How to improve English pronunciation

Here's how to improve your English pronunciation-- especially if you work as a professional.

Photo of 2 women discussing their work.
text says: 'Can you read English without any problems-- but still feel insecure about how to pronounce the words you need?... Here's some help!

Pronunciation is more than the individual sounds we make when we speak. It includes our rhythm, our intonation, and the words and syllables we stress (or glide over.) 

All of these are different in different languages. They're so different, in fact, that people can make up all the words and we can still recognize the language they are imitating!

So if you want to speak English clearly, pay attention  to its patterns as well as its individual sounds.

Rhythm. Intonation, and Stress

You've probably noticed that English is not as smooth and even as some languages. Instead, our rhythm and stress vary, often within every sentence.

We not only stress content words (especially nouns and verbs) more heavily. We also say them a little slower and louder. Meanwhile, we skip quickly and lightly over connecting and function words.

If we want to call extra attention to our point, we may pause a moment as well.

Intonation is the the rising and falling 'music' of our speech. Our tone rises at the end of yes or no questions:

  • Do you agree? 
  • Can you help me? 
  • Would you like a sample? 
  • Is George coming to the meeting?

Tone falls at the end of most sentences in English. It also rises, then falls, at the very end of Wh- (information) questions. (Wh- questions start with who, what, when, where, why, and How.)

Examples:

  • The meeting is at 10 o'clock this week. 
  • We'll start right on time.
  • When is next week's meeting?
  • Who will be there?
  • Why do we need to meet again so soon?

We not only stress content words in English, but we also stress one (or more) syllables in longer words. Word stress may even clarify the meaning of some words with similar sounds. "A soldier should never desert his post (leave without permission) even in the desert (very dry place)." Would you like some dessert (a sweet after-dinner treat?"

English speakers may rely on stress even more than the sounds of individual syllables to understand what people are saying. That's especially true in noisy environments or in rapid conversations. So it's important to stress the right syllables in words.

Many of the professionals I work with have read many more words in English than they have heard. That's why I teach which syllable to stress in each word during vocabulary lessons. 

If you're not sure you have heard a word, try checking its pronunciation in an online English dictionary before you use it in a presentation, etc. 

English Vowel Sounds (v.s. Spellings)

Have you wondered why English sounds seem SO hard to learn? English has a few sounds that can be difficult for speakers of other languages. Still, English spelling is often the hardest part.

To start with, English has about 15 different vowel sounds. But it has only 5-7 letters (A, E, I, O, or U, or sometimes Y & W)-- to represent those sounds. 

Unlike many languages, each of those vowel letters has at LEAST two sounds. We call them 'short' and 'long' vowel sounds.

The "short" sounds (not always actually shorter!) are the most common sounds for each letter. They are A as in apple, E as in elephant or egg, I as in insect, O as in octopus or on, and U as in umbrella.

The long sounds "say their names" in the English alphabet.

There are some rules for when to use each sound, but each rule has exceptions. The silent E rule is well worth learning, as it is generally reliable. You can find it (and more about short and long sounds) on English Vowels.

Vowel digraphs can make differences between sounds and spelling even more confusing. Vowel digraphs are sounds written with two letters (ai, ea, ou etc.)

English-speaking children may learn this rhyme. "When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking." That means the first "says its name." So 'ai' or 'ay' are often pronounced with a long A sound, as in day, pain or play.

'Ee' (and usually 'ea') are pronounced with a long E sound. (Examples: bee, beach, need, etc.) But we pronounce 'ea' with a short E sound in bread, dead, head, and weather-- among others.

'Oa' and 'oe' are often pronounced with a long O (boat, goes, soap, toe-- but not does!)

Many other combinations are unpredictable, though. In fact, 'ou' can be pronounced six different ways in many dialects of English. For those, and some explanations and help, see Vowel Digraphs.

English Consonant Sounds

Most English consonants are more reliable. They usually have the same sounds as in other European languages. Unfortunately, English has many words with silent letters. It also has some some difficult consonant clusters like 'str.'

There's information about consonant sounds in ESL Phonics and Consonant Digraph Sounds.

Spelling vs Pronunciation

If you're wondering WHY English spelling is so weird, there are clues in English Word Origins.

(It gets even weirder than that page mentions, though. Many vowel sounds shifted between the 1300s and 1700s-- but the spellings did not change with them.

Some scholars also wanted to keep Latin spellings even when English pronunciation was different. That's responsible for the silent 'b' in debt and 'p' in receipt-- among other words.)

Native English speakers suffer from these irregularities too. Our children spend extra years in school learning to read and spell. Many never fully master them. 

Need Help with Your English Pronunciation?

If you're not comfortable with your English pronunciation-- especially if you need to use English professionally, check out our new course, 9 Days to Better English Pronunciation

It teaches everything discussed on this page in more detail. More importantly, you can practice word stresses and the vowel and consonant sounds in English using common words and important professional vocabulary.

It's important to be able to hear and recognize the differences between the different vowel sounds in English. (They are often NOT the same as the common pronunciation of those letters in other languages.) It is also valuable to repeat each sound immediately after hearing it.

In one of the first lessons, you would record yourself reading several sentences that include most of the sounds of English. I will listen to them and send personalized suggestions for the most important sounds to concentrate on-- the ones that could make the biggest difference in your English pronunciation. 

The lessons demonstrate and let you practice 40 different word families (over 100 different words) used constantly in work situations. (These are words like accomplish & accomplishment, accuracy, accurate, & inaccurate, and regulate, regulation, regulator, & regulatory.)

One lesson also teaches the ways to pronounce the past tense in English, which is tricky for many English learners. (The basic rules are on our page on the simple past tense. See the section on Pronouncing -ed.) The better pronunciation course demonstrates with 20 useful verbs. Then you'll practice by discussing work you have done. (That can help you with presentations-- or job interviews!)

If you want to speak English more confidently, this short course could make a big difference!

Whether you need the course or not, keep listening to English (and repeating what you hear whenever you're free to do so) and you definitely can improve your English pronunciation.

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