Useful tips to help your English pronunciation

“Dearest creature in creation,

Study English pronunciation.” – Gerard Nolst Trenité, The Chaos

Any English language learner knows that often spelling isn’t very helpful if we want to know how to correctly pronounce a word. 

Take for example these four words: thought, thorough, tough, through. 

They each have the letters ‘ough’ in them but each one is pronounced differently: Or / uh / uf / ooh!

English spelling hasn’t really changed much over the course of the years, but how we pronounce words has. This makes pronunciation really difficult for language learners.  

However, good pronunciation is not just ‘how words and letters sound’; there are other equally important features to consider, like intonation (how the tone of voice changes during a sentence, going up or down), stress (which words and syllables have more ‘impact’ when we are speaking), and connected speech – how words can sound different when they are joined together in natural speech. 

All of these features contribute to good pronunciation – but don’t confuse them with accent. Your accent is your identity. Be sure to watch a fantastic YouTube short by one of my colleagues on why the perfect British accent doesn’t exist.

In the UK, the USA and other English speaking countries there are many, many different types of accents, but people with those different accents can all be considered to have correct pronunciation.  

When you are learning English, you don’t have to sound British or American. Good pronunciation means being understood; not necessarily sounding like you were born in New York or London. In fact, many native speakers love hearing English spoken with a Spanish, Italian or French accent!  

So, how can you work on your pronunciation so that people from all over the world can understand you easily, even if you retain your native accent? 

Here are my top tips for you to practise and perfect your pronunciation.

1. – Listen!  

Listening to examples of authentic speech is the most obvious way to improve your own pronunciation. There are lots of ways to do this – watch a film in its original version, listen to podcasts about a topic that interests you in English or go on our YouTube channel with so many shorts, lives and videos to watch done by our varied team of native speakers https://www.youtube.com/@IntrepidEnglish/featured ! Pay attention to the intonation that people use.  You can add to this by ‘shadowing’. Shadowing means listening to a short sentence or phrase, and then repeating it afterwards, trying to imitate the sounds, intonation and word stress and noticing how your mouth and tongue move when you speak.

2.  Record yourself. 

Once you have practised shadowing, you could record yourself speaking – either repeating a short phrase that you have listened to, or doing a longer speaking task from a coursebook, like describing a picture. Listen back and make a note of any sounds that you have problems with – practice these words / sounds slowly and then record yourself again. Can you notice an improvement?

3. Get to know the phonemic chart. 

The International Phonetic Alphabet Chart  is a visual representation of different sounds. It might look strange and it might feel like you are learning a whole new language, but it can really help you with pronunciation. All dictionaries have a phonetic transcription of words so that you know how to pronounce them.

4. Use a dictionary. 

As well as printed dictionaries which will give you a phonetic transcription of a word, there are lots of online dictionaries where you can click and listen to the word being spoken.

5. Do some exercise! 

Different languages have different sounds, and our mouths adapt to those sounds.  Some sounds are physically very difficult for us to make, as they don’t exist in our native language.  Just like when you are learning a new sport or dance move, it’s important that you train your mouth to know how to form new sounds – the more you practice the easier it gets. For example, lots of Spanish speakers have problems with the difference between the /b/ and /v/ sound.  We make the /b/ sound by joining our lips together and then letting go. The /v/ sound is similar but your top teeth should touch your bottom lip before you let go.  The more you practice this, the easier it gets – try saying  “I’d like a very big beverage please.” Or for many Japanese learners it’s the /r/ and /l/ sounds that get confused. Try saying “red lorry, yellow lorry” over and over again! 

6. Get to know your minimal pairs. 

Minimal pairs are words that have almost the exact same pronunciation, but with one sound that is different – for example, ship and sheep. The difference between the /i/ in ‘ship‘ and the /i:/ in ‘sheep‘ is the length of the vowel. This can be difficult to hear for many language learners, and comes up in lots of different words.  The first step is to be able to tell the difference between the sounds when you hear them. Can you make the different sounds yourself after hearing them from the list below? 

Finally, don’t feel bad if you still make mistakes with pronunciation – English is famously tricky. As far back as 1922, a Dutch language learner wrote a very long poem about the problems of English pronunciation called ‘The Chaos‘ ‘ – it is not an easy poem but it shows just how different the pronunciation can be from spelling! 

Check out my live on these tips:

Still would like more practice? Intrepid English Members can check out our Pronunciation Course in the Intrepid English Academy.

Minimal Pairs – Vowel Sounds

1. a / e
bat / bet
sat / set
mat / met
pan / pen
tan / ten

2. i / i:
ship / sheep
bit / beat
knit / neat
chip / cheap
sin / seen

3. e / i
pet / pit
set / sit
let / lit
hem / him
pen / pin
fell / fill

4. e / ay
met / mate
ate / eight
wet / wait
when / wane
get / gate
wren / rain

5. a / uh
cap / cup
ran / run
bat / but
bad / bud
cat / cut
tan / ton

6. o / oh
wok / woke
not / note
chock / choke
clock / cloak
John / Joan
cot / coat

7. oh / or
dough / door
low / law
flow / floor
Joe / jaw
so / saw
bow / bore

8. ah / er
park / perk
carb / kerb
bath / birth
shark / shirk
fast / first
barn / burn

Minimal Pairs – Consonants

1. b / p
ban / pan
bill / pill
bat / pat
bull / pull
buy / pie
best / pest

2. b / v
bow / vow
bet / vet
best / vest
berry / very
bile / vile
boat / vote

3. l / r
light / right
long / wrong
alive / arrive
led / red
glamour / grammar
climb / crime

4. v / w
vine / wine
vip / whip
veil / whale
vile / while
vest / west
vent / went

5. s / sh
see / she
sell / shell
sip / ship
sigh / shy
lass / lash
mess / mesh

6. s / th
sink / think
sank / thank
sigh / thigh
sing / thing
some / thumb
sin / thin

7. f / th
fin / thin
free / three
Fred / thread
frill / thrill
first / thirst
fat / that

8. n / ng
sin / sing
sinner / singer
thin / thing
pin / ping
pan / pang
ton / tongue

Want to study English pronunciation in more detail? Intrepid English Members can check out the Pronunciation course in the Intrepid English Academy!

Not a member yet? All of our membership options include access to our extensive library of self-study courses on English grammar, pronunciation, idioms, business skills, exam preparation and more! Book a trial lesson today with an experienced and friendly Intrepid English Teacher to discuss your learning goals and find out if online English lessons are right for you.


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