This week, General English and IELTS teacher Ben offers some valuable information about pronunciation.
Pronunciation at word level
Why study pronunciation?
When most students are asked what the biggest challenge is when using English outside of the classroom, they usually answer comprehension; understanding and being understood. Most students have had the experience of feeling positive about the progress they are making in the classroom, only to find they get completely lost when speaking to a native speaker in a shop or when watching a TV programme in English. It’s often the case that we attribute these problems to a lack of grammar, vocabulary, or lexical knowledge, but perhaps the problem is sometimes a simpler one: we don’t recognise some of the language we already know when we hear it.
Most students think of pronunciation as a way of being understood more easily, but one of the most important additional reasons for studying pronunciation is to have accurate expectations of how real people speak and therefore, to better understand other people. Actively studying pronunciation for a few minutes a day can help you make the important step from understanding and being understood in the classroom, to communicating effectively in the real world.
Although English pronunciation is a very broad topic, it can be broken down into two main areas: pronunciation at word level and pronunciation at sentence level. In today’s blog, we are going to focus on the pronunciation of individual words.
Phonetic sounds vs Spelling
One of the most frustrating characteristics of English is the lack of connection between spelling and phonetic sounds. For example, consider the following words:
Enough – Though – Through – Thought – Bough – Cough
Logic or our native language might lead us to believe that the above words would share the same pronunciation, but in English this is not the case! It is therefore necessary to check the phonetic sounds used in any new words we learn.
Next to any word in most good dictionaries, we should see symbols representing its phonetic pronunciation (e.g, enough /ɪˈnʌf/). Try looking up any of the other words listed above using an online dictionary, such as www.wordreference.com. Focus just on the difficult part of the word, which in this case is –ough. Copy the phonemic symbol for this part of the word (e.g /ʌf/) and check this against the interactive phonemic chart below. By using the phonemic script to focus on just the most challenging parts of new words, we reduce the amount of symbols we need to learn. A quick tip: the most challenging symbols are often the vowel sounds and dipthongs, so these are good places to start.
Every word of two syllables or more contains one syllable which is pronounced more strongly- this is known as the main stress. Once again, the phonemic script in dictionaries can help us to identify this. An apostrophe (‘) before the symbol that contains the main stress indicates this, for example /ɪˈnʌf/ would be pronounced enough. This information should also be recorded for every new word of more than two syllables as it can even change the meaning of a word. To illustrate this, check the following examples in a dictionary and note the difference in stress:
Record (noun) vs Record (verb)
Research (noun) vs Research (verb)
Look at the following groups of words. What does their spelling have in common? Use a dictionary and the phonemic script to check their pronunciation. Is there any pattern in the pronunciation of these words? Remember that patterns may relate to both phonetics and stress.
Invitation – vacation – nation – station
Future – nature – lecture – fracture
Village – footage – courage – garage (UK)
So far, we have looked at words in which there is no relationship between spelling and pronunciation. However, it is important to remember that English does have some logic and patterns and by learning any common patterns, we make our lives a lot easier. Remember that patterns relate to both phonetics and stress. Whilst single letters may seem to have endless possibilities for pronunciation, certain combinations of letters, such as those above, follow consistent patterns.
Listening for pronunciation
As teachers, we are guilty of using listening exercises with the singular goal of testing comprehension. However, actively listening to a natural model of English and noticing the pronunciation is the best way of improving your own pronunciation. Why not try reading a section of a TED talk transcription aloud, recording yourself, then comparing yours to the original? Or alternatively, test your ability to recognise and spell words from your favourite songs on Lyrics Training. These two activities are also particularly useful for focussing on sentence level pronunciation, which will be the subject of the next blog.
Physical exercise – further reading and practice
One final point to remember is that pronunciation is physical exercise. Our mouths are complex systems of muscles and each language develops these differently. In order to pronounce words accurately, we need to have some awareness of the physical side of pronunciation. An excellent starting point is Mark Hancock´s series of books: English Pronunciation in Use. His website also includes free materials:
Finally, just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to lift heavy weights without practice, you shouldn’t expect to be able to pronounce every new word perfectly without practice. Isolate the part of a word that is causing you problems, practice it alone, before later adding other syllables. Keep a list of words that are problematic and record yourself practising them regularly.
Thanks for reading, and remember to check The Essential English Centre website regularly for more tips and advice about learning English!
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