Why Is It Important to Learn English Pronunciation?
Many people don’t realize how important it actually is to improve their English pronunciation. Just between you and me, there are even some people who purposefully make no 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! With that in mind, here are a few good reasons to start working on your accent:
So people understand you when you speak English
This is, of course, the most obvious reason. After all, we learn languages because we want to be able to communicate. Sure, you may understand it when your compatriots speak English 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 probably memorized with the wrong pronunciation. There are countless examples of misunderstandings like this due to mispronunciation. One of the most common (and most embarrassing!) is confusing “I am hungry“ with “I am angry.“
Misunderstandings can be frustrating for both parties involved, and can cause learners to have negative feelings about English or foreign language in general (ex. “I suck at English,” “I don’t like English,” “I’ll never get through this job interview in English!” etc.)
Bad pronunciation makes you seem bad at English
You could’ve been top of your class in English in high school, and still not make a very 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 very poor 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 quite good pronunciation
More often than not, the person with a higher academic level of English will not speak as confidently or smoothly, because he or she will constantly worry about having perfect grammar and using the best vocabulary. They’ll probably speak slowly and with many long pauses as they construct their sentences. The words they do manage to get out will be harder to understand because of poor pronunciation.
The other candidate has a decent accent, and speaks fluidly, which helps offset their more simple sentence structures and limited vocabulary.
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.
It’s one of the easiest ways to improve your overall level of English
As we’ve just seen, you can spend years doing grammar exercises and studying textbooks and still have poor speaking skills. As it turns out, 10 minutes a day focusing on your English pronunciation is all you need to see massive improvement. We’ll cover this in more detail later on in the article, but for now, here are the 4 main steps to improving pronunciation:
- Study the different English sounds, especially those that don’t exist in your native language
- Relearn common words with the correct pronunciation. You can do this quickly with the MOSALearning method (and even more quickly with our Speak English With Confidence class, which I’ll introduce later)
- Listen to as much English as possible, using podcasts, films, English and American TV series, or audiobooks (we have a long list of suggestions here)
- 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 remember about you. Often, this first impression, good or bad, will determine 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 language skills at some point in your career. It’s hard to be taken seriously, create convincing arguments, and come off as credible when business partners have to first decipher what you’re saying!
Why Do People Have Trouble with English Pronunciation?
Our school systems and environment don’t help
Here are some of the most common reasons for poor English pronunciation:
- In school, we tend to focus too much on grammar and written work, and not enough on speaking skills. At MosaLingua, we believe that learning grammar rules shouldn’t be your first priority when approaching 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, those bad habits come through.
- In most countries, we don’t get much exposure to spoken English if we don’t go out of our way to find it.
It’s impossible to guess the way words are pronounced!
Pronunciation is one of the biggest challenges in English. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:
- In Spanish, there are 35 sounds and roughly 38 ways to write them
- French has about 32 sounds and just over 250 ways to write them
- 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.
There are English sounds that don’t exist in other languages
Of those 44 sounds, for example, there are 17 that don’t even exist in French! These sounds (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 English speakers: 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 approximation that exist 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 you’re young, your brain is able to distinguish between a lot more sounds – which is a great reason to start teaching your kids English when they’re young. Little by little, your brain forgets the sounds that aren’t useful for pronunciation in everyday speech.
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 prove difficult for others. So rest assured, if you struggle with pronunciation, you’re not alone!
Which Accent Should I Choose: British English or American English?
Need some guidance about which accent to adopt? Abbe made a video with some pros and cons of each to help you choose.
Subscribe to our channel for more videos like this one
Read more about these two prominent “standard” dialects of English below.
Some people think that British English is easier to understand and that Brits articulate more than Americans, but this is probably due to the fact that this is the accent that’s usually taught in schools. 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 many other countries. When we talk about “the British accent,” we’re 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!
Here are 4 reasons why we think it’s a smart idea to choose the American accent when learning English pronunciation:
- 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.
- American English is the most universally spoken and understood version of English ➡️ which means you’ll be able to communicate wherever you go
- There are a lot more resources to help you learn American English, thanks to an abundance of movies, TV series, and songs produced in the United States ➡️ you probably already watch or listen to some of them on a daily basis
- 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 aren’t as strong as they are in England ➡️ this saves a ton of time since you won’t need to sift through the particularities of the different British accents.
We’ve also 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 soft spot for the British accent, feel free to do what makes you happy! Just know that it might not be the simplest path to choose.
BONUS: Test your knowledge of different English accents!
Think you have a good grasp of the various English accents around the world? Our English teacher Lisa Joy created a quiz to test your ear. Take it right here or on our YouTube channel, and be sure to share how you did in the comments section:
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 position to learn and make progress because you’re actually interested in improving your English. With the right methods and exercises that you can do on your own, you too can have a great English accent. Believe in yourself!
Oftentimes, you may not even be aware that you’re mispronouncing a word… until you start studying phonetics and record yourself. Give it a try! Record yourself saying a simple English sentence out loud.
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 making smaller adjustments and reaching a level you are happy with. Here are four steps to help you get started:
Step 1 – Learn a bit about how English phonetics work
The International Phonetic Alphabet is a tool that can help you identify all of the different English sounds. As we mentioned earlier, some sounds overlap with other languages, and some don’t. Learning English phonetics is one of the first important steps toward correcting your English pronunciation.
Why it’s important
- Learn about all of the sounds that exist in English but not in your mother tongue (as we mentioned before, sometimes our brain doesn’t even recognize these sounds, but when you see them written down they might make more sense)
- Learn to recognize intonation patterns, the tonic accent (see below), 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
How to learn the English phonetic alphabet
You can start right here, right now! To keep things interesting, we’ve created a series of video lessons just for you. In each video (all of which are less than 5 minutes long) our team member Sean introduces a new English sound and explains how to pronounce it correctly.
The videos are available on our YouTube channel. Or, take a look at the following free lessons:
- /ð/: the unvoiced th sound in English
- /r/: the American English r
- /ʌ/: the short u sound, (ʌ in IPA)
- /ə/: the schwa sound, one of the most common sounds in English
- /ŋ/: last but not least, the ng sound
Subscribe to our YouTube channel for all of our latest videos on English pronunciation and other tips and tricks to help you perfect your language skills.
Take it a step further
We also strongly recommend our Speak English With Confidence Masterclass: a training program specifically designed to help people who want to improve their English pronunciation. You’ll have access to 10 unique modules, tons of bonus content, exercises you can use to practice at home, videos to help you perfect specific sounds, and many other multimedia resources. For more info, click the picture below.
Step 2 – Learn correct pronunciation for important vocabulary
For this step, focus on the vocabulary you already know (or the basic vocabulary you should know), but make sure your pronunciation is perfect. You’ll need an audio recording for this step, preferably one that was made by a native English speaker. The MosaLingua app is a great tool for this.
The MosaLingua English app includes over 3,500 vocabulary flashcards and audio recordings for each card. You’ll not only be able to memorize these words using the SRS method, but you’ll learn them (or relearn them) with the correct pronunciation. The more you review them, the more naturally the correct pronunciation will come to you.
Click here to download the MosaLingua English app
Step 3 – Listen
Listening is a crucial step because it gets your ears and brain used to new sounds. There are tons of resources available online that can be of help for this step in the process.
- Listen to the radio or podcasts in English; you can choose shows dedicated to learning English or English pronunciation, or pick any other topic that interests you.
- Watch movies and TV shows in English, and focus on the characters’ pronunciation, including their intonation, rhythm, and accent.
Pro tip: have you ever heard of shadowing? It’s a technique focused on repeating things you hear. It’s an easy, effective, and free way to improve your English pronunciation. The next time you watch a movie in English, pause it whenever you hear a particularly interesting line (maybe a character asked another character on a date, and you’d like to perfect your own pick-up lines). Try repeating the line back, paying particular attention to your intonation and pronunciation. Then, rewind the movie and play the line again, to see how well you did. Keep repeating this process until you get it just right. You can even record yourself for easy comparison.
This technique of repeating the words and sentences you hear is almost the exact same process that we all go through as children when learning our native language.
Step 4 – Practice
Of course, if you want to get better at English pronunciation, you’ll need to practice these skills. Do it as often as possible. The more you practice, the more naturally you will be able to reproduce new sounds you learn.
How to practice
- Recite poems or speeches
- Chat with English speakers. We can’t stress this enough: finding an English-speaking conversation partner will help you broaden your vocabulary, speak English on a regular basis, and get pronunciation corrections on the spot. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to correct you, especially when you make the same mistakes over and over again.
Ready to get started?
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 try to express themselves in the language they’re 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 for Learning Proper Pronunciation
In addition to our Learn English app, which can be a big help when working on your pronunciation, there are several other web resources that we recommend:
Wordreference: a great online dictionary. Along with definitions, it also includes both American and British pronunciations. All you have to do is click on the little speaker icon next to the word. They also provide a phonetic transcription of each word, which can be very useful if you know how to read it. This site is an excellent resource!
Rhinospike: use this website to get your sentence or short passage read aloud by a native English speaker. Rhinospike has an interesting concept: it’s a free system that works on the premise of exchange. You submit a request for an English recording of your text, and in exchange, you record a text in your language for someone else. The website Langcorrect, which is great for getting your written English texts corrected, works in a similar way.
Want to Improve Your English Pronunciation?
Our Speak English with Confidence Masterclass is a complete guide that walks you through the steps necessary for great pronunciation. The best part? There are tons of exercises, and practicing can actually be fun!