English Pronunciation Guide

We’ve put together our best tips and the most helpful web resources for you to use to improve your English pronunciation:

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Why is it Important to Improve Your English Pronunciation?^

Many people don’t realize how important it actually is to improve their English pronunciation. Just between us, there are others who purposefully don’t put in any effort to improve because they think their native accent is sexy. That might be true, but only if the accent is subtle. If it is too thick, you risk not being understood when you speak, or even being made fun of… With that in mind, here are a few reasons to start working on your accent:

To be Understood When Speaking English^

This is, of course, the most obvious reason. After all, we learn languages because we want to be able to communicate. Sure, we understand other speakers of our mother tongue when they pronounce English words with a heavy accent. But to others it sounds like gibberish… (Celebrity names are particularly tough to figure out!) And I’m not talking about having an accent. A slight accent won’t keep people from understanding you. I’m not talking about the differences between British and American accents either. I’m talking about plain old bad pronunciation.

I’ll share a personal example to illustrate my point:

A few years back I was convinced that the word heavy was pronounced “hi:vi” instead of “hɛvi“. One day, at the airport, I warned the airline personnel, “Be careful, my luggage is heavy,” but with the wrong pronunciation. Clearly he didn’t understand me, because he nearly broke his back picking up my bag! 🙂 It may sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how many words you’ve memorized with the wrong pronunciation. There are countless examples of misunderstandings like this due to mispronunciation. Probably the most common, and maybe the most embarrassing, is confusing I am hungry (j’ai faim) with I am angry (je suis en colère).

Misunderstandings can create frustration for both parties involved, which can lead learners to have negative feelings about English or foreign language in general (ex. “I suck at English,” “I don’t like English,” “Help, I have a job interview in English!” etc.)

Because Bad Pronunciation Makes You Seem Bad at English in General^

You might have been at the top of your class in English in high school, and still not make a good impression when speaking. Let’s look at an example, two non-native English speaking candidates competing for the same job:

  • the first has a good academic level of English, but rarely practices speaking:
    His grammar is correct and he has a wide vocabulary, but he has bad pronunciation
  • the other has a lower academic level, but speaks English regularly:
    He has a very basic understanding of grammar and knows only about 1500 words, but has good pronunciation

Often what will happen is that the candidate who has the higher academic level will not be able to speak confidently or smoothly because he’ll constantly be worrying about getting his grammar perfect and finding the best vocabulary word. He will probably speak slowly and with many long pauses as he constructs his sentences, and some words will be hard to understand due to his poor English pronunciation.

The other has a decent accent, and speaks fluidly, which offset his simple sentence structures and limited vocabulary.

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Good English pronunciation: the key to a successful job interview?

Which candidate do you think will be hired based on his English? The second one, of course, because his good pronunciation gave the employer confidence in his English skills right off the bat.

Because it’s One of the Easiest Ways to Improve your General Level of English^

You can spend years doing grammar exercises and studying textbooks but still have poor speaking skills. Surprisingly, if you spend just 10 minutes a day focusing on your English pronunciation, you’ll see massive improvement. We’ll go into more detail about that later on in the article, but for now, here are the four main steps to improving pronunciation:

  1. Study the different English sounds, especially those that don’t exist in your native language
  2. Relearn common words with the correct pronunciation. You can do this quickly with the MOSA Learning method
  3. Listen to as much English as possible, using podcasts, films, English and American TV series, or audiobooks (we have a huge list of suggestions here)
  4. Practice speaking with conversation partners and English-speaking friends

If you follow these four steps, you’ll be speaking English in no time. Not to mention that the process will be fun and rewarding!

To Stand Out in the Business World^

Your pronunciation is like your business card: it’s the first thing people notice and something they will keep in mind for a long time
Often, this first impression, good or bad, will determine if your future success.

As globalization becomes more and more prominent, many people find themselves working in an international context. English is known as the “international language of business,” so you’ll probably need to use your skills at some point in your career. It’s hard to be taken seriously, create convincing arguments, or come off as credible when business partners have to first decipher your thick accent!

Why do we Have Trouble with English Pronunciation?^

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Because our School System and Environment aren’t Helping Us^

Here are some of the most common reasons for poor English pronunciation:

  • In school we tend to focus too much time on grammar and written work, and not enough time on speaking skills. We believe that learning grammar rules shouldn’t be your first priority when learning a new language…
  • Most of our English teachers aren’t natives (which doesn’t make them bad teachers, but does generally affect their accent)
  • When an English word makes its way into our language, we are usually taught to pronounce it using the closest sounds we know. This causes us to pick up bad pronunciation habits. Unfortunately, when we try to pronounce these words with the correct English accent, we might even be made fun of for trying
  • In most countries, we don’t get much exposure to spoken English if we don’t go out of our way to find it.

Because it’s Impossible to Guess the Way Words are Pronounced!^

One of English’s biggest challenges is its pronunciation. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

  1. In Spanish, there are 35 sounds and roughly 38 ways to write them
  2. French, has about 32 sounds and over 250 ways to write them
  3. In English, there are more than 44 sounds and over 1100 ways to write them

There are over 1100 ways to write the 44 sounds in the English language, so we can’t rely on a word’s spelling to figure out how it should be pronounced. The same combination of letters can be pronounced completely differently depending on the word. What this means for you is that you’ll have quite a bit of memorization to do if you want to be able to speak English well.

Because There are English Sounds that don’t Exist in Other Languages^

In French for example, of those 44 sounds there are 17 that don’t even exist! Whatever sounds these are (like the famous “th”) are especially difficult because we aren’t used to making them. (Similarly, this is why both the French and the Spanish “r” are very difficult for Anglophones; they don’t exist in English.)

And that’s not all. Our ear isn’t used to hearing and differentiating between different English sounds. Our brain generally equates these unfamiliar sounds with the closest sound that exists in our native language. This is why, even with lots of practice listening to native speakers and reproducing the sounds we hear, we still pronounce some sounds incorrectly (and don’t even know it!) When we are born, our brain is able to distinguish between a lot more sounds – which is a great reason to start teaching your kids English when they are young. Little by little, they forget the sounds that aren’t useful for  pronunciation in everyday speech.

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Keys to English pronunciation: listen to native speakers, associate written words with their pronunciation, and practice saying them for yourself

Every language has its own particularities and presents unique challenges for students. We have several teachers on the MosaLingua team who teach French to Spanish speakers. These learners have a lot of trouble hearing the difference between the French v and b sounds, because in Spanish they are pronounced in the same way. Nasal sounds like “an,” “in,” and “un” are also especially tricky. These are easy for Francophones, since they start learning them at birth, but they are difficult for students. So rest assured, if you struggle with pronunciation, you are not alone!

Which Accent Should I Choose: British or American English?^

British English^

Some people think that British English is easier to understand, and that Brits articulate more than Americans. This is actually probably just due to the fact that this is the accent we tend to learn in school. We promise that the American accent is just as easy to understand: it’s just a matter of practice!

If you’re still not convinced, check out this video of a talented Englishman who imitates 67 different English accents:

In this video alone you can hear at least 10 very different British accents. Accents in England are much more distinctive than in France. When we talk about “the British accent” we are generally referring to the standard London pronunciation (used by the BBC, for example).

The problem is that very few people actually speak like this (compared to the entire English-speaking population) and even other Brits sometimes have trouble understanding the different regional accents.

So spending a lot of time perfecting an accent used by a (relatively) small group of people doesn’t seem like a very good use of your time!

American English^

Here are 4 reasons why we think it’s a smart idea to choose the American accent when learning English pronunciation:

  1. Americans make up about 65 % of the world’s English speakers (compared to about 17% Brits) –> you’re more likely to have the opportunity to converse with an American.
  2. American English is the most universally spoken and understood version of English –> which means you’ll be able to communicate wherever you go
  3. There are lot more resources to help you learn American English, thanks to the abundance of movies, TV series, and songs produced in the United States –> you probably already watch or listen to them on a daily basis
  4. There are fewer major differences between regional accents: of course American accents differ slightly if you go to the East Coast, the Midwest, or the South, but in general these differences are less pronounced than they are in England (source Wikipedia) –> this saves a ton of time (since you won’t need to sift through the particularities of the different British accents)

We also have found that most people have an easier time imitating the American accent as opposed to its British counterpart.

For these reasons, we think that American English is the most useful, not to mention the easiest, variety to learn.

Of course, if you have a particular weakness for the British accent, feel free to do what makes you happy! Just know that it might not be the simplest route to choose.

How to Work on Your English Pronunciation^

To have great English pronunciation, you need to be aware of new sounds, nuances, different intonations, the tonic accent, and the rhythm of the language. Academic methods generally focus too much on written skills and not enough on speaking and pronunciation. But English pronunciation and phonetics are incredibly important for being understood and communicating in general. To our teachers’ credit, it isn’t easy to incorporate speaking practice into the classroom, especially when students aren’t motivated to learn.

But you’re already in a great spot because you have shown that you’re interested in improving your English. This is far from impossible; with good methods and exercises you can do on your own, you, too, can have a very nice English accent. (Yes, we are sure!)

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Ever feel like people just don’t understand you? Work on your English pronunciation!

We often aren’t even aware that we are making pronunciation mistakes… until we start studying phonetics and record ourselves. Give it a try! Having poor English pronunciation isn’t the end of the world. With a little bit of practice you’ll be able to easily correct the most common mistakes made by English learners. Then it will be a matter of perfecting and reaching a level you are happy with. Here are three steps to help you get started:

– Learn a Little Bit About how English Phonetics Work^

  • learn about all of the sounds that exist in English but not in your mother tongue (but like we mentioned before, sometimes our brain doesn’t even recognize these sounds)
  • pay attention to intonation patterns, the tonic accent, and the language’s rhythm
  • train your ear (or rather, your brain) to recognize these new sounds and then train your voice to recreate them

We recommend our Speak English With Confidence MasterClass for this step. For now it is only available to French and Italian speakers, but we are working on making it accessible to others!

– Learn the Correct Pronunciation for Basic Vocabulary^

  • focus on the vocabulary you already know, but make sure your pronunciation is perfect. The MosaLingua app is a great tool for this. It provides pronunciation practice as well as a recording by a native speaker for each flashcard, and it uses the SRS method to optimize your progress

– Practice^

  • listen to as many English resources as possible and focus on pronunciation
  • practice in ways that allow for corrections (singing, reciting poems or reading speeches, speaking with Anglophones)
    We can’t stress this enough: finding an English-speaking conversation partner will help you widen your vocabulary, speak English on a regular basis, and get pronunciation corrections on the spot.

This might seem daunting, but you can do it! Don’t forget, language learning is possible at any age. You will have fun imitating the English accent, and your self-confidence will get a major boost. Fear of not being understood, and being ashamed of one’s accent are the two main reasons why people don’t even try to express themselves in the language they are learning.

It is important to learn pronunciation as early in the learning process as possible. If you continue learning and speaking English without making yourself aware of new sounds, different intonation patterns, word stress, and rhythms of speaking, you will memorize the wrong pronunciation. It’s much harder, and takes longer, for our brains to overwrite bad habits with the correct pronunciation than it is to learn it correctly the first time around.

The Best Web Resources for Improving English Pronunciation^

Websites to Help Demonstrate Good Pronunciation^

english-pronunciation-guide-screenshot-20140219-153739-apps-to-quickly-learn-spanish-french-italian-german-portuguese-on-iphone-ipad-and-android--mosalinguaWordreference: a great online dictionary. Along with the definition of the word, they include both American and British pronunciations. All you have to do is click on the little speaker icon next to the word. They also write the word out phonetically, which can be very useful for some people. This site is an excellent resource!

english-pronunciation-guide-apps-to-quickly-learn-spanish-french-italian-german-portuguese-on-iphone-ipad-and-android--mosalinguaRhinospike: use this website to get your sentence or short passage pronounced correctly by a native English speaker. Rhinospike has an interesting concept: it is free to use, and relies on a trading system. You submit your request for a text to be pronounced in English, and in exchange you record a text in your language for someone else. Lang-8 (which is great for getting your written English texts corrected) works in a similar way.

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Our Speak English with Confidence Masterclass is a complete guide that walks you through the steps necessary for great pronunciation. It was specifically designed to help French and Italian speakers who want to improve their spoken English. Keep an eye out for more languages coming soon. The best part? It’s fun!

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photo credit (CC) : microphone : Brendan Biele, blackboard : cdcoppola, sexy mouth: By: Emilian Robert Vicol, deaf child: Nationaal Archief, students: Simon Fraser

This post is also available in French.