Those learning English as a second language often say that one of the most difficult areas to master is pronunciation. Unlike languages such as Spanish or Italian, which are relatively easy to pronounce, English has quite a few difficult phonemes (like ‘igh’), which do not necessarily sound the way a non-native speaker would instinctively read them, there are also exceptions to general spelling and pronunciation rules abound.
Moreover, English does not used accent marks to tell us where stress lies in a word. Finally, English is orthographically conservative, meaning that when we adopt a word from another language, we tend to retain the original spelling of the world, yet we adapt its pronunciation to the English system of sounds. If you are new to the English language and you are concerned about getting your pronunciation right, the first step is to immerse yourself as fully as you can in the language.
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So how do you go about improving your pronunciation? Well you can always visit the UK or other English speaking countries for at least six months (if you can muster a full year, that is an ideal time period to increase fluency and improve pronunciation) and once you are there, don’t be shy to make new friends. In your spare time, listen to as much English as you can – on the television, radio and on podcasts. Ultimately, the best way to improve pronunciation is to hear words numerous times, so aspects like laying the correct stress on a word, come naturally.
These are just a few resources that may help you speak with beautiful pronunciation:
- English Pronunciation – Otterwave: This app, created for the iPhone and iPad, is a fun, practical way to practise your pronunciation, even when you’re on the go. The app uses speech recognition enabled software to provide you with feedback on your pronunciation. It can be used by children and adults alike, since it is rated 4+ on iTunes.
- K&J English Pronunciation: This Android-compatible app does just what many language learners have always dreamed of: it provides you with a virtual teacher on your app, who utters a host of different sounds used in the English language. The app also provides close-ups of mouths uttering a myriad of sounds, since the correct positioning of the lips and tongue are crucial when it comes to duplicating these sounds.
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- Word Hippo: This website allows you to type in almost any word in the English language, and listen to how it is pronounced. The website also helps learners find rhyming words, antonyms and synonyms, and places chosen words into example sentences.
- Howjsay: This site is short and to-the-point. Type in a word and listen to how it is pronounced.
- Teaching English: One of the first steps to take when learning the English language is the phonemic chart: a collection of all sounds made in the English language. Many students say that the symbols make perfect sense but if they confuse you, this website will help, because with just one click, you can hear how each symbol sounds.
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- Cambridge.org: Children in particular will love this site, which provides a host of different animations that display the use of each sound. Kids can perfect different areas of pronunciation, including sounds, stress, intonation and the phonemic chart. The section on word stress is interesting, because it shows how individual words and entire sentences are stressed in English.
- Fonetiks.org: This site is particularly useful because it plays different sounds quickly; you don’t have to click on particular symbols and weight for seconds for the sound to be played; just hover your mouse over a sound and the site will play it. This resource allows students to listen to the pronunciation of words in nine varieties of the English language: British, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Australian, Canadian, Indian, American and South African English. Practise tricky areas like minimal pairs (e.g. ship/sheep), listen to English dialogues, take an interactive reading course (for ages three and above), learn how to pronounce names of people, cities and countries and learn to use a practical phonetic alphabet on your keyboard.
- Spokenenglish.org: This site is highly useful for ESL students as a whole, since it contains handy lessons on everything from pronouns to possessives, verb tenses, modal verbs, conditionals, questions, etc. What makes it different to other websites is that almost all the content can be played back to you, with just a click on the mouse. This way, while you are learning grammatical rules, you can also listen to the stress of individual words and the intonation of questions and sentences. The site also has a page indicating the pronunciation of common names that don’t necessarily sound the way they look (Hugh, Graham, Geoffrey, etc). The page provides typical family names and titles, as well as names of cities and famous sites in the English-speaking world.
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- Dictationsonline.com: ‘Don’t write. Just listen’. Thus are the instructions to many of the exercises on this wonderful site, which will teach students who lack confidence in their oral English skills, how to take down everything from telephone numbers to timetables and poems. The site is conveniently divided into the following levels: Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate and Advanced. Dictations go from very simple (Names and Numbers) to highly complex (e.g. a dictation of a passage from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or John Donne’s Twickenham Garden).
- Foniks.org: This resource is a particularly good one for parents to use with their children. The Homepage presents a large table that divides the subject of pronunciation into various categories, including Vowel names, Consonant names, Clusters of vowels, Clusters of consonants, etc. Click on an individual box (for instance, the A box), and listen to how the letter sounds. Follow the advice of the narrator and Hear it, Say it, Trace it, Write it, and Read it.
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- Shiporsheep.com: This site focuses on minimal pairs –i.e. words that sound similar, but not quite the same. Common minimal pairs learners often struggle with include cat/cart, cat/cut, tail/tell, worse/worth and coat/cot. The great thing about this site is that you can listen to the words as many times as you like, until the difference between sounds is absolutely clear to you.
I hope that you have found these tips and resources useful. If you have any other tips or resources that you would like to share with us, please feel free to add them via the comments box below.
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