1. Don’t look for equivalents of English sounds in your native language
Most language textbooks have a pronunciation chart at the beginning, and the sounds are usually explained in terms of the learner’s native language; for instance, an English grammar of Greek might describe the letter α (alpha) by saying it’s “like the a in father”). Although this approach is somewhat convenient while learning the alphabet, bad pronunciation habits develop if it is pursued further.
What happens is that when you learn pronunciation this way, the letters are learned in accordance with the phonological system of another language, with all of its peculiarities. If a Russian learns that English pronunciation of the sound t is the same as the Russian т, the English t will end up sounding like a Russian т (obviously). Don’t always look for equivalents in your native language.
Instead, listen to the sounds of English, try to imitate them, and study pronunciation in greater depth.
2.Expanding your inventory
Always challenging for students are cases in which two distinct sounds in English are perceived as one and the same in the student’s native language. Spanish b and v are well-known examples, as they are indistinguishable in many countries and dialects. Germans have this problem with /w/ and /v/, while Japanese speakers have it with /r/ and /l/. Such students would have trouble hearing the difference between, for example, very~berry, wary~very, and lead~reed, respectively, so it would be necessary for them to study the acoustic properties of these pairs and learn to make distinctions. This is no easy task, but it’s essential to good pronunciation.
It helps tremendously to understand the way the different organs of the vocal tract produce speech sounds, so knowing a little bit about the anatomy of speech helps. There is excellent software available for this purpose, which will be discussed below.
3. Pumping iron
Arnold Schwarzenegger has certainly pumped a lot of iron, but he doesn’t appear to have spent a lot of time exercising to improve his English pronunciation. Learning a language goes beyond using your mental faculties, as there are also physiological aspects of speech that can’t be ignored; indeed, ignoring these would be like trying to become a master pianist but only reading music theory books and never sitting down to play a piano. Diplomats training at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, VA sometimes find that after a long day of language lessons, their tongues, jaws, lips, etc., are tired and sore. It’s not much different from exercising at the gym or practicing a musical instrument.
One approach to “exercising” is to speak English all day, but it’s also possible to just read aloud in English for a certain amount of time every day. Shy people might prefer reading aloud until they get their confidence up. Whatever your approach, you have to work those muscles!
4. Software: learning English in the modern age
One of the main advantages of software is that it usually has text, audio and lots of visual aids, making it great for learning new words. The different brands on the market have their strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes what’s best depends on the student’s individual needs. The main things to look for in an English pronunciation software are good audio and visual images of the anatomy (vocal tract) showing the configuration and movements of the speech organs. In fact, no software specifically designed for pronunciation would be complete without these. If you can’t figure out how to make a sound by trying to mimic it, you might have to get a bit more scientific and learn exactly how to position the tongue and other articulators. Software is a big help in these cases, and it’s also great for the practicing and drilling discussed in the previous paragraph.
START your Guided Tour of Saundz and see why it is the best English pronunciation software out there.
5. Overcoming fear of the opinions of others
A great many students of English avoid speaking the language because they’re embarrassed when they make mistakes.
They sit at home and study grammar around the clock, alone in their armchairs. They reason that once they have the rules of English down pretty well, they’ll make few or no mistakes. However, that day might never come, and these students usually don’t do as well as people who simply don’t care what others think about their English. Now, to be fair, some people simply prefer reading grammar books at home. They aren’t in a hurry, and they enjoy the more technical approach. Speed, of course, isn’t everything. However, these learners could also benefit from good software, especially if they don’t plan to go out and speak English on the town.
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