Have you ever held back from using a word in English because of tricky pronunciation? If so, you’re not alone! I often hear learners in class saying ‘I know this word, but I’m not sure how to pronounce it. I don’t feel confident using it when I’m speaking’. Learning vocabulary is great, but if you don’t know how to say it, it’s not as useful to you – and it’s harder to retain in your long-term memory.
By understanding the pronunciation of words, you’re fully unlocking your potential to use the new language – making the most of the time and effort you’ve spent studying. Improving your pronunciation builds your confidence and understanding, and makes using English a lot more fun.
Let’s take a look at why is learning English pronunciation so important, and review some resources to help you improve your clarity, fluency and confidence.
Say the sounds, not the spelling
In English, you can’t always tell how to pronounce a word from its spelling. For example: ‘cough’, ‘tough’, ‘through’ and ‘though’ all finish with the letters ‘ough’, but as you can see from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) spelling below, the ‘ou’ represents four different vowel sounds.
cough /kɒf/ rhymes with ‘top’
tough /tʌf/ rhymes with ‘cup’
through /θruː/ rhymes with ‘blue’
though /ðəʊ/ rhymes with ‘go’
These words also show two different ways of pronouncing the ‘gh’ spelling in English. ‘Cough’ and ‘tough’ both finish with a /f/ sound – you can see this very clearly in the IPA spelling above. In ‘through’ and ‘though’, the final ‘gh’ is completely silent.
So, when you learn a new word, you also need to check you understand the pronunciation.
One way to do this is to use the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site, look at the IPA for the word you’re learning and listen to example pronunciations in British and American accents. You can also use an app like Say It: English Pronunciation – the free-to-download version includes 100 sample words, demonstrating the 44 sounds in English. Finally, Pronunciation with Emma is a great Instagram channel for learning tips and tricks to speak clearly. In short, make sure you’re saying the sounds in a word, not the spelling.
Retain the vocabulary you’ve learned, to use it again in future
If you learn a new word but don’t also understand the pronunciation, it’s more difficult for your brain to remember it. Think about learning pronunciation as giving your brain a more ‘three dimensional’ view of a word. It will help commit it to your long-term memory, so that it’s there again for you to use, with confidence, when you need to.
Pronunciation exercise – have a go at this today!
Step 1: Make a shortlist of words you want to say clearly
Review the vocabulary you’ve learned recently or words in a book/text you’re reading. Are some of the words tricky to say? Make a list of 5-10 words that are difficult for you to pronounce, then use the resources above to help you understand the sounds in the words, and practise saying them individually.
Step 2: Practice makes perfect
Write some short phrases or sentences with your target words built into them. I like to give my students a list of vocabulary and challenge them to write a short sentence, however silly, using as many of the words as possible. For example:
Though she had recovered from her cough, Sally found it tough to get through the workout.
Then practise saying the sentence out loud. Say it to yourself looking in a mirror, or record yourself on your phone. Or challenge a friend to see who can achieve the clearest pronunciation. Think of it as training your mouth, ears and brain to get comfortable using these words, just like a tennis player or a footballer practising over and over – until they know that when they’re in a game, they’ll hit that shot or score that goal almost without thinking.
Learning pronunciation for words in English is key to unlocking your fluency and confidence. So why not try making pronunciation a core part of your study plan and see how it can help you.
Jenny Dance is an English teacher and exam trainer with more than 20 years of experience. She has a passion for pronunciation learning and is also the Founder of Phona, publishers of the Say It: English Pronunciation app. Jenny regularly presents Pronunciation Live sessions on Facebook and Instagram with the Learning English with Oxford team. Follow Learning English with Oxford to hear about the next live event, or check out our bank of pronunciation resources for more English pronunciation tips.