Did you know that more than 75% of English users are non-native speakers? English is truly international language, and an extremely useful communications tool. While learning grammar and vocabulary is important, if you want to make your voice heard, you’ll need to know how to speak clearly – and that means learning pronunciation.
Research suggests that pronunciation can account for up to two-thirds of communication breakdown between non-native speakers. OUP’s recent position paper ‘English Pronunciation for a Global World’ explains why pronunciation training should be central to English learning, and which elements are the most important ones to focus on to make your speaking clearly understood.
Speaking English clearly doesn’t mean a native-speaker accent
You may think you need to develop a near-native-speaker accent to have good pronunciation, but this simply isn’t true. Many famous people – international sports or music stars, for example – have an ‘accent’ when they speak English, but they are easy to understand. In short, it’s not about accent, but rather clarity of speech.
Within the United Kingdom or the United States, there is a wide range of native-speaker accents. The first goal of English learners should be developing pronunciation which makes your speaking comprehensible – not trying to acquire a particular accent.
Which sounds and features should you focus on?
There are some English sounds and elements of speech that are important to practise if you want to make it easier for others to understand you. Here is a quick summary (there is more information in the table at the end of this article).
- Most consonant sounds are important to pronounce clearly
- Aspiration (the air which is released as you say a sound) of /p/, /t/, and /k/ at the beginning of a word – so that ‘pear’ doesn’t sound like ‘bear’
- Consonant clusters at the beginning or in the middle of a word, e.g. ‘strength’
- Vowel length – the distinction between long and short vowels, e.g. ‘fill’/’feel’, and between vowel length in different contexts, e.g. ‘back’/’bag’
- Sentence stress, to clearly show the emphasis on the main word/idea
- Word stress, e.g. ‘effort’ pronounced as efFORT is difficult to understand
Pronunciation exercise – compare the same word in three or more accents
To train your ear and help you think about the sounds you make when you speak, it’s useful to listen to the same word in a range of different accents. For example, you could look up the word ‘surprised’ in the Say It: English Pronunciation app or the Oxford Learners’ Dictionaries site and compare the British English and American English content for that word. Compare:
- the phonemes are shown in the International Phonetic Alphabet script
- the audio recordings
Then try to answer these questions:
- Which elements are the same in both English pronunciations?
- Which are different?
- Is your pronunciation closer to one or the other of the recordings (in Say It, you can record yourself and analyse and compare your pronunciation using the touch-screen soundwaves)?
To build on this, try looking up a word on the website Youglish, where you can compare examples from a range of accents – US, UK, Australian, Canadian, Irish, Scottish and New Zealand.
Make your voice heard
When you’re learning new English vocabulary, it always makes sense to look up, understand and practise the pronunciation – in particular:
- Any consonants, or consonant clusters
- Whether the vowels are long or short
- Where the word is stressed, if it has more than one syllable
Focussing on these elements will help you speak English clearly and confidently so that you can express yourself and make your voice heard in any situation.
English as an International Language – key pronunciation points
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.