of a refrigerator?
Do you see that object is modulated in a way distinctive from what you may be used to? This is because the word is being used as a verb, and not as a noun. If it were applied as a noun, then the modulation ‘ob-jekt’ was accurate. However, the majority of us pronounce the word as ‘ob-jekt’ whether it is a verb or noun. And there are many words equivalent to object.
If you’re stating in the company of good communicators, even a small deviation from correct pronunciation (example: refrigerator) can leave a mark. Significant deviations (example: Wednesday and competitor) stand out like a sore thumb.
Pronunciation is more challenging in English than in many other vivid languages because English is not a spoken language. For the uninitiated, in a verbal language (examples: Spanish and Italian), words are mutated precisely (or close to) the way they’re spelt—so easy right. You don’t have to rub your head over why though and thought are pronounced so differently in English. Variations and exceptions are the only norms in English modulation.
People are mispronouncing in capacity every day, but, guess what, most aren’t even aware they’re.
Most aren’t even aware they fumble by Abundance Every Day.
I’ve observed this.
Because this is a reign of interest for me, I sometimes mentally note down mispronunciations of the person I talk to, and at the end ask him if he realised he made few pronunciation mistakes. Almost all say ‘no’. They don’t know where they mispronounced.
Aside from my asking this question, why would anyone mispronounce deliberately?
Let’s see why this occurs.
Pronunciation is rarely taught in schools. We learn pronunciation, over the years of practice, mainly by listening to how others modulate. Isn’t it?
But what if what you’re attending to from others is not the correct modulation? (That’s what mostly happens in regions where English isn’t the first language for the majority.) You’ll pick wrong pronunciation and fortify it by repeating it many times over time, right?
That’s why many, as well as seasoned professionals in top-tier multinational organisations, are delightfully unaware of their mispronunciations and continue to mispronounce by dozens every day, not knowing what impression they’re creating of their communication skills.
You need an external intercession to break this cycle. It won’t correct on its own, and indeed not by speaking extra.
I’ll cap this section with a brief
His 10-year-old son once corrected a friend of mine who emigrated from India to the U.S. more than twenty years back on the pronunciation of word panacea. Some may call his son to be unusual who could point out a flaw in his father’s otherwise flawless pronunciation. But he is not.
Over the years, my friend polished out his pronunciation of most common words by listening to native speakers in the U.S. Still, few mispronunciations – most of them of not-so-commonly-used words such as panacea – lingered with him. But his son carried no such pronunciation issues. He remembered every pronunciation the correct way from the word go.
For the same reason, you’ll seldom find people who have spent a good time in an English-speaking country or environment, making blunt pronunciation errors. Shashi Tharoor and Karan Thapar being two prominent examples.
Your pronunciation becomes what you listen.
How to Identify Words you Routinely MisPronounce?
One is a quick & dirty way to improve fast on common pronunciation mistakes. The other is the age-old, sustainable, standard method of listening.
Let’s start with listening.
Listen to experts
Majority of persons who actively work to improve their pronunciation
embrace this procedure as their one-stop solution to learn new words. When I say ‘experts’, I mean seasoned speakers who are less likely to make pronunciation flaws – news anchors, professional speakers, and native speakers to name few. They’re almost always marked on in their pronunciation. I say almost always because they can too slip, pronunciation sometimes, but for most practical purposes they’re subtle leading light.
When listening to them, pay an ear to words that sound weird, because you pronounce the very same words differently. You don’t need to burden your ears to spot such words. You just need to be attentive. It can put your language skill on the fastest track.
To give an instance, when watching the 2017 Shanghai Rolex Masters final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I heard the commentator say ‘sahyz-mik’. It instantly caught my interest even though I wasn’t attending on the commentary word by word. (Like anyone else, I was more attentive towards visuals, and less on commentary.) I was not aware of this pronunciation before, but I instantaneously knew that the commentator spoke the word seismic, which I used to modulate as ‘seis-mik’ (the way it is spelt) till then. I listed the word down in my Excel sheet meant specifically for pronunciation (more on this later). I later confirmed through an online dictionary that the accurate pronunciation indeed was ‘sahyz-mik’.
You too can quickly grab such words even if you’re not consciously focusing on individual words. All it requires is a little scrap of attentiveness and keen desire to better their pronunciation.
However, a person who is not actively inclined to improve his pronunciation may not be attentive enough to mark the distinction. And even if he does, he would only do so fugitively and not take any further steps mentioned in the immediate section.
Keep listing such words when you come across when listening to seasoned experts. Besides throwing up words you mismodulate, listening, through repeated practice, will also reinforce pronunciations you corrected in the past.
(Caveat: on a few occasions, the pronunciation will sound distinctive because the speaker may be using American pronunciation whereas you may be familiar to British pronunciation. However, you don’t need to worry on this count because, in practice, you’ll encounter very few such words.)
On the choice of what to listen, you should avoid listening to something only to improve modulation (or for that matter any other feature of English). Assimilate what you’re previously watching (and listening) into your pronunciation exercise. In case you need to attach more to your list of content, pick something instructive. Improving English should preferably be an offshoot of your primary work or should fill the time you otherwise waste, after all, you’ve only 24 hours in a day.
Get commonly-mispronounced words and names.
When you’re just starting on your journey to better pronunciation, it’s useful to expert those pronunciations where most people fumble. This would mean more work in the initial stages, but it’ll lift your level fast to a higher respectable level.
How will you search these words?
Get them on Google and YouTube with search cord such as ‘difficult to modulate words in English’ to get commonly-mispronounced words. You may use search cord such as ‘difficult to modulate brands’ to get results for vivid brands. And so on. Listen to the modulation of these words and names on an online dictionary or YouTube and list down those which sound unfamiliar.
You can continue with this procedure till you stop searching for new words.
I mentioned ‘brands’ in the search cords above. The idea is to cover everything, and not just dictionary words, that comes up in regular conversations. (Conversation! Never forget the end goal.) I’ve added not just common dictionary words, but also brands, celebrity names, cities, countries, cuisines, and more to my list. However, the majority of entries in your list would come from the first category, dictionary words. Few examples from my list:
You’ll be taken aback how unrestrainedly people mispronounce names brought up in the above two tables—attempt for yourself.
Once you know how to search words and names you mispronounce, it’s time to learn how to excel their modulations.
How to Improve English Pronunciation?
1. List down the words you’ve been mispronouncing
In the prior section, we learned how to recognise words you’ve been mispronouncing for years now. When you come across such new words, note them down. You may use an application, a word document, or something else. I preferably use an Excel sheet.
Listing words down is not needed though; you can improve your modulation without it. But here I’m trying to layout the most effectual method that will help you hold on to what you’re learning for the long term. The list you build by listing down words you’ve been mispronouncing is a sine qua non for review (point number 4) through a Spaced Repetition.
2. Check pronunciation on an online resource
Why check modulation when you’ve already heard to it while listening or watching?
Although you may observe the difference between your and the expert’s pronunciations, you may not get the exact pronunciation in a fast-flowing video or audio. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to refer to an online dictionary and confirm the modulation. Moreover, checking pronunciation will also allow you to list down non-phonetic pronunciation which is crucial for later review. More on this follows.
Two useful online platforms for improving pronunciation are dictionary.com and Cambridge English Dictionary. Moreover, dictionary.com is one of the few dictionaries that specifies pronunciation in non-phonetic form as well, Cambridge dictionary furnishes both British and American pronunciations respectively.
Here is an instance of pronunciation in non-phonetic form from dictionary.com:
I use the non-phonetic form as it doesn’t contain unfamiliar symbols and is more instinctive.
Check pronunciation of the word you find demanding to pronounce using those mentioned above or any other fit resource:
Step 1: Listen to the modulation. (Most dictionaries provide audio of the pronunciation.)
Step 2: Imitate the modulation you just listened. Speak it out loud a few times. Then pronounce the word as part of entire sentences.
A relevant question at this stage: Is listening and replicating the best way to learn modulation? Aren’t there pronunciation rules we can use in all or majority words?
Like we saw previously in the post, English is not a vocal language, and its words may be pronounced entirely distinctive from the way they’re pronounced. If I repeat what I said earlier, differentiation and exceptions are the only norms in English pronunciation. It’s challenging to fit a plethora of variations and exceptions in a few rules.
Listening – and then constantly repeating – remains the best option to learn modulation. That’s how babies learn speaking new words. They hear different sounds for several months, and then gradually start replicating those sounds. I do the same to rectify my pronunciation.
Step 3: Read the modulation in non-phonetic form and copy-paste it in your application or document in the forefront of the corresponding word. (For names and few specific words which you can’t find on online dictionaries, quit the space blank. Listen to the pronunciation on resorts such as YouTube, and later, after you take the printout, write down in the blank space what you listen to in your primitive language.)
This will take measures as a flashcard and help you analysis what you’re learning. I’m not sure you can stock sounds in flashcards, and, thus, the non-phonetic description is a great alternative.
If you’re following Step 3 and copy-pasting modulation, you can find audio as well as the non-phonetic form at the same place, dictionary.com. If you’re only listening, you can use the Cambridge Dictionaries as well.
3. Follow spaced repetition to implant pronunciations for the long term
We forget fast what we learn.
The best way known to humanity to retain information for long is Spaced Repetition. As part of Spaced Repetition, you industriously review what you learnt in increasing time intervals. A standard rule-of-thumb advice it to review after a day, a week, a month, and three months.
However, you don’t need to adhere to this timeline strictly. Even if you miss them by a few days here and there, you’ll be mostly fine. The earlier rounds – instant and after a day – however, are more holy than the later rounds, and therefore you should be more disciplined about them.
But aren’t multiple reviews too time-consuming? Not really. You would probably take more time to evaluate once after a month than the merged time taken to review multiple times in Spaced Repetition. I uplift you to read this post on Spaced repetition to learn how it is concluded.
It was for Spaced Repetition that copy-pasting modulation in non-verbal form was advised at the initial stages of this section.
In your evaluation, you can speak out pronunciations using words as the cue, as you do in the memory stick. Uttering out gets your vocal organs – tongue, lips, and throat – applied to produce the new sounds. In case you’re at a place or in a situation where you can’t talk out loud, speak softly while still working on your vocal organs. You’ll still harvest most of the benefits that come with speaking out. A review of 35 studies displayed that mental practise alone – picturing oneself executing the activity from start to finish – improves performance remarkably. Now, speaking at low audio is way high above the mental practice.
Spaced Repetition will considerably improve your retention. When I reviewed the beginning set of words from my list after more than three years, I could recall 95+ per cent (in a sample of more than 1,000 words) of pronunciations correctly. It works like a charm. I can certainly confirm its efficacy.
I agree sincerely with what Norman Lewis describes in his book Speak Better Write Better English:
Frequent mention of the words aloud will make correct habits so deep-seated that the possibility of faults, even in the heat of animated conversation, will be dropped down to the vanishing point
If you’re not able to Accompany all the steps.
What I covered in this part was the perfect way to improve your pronunciation and to hold on to it. However, if, for some known reasons, you’re not able to accompany all the steps recommended, an attempt at the very minimum to develop the custom of:
- Noticing the distinction between your and an expert’s modulation,
- Listening to the modulation on an online dictionary, and
- Speaking the pronunciation out loud few times
You’ll still take significant strides.
4. Should I learn pronunciation verbally using IPA symbols?
As I mentioned previously in the post, English is not a verbal language. That is, in English, words are not certainly uttered the way they’re scribbled. For example, cut and put are scribbled the same way, but modulated differently. In other words, spelling alone isn’t adequate to deduce the pronunciation of a word.
Therefore, the International Phonetic Association (IPA) came up with a set of symbols to represent all 44 sounds in English. We saw IPA symbols for refrigerator and realm earlier in the post.
Let’s come back to the question we started with.
Do you need to learn IPA symbols to master pronunciation?
Much has altered since IPA symbols came into existence. Now every online dictionary worth its salt carries pronunciation in the audio form beside either verbal or non-verbal text description. The audio very well furnishes the purpose of IPA symbols – knowing how a word sounds.
Moreover, IPA symbols can easily fright away people – it did scare me. I learnt pronunciation thoroughly through the audio and non-phonetic form. Just to give a bit of data from an informal survey I did through a show of hands, less than 1 per cent (sample of around 400) of college students said they’d used IPA symbols to learn pronunciation. I also showed both verbal and non-verbal forms of few words (like the image for the refrigerator at the beginning of the post) to them and asked which is more comfortable to practice; almost everyone went with non-verbal form. I agree that the sample is specific, but the results are so profusely one-sided that they leave little to doubt.
Here is independent, strong evidence, which I came across after my own experience with the two forms and that study by show of hands. In his book, the Dictionary of Pronunciation, Norman Lewis furnishes that in a departure from the third edition, fourth and the latest edition of the book contains pronunciations in only non-phonetic form, which he calls respelling form. (The third edition contained both verbal and non-verbal forms.) He says verbal form in the earlier edition was ‘entirely ignored’ by the readers and that ‘it was the respelling on which readers leaned’.
Strange symbols simply repulse people. They’re probably for connoisseurs. They’re probably for complete beginners whom some of the 44 sounds in English elude, and they need to learn them very precisely.
5. Study Phrases not Words
When you study English or any language for that matter, you shouldn’t learn individual words because memorising them makes no sense without context. Instead, you should study whole phrases. Memorising the meaning of words is much easier if you know what they mean and how they are used in a sentence.
6. Prioritise Quality over Quantity
When it comes to learning any specific language, it’s all about quality over quantity. Instead of memorising dozens of new words in a short time, you should better focus on learning one word and repeating it number of times. This prevents you from tolerating from information overload. Also, this strategy allows you to place the meaning of words and phrases deeper into your brain. As a result, you won’t forget them easily
With over one-quarter of the world speaking English, you don’t have to search very far to find scores of resources and opportunities to practice the language if you want to learn. With some 750,000 English words and strange ways of spelling that can baffle even those whose primary language is English, the language can be one of the more challenging to master—especially if you’re hoping to do so quickly.
7. Find a Conversation Partner
Getting as much speaking practise as possible is essential to quicker learning. If you’re just swiping through a few levels on a language-learning app at night, you’ll be shocked when you finally come face-to-face with an English speaker. Without conversing in English, you won’t be able to identify your weak spots. Finding a conversation partner, or even a study partner, who can augment your leaning with real, live, face-to-face practice will allow you to put your fledgeling skills to the test. Many people say that speaking English helps it stick in your head far better than reading or writing. After all, what’s the entire point of learning a new language if not to use it to communicate?
8. Subscribe to Podcasts
The act of hearing a language can help strengthen your comprehension. While it might take a few months of learning before you can understand podcasts with native English speakers, there are plenty of podcasts available just for language learners. Some examples include All Ears English, Better at English, The English We Speak, Luke’s English Podcast, and ESL Podcast. You can also use podcasts by speakers whose primary language is English only for practice. Listen as white noise first, then play the episode a second time and see what new words and grammar more quickly, and you can set it to play at a slower speed. You recognise. You can also go through the episode’s transcript as you listen if there’s one available, repeating sentences and words out loud. This can help you pick up new vocabulary.