Improving Pronunciation On Your Own

 

Although making pronunciation progress on your own is more difficult than improving in the context of a class, it is still possible, provided that you approach the task correctly. The ten steps below provide you with what, in my opinion, is a good strategy for making strides toward improving your accent. Ideally, you will follow every step. However, picking and choosing from among the steps is better than doing nothing at all.

 

using praat
your errors
textbooks

 

1. Set Realistic Overall Goals

It is understandable to want to sound like a native English speaker instantly, but it is not reasonable to expect it to happen overnight. In all likelihood, you will never sound like a native speaker, but given enough time and effort, you can come very close. Your hard work and patience will be worth it in the long run.

The goals you set now will depend on your current proficiency level. If you are still a beginner (a stage everyone has to pass through at some point), your overall goal might simply to be understood, or even to be understood only when you are talking about your field of study. If you are more advanced, you might want to use smooth rhythmical patterns and intonations.

As you reach your goals, it is important to reset them so that you can continue getting better. Set goals you can reach easily, but set them often.

 

2. Know Your Pronunciation Errors

Be aware of your most common mistakes. My feedback forms will provide you with a good starting point for identifying your most common errors. Also try to pay attention to the kinds of pronunciation errors in your speech that act as barriers to communication. Get in the habit of writing down words and phrases that give others a difficult time understanding you. What do those words and phrases have in common? You may find it possible to step back from them and identify a pattern.

 

3. Target Specific Features Of Your Pronunciation

Once you know what your most common mistakes are, rank your "problem areas" in order of importance, and focus on only one or two of these features at a time. It will serve you well to place a reasonable limit on the number of features that you are listening for. For example, for two weeks you might pay special attention only to the sounds /r/ and /l/, while in the third week you might also monitor your intonation in Wh-questions.  Add features as frequently as possible, provided that you can do them justice.

 

4. Develop Your Listening Skills

As a preliminary goal, try to notice when you are using your targeted pronunciation features. It might take you a while to get used to focusing on your speech in such great detail (especially since you have to think about how to string your words together, vocabulary, etc.), but in time monitoring your speech will get easier.

Once you are able to notice when you are using the target features, start asking yourself whether you are pronouncing them right. Making this decision may require that you further refine your listening skills. The ability to discriminate and identify sounds correctly, or having a good ear, is the most valuable asset for improving pronunciation on your own. A good ear will enable you to notice correct pronunciation in the speech of native speakers (native speech serves as your target pronunciation) and also provide you with the ability to notice when your pronunciation is incorrect (so you know when you need to make modifications).

 

5. Develop Muscle Memory

Many students like to listen to short clips and repeat what they hear. This is an effective means of improving pronunciation, but it is also limited, and it is important to understand how. Repetition is a great way to train the muscles of your vocal apparatus. When it comes to pronunciation, just as in sports, your muscles can perform better if they are familiar with the movements you want them to make. Practicing will help you attain the muscle memory you need.

However, that is where the benefits of repetition end. Pronouncing sounds, intonation patterns, and rhythms correctly when repeating after a recording does not necessarily translate into pronouncing them correctly in real life situations. You need to develop accuracy in real situations in which you are trying to relate some information to another individual.

 

6. Record (And Listen To) Yourself

You should try to record yourself practicing, both when you are doing exercises and when you are free-talking. Even though it can be a painful process, listen to the recording. You will probably notice a number of mistakes that you did not hear while you were making the recording. You may be disappointed to find that you make more mistakes than you had thought you were making, but you will be better equipped to address the mistakes you discover.

While listening to your recordings, you may find it helpful to make note of your pronunciation errors. Feel free to use the feedback form used in our class.

Feedback form for taking notes on your own pronunciation

 

7. Make Use of Web Resources

You can develop both your listening and pronunciation skills by taking advantage of the multitude of web resources aimed at learners of English pronunciation. Many are free and require only basic software like Quicktime, RealPlayer, and Flash for use. Here I list some of the better pronunciation websites, but do not feel limited to my suggestions. More sites are just a google search away.

American English Pronunciation Practice

Listening Practice: distinguishing between sounds (Quizzes)

The Sounds of American English Pronunciation Description: for each sound, animations of articulator movements, including step-by-step instructions, and movie clips of the mouth (Demonstrations)
The New Okanagan College Pronunciation Lessons: lessons, video demonstrations, and listening practice for many sounds and difficult distinctions
Reduced Forms List of Common Reductions
Sounds of English Pronunciation Lessons: in three categories — sounds, word stress, sentence stress and intonation, also includes activities and exercises
Authentic American Pronunciation Pronunciaton Lessons: wide array of subject areas, from sounds to linking to reductions

 

8. Follow a Textbook

If you prefer more guided instruction, I recommend first that you use the class textbook, Accurate English, this time in conjunction with the audio tapes. You can review the parts that we covered in class as well as explore the sections we skipped. I also recommend the following books and their accompanying tapes/CDs:

Gilbert, Judy B. (2005) Clear Speech Student's Book: Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

   

Grant, Linda. (2000) Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication, 2nd edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Copies of these books should be available both at the Stanford Bookstore, and if not there, on Amazon. I encourage you to shop around for the best price; you will find a considerable range of prices for these books on the web.

 

9. Use Praat For Intonation Practice

Follow the instructions on the handout distributed in class to use Praat for intonation practice. Using Praat, you can examine your intonation contours and compare them to contours from recordings on cassettes, CDs, or online clips.

Download Praat
   

Using Praat to Improve Intonation

 

10. Put Yourself In Real Situations

One key to improving pronunciation is placing yourself in real situations in which other people need to understand you in order for you to accomplish a task. Try to focus on tasks that involve the exchange of information, such as getting a telephone number, trading email addresses, or a placing a food order. For example, instead of looking up the address of a new restaurant and getting directions online, call the restaurant to get directions. Using the phone forces you to talk and express yourself effectively, and it prevents you from relying on non-speech cues like gestures to communicate.

 

If you follow these ten steps, you will be well on your way to making lasting improvements. Just remember to work at perfecting each step, and keep working at it until you can do it without thinking (or at least without thinking very hard).