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Speaking and listening: Four ways to make progress in pronunciation

Published on June 11, 2018

Pronunciation is one of the toughest things to improve for many who study English as another language. I have been teaching English for 17 years, and students are always asking me how they can improve their pronunciation. This not only goes for speaking, but it also goes for listening. People tell me they’ve studied English for years and years, know thousands of words, have perfect grammar, but still can’t speak or listen clearly. It is a common challenge! So other than depending on your friend or your phone to de-code those subtle language points, how can you improve? This isn’t an exhaustive list , but below I have included some of my go-to exercises that can get you over that annoying hump of unclear English.

Go-to listening exercises

Expose yourself to World English

You may have heard the term “World English”. This term refers to the new reality for the English language- it’s not simply the language used in English speaking countries. Rather, English has become the global language of business, education, diplomacy, travel, the internet, and other important global arenas. With this in mind, we can say that no country or group of countries owns English. This means that accents and their subtleties of pronunciation across the world are all accepted under the world English umbrella. IELTS is a World English test. So, when doing your listening practice, push yourself to listen to a large variety of World English. Listen to a Floridian speaker in the morning, a Florentine podcast in the afternoon, and a Filipino talk radio show in the evening. Get the idea?

Sub-title Transcriptions

This exercise is really great. It’s a way to make clear those tricky parts of English that you can never seem to hear. You can do this on your own, or with a friend. Here is how to do it:

  1. Find a video you like with an English speaker and sub-titles that can be turned on and off. It should be something that challenges your listening skills and has pronunciation you need to work hard to understand.
  2. Choose an short excerpt from the video (2-3 minutes)
  3. Without sub-titles, watch and note-down every word the speaker says. Pay close attention to words you have difficulty with. Replay and pause the excerpt if you need to.
  4. Replay the complete excerpt with sub-titles turned on and check your answers.

Really focusing on decoding the parts you don’t understand. This will help you improve your listening for that hard-to-understand pronunciation of the speakers.

Go-to speaking exercises

Echo Drilling

This exercise has been around for a long time, but I like to remind people of it. It’s even better these days with websites like YouTube, where you have millions of English resources at any time and any place. Basically, find a video clip online that you like. It should be an English speaker. Preferably there are English sub-titles or a transcript there to help you along. After you have chosen your clip, press PLAY and PAUSE and repeat every single word the speaker says. Make sure you say it exactly the same as the speaker. Focus on the high, the low, the fast, and the slow. Imagine that you are this person speaking. Then, when you have finally perfected your “echo” of the clip, play it again with no volume. You provide the audio by speaking while the video plays on mute. This is an excellent activity for pronunciation. It can also be really fun if you do it with your class or with some friends.

Let’s Hit the Gym!

Many people forget or don’t think about this, but when we speak, we are using muscles. True, they aren’t muscles like your biceps or your abs, but none-the-less, every time you say something, a co-ordination of many tiny muscles are acting together.

Question – what do you do if you want to become a stronger athlete? You work out, right? So, it’s same thing with pronunciation. You have to find those “English” muscles that are weak, and go to the gym. Of course, I’m not talking about the gym with weights and a yoga studio, I’m talking about finding some good pronunciation exercises and practicing them. My suggestion is to google some “pronunciation drills”. Then find some tasks which focus on areas you have particular troubles with. Say these words and phrases again and again. Mentally focus on those tiny muscles you are exercising. Some pronunciation websites will even show you the exact muscles you need to use when saying specific sounds. This can be really helpful for those sounds you always have difficulty saying.

The above are just a few activities you can do to improve your pronunciation skills. This goes for your own speaking and also for understanding others when they pronounce things unclearly. Improving the small points of your language day-by-day will get you positive results in time. So, keep up the hard work, and best of luck on your next IELTS exam.

Glossary

de-code (verb)

to translate, unscramble, or organize sth. so it is clearly understood

subtle (adjective)

small, important, and meaningful

an exhaustive list (noun)

a long, full, and complete list of sth.

go-to (adjective)

a trustworthy, best, and/or favorite thing

Floridian

someone or something from the state of Florida, USA

Florentine

someone or something from the city of Florence, Italy

Filipino

someone or something from the Philippines

tricky

a little difficult and sometimes frustrating