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The Importance of Pronunciation: How to Speak Clearly and Avoid Common Mistakes in English

English pronunciation is incredibly important if you want to be understood and avoid miscommunications.

Pronunciation should never be overlooked, so below you’ll find essential mistakes to avoid and resources to improve your overall pronunciation skills.

With better pronunciation, you’ll be one step closer to English fluency.

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Why Is English Pronunciation Important? 

New English speakers can be easily misunderstood when pronouncing words incorrectly.

Furthermore, when even only one word is pronounced incorrectly, many people will think they understood you and therefore won’t ask for clarification. This can lead to some very confusing miscommunications!

That’s why it’s important to identify and fix common pronunciation mistakes to create smoother relationships with new English-speaking friends, business contacts, service people such as waiters or hairdressers and many others.

The Most Important Mistakes to Avoid for Perfect Pronunciation

If you’d like to see some of these mistakes demonstrated verbally, check out the following video:

1. Not paying attention to word stress

When used in the context of linguistics, word stress essentially refers to the syllable in a word that’s emphasized the most.

Some languages, like Spanish, use accents to show stress, but English offers no such easy trick. Stress is very important when speaking English because a word can entirely change meaning depending on where you put the stress.

For the purpose of the examples here, I’ll divide syllables with dashes and show stress with bold text. Consider the word “contest,” which has two syllables: con-test.

You can either put stress on the first syllable or the second, which would be as follows.

a contest — /con-test/

to contest — /con-test/

The word with stress on the first syllable is a noun that means “a competition.” The word with stress on the second syllable is a verb that means “to oppose.” Note that in this case, the word stress not only changes the meaning of the word but also the part of speech (noun vs. verb).

Let’s look at another example. The word “present” has two syllables that can be broken up and stressed differently depending on what you wish to say.

a present — /pres-ent/ 

to present — /pre-sent

The first example is a noun meaning “a gift.” The second is a verb that means “to introduce.”

The website Word Stress is a great resource to practice pronunciation with correct word stress. It breaks words down into syllables and you have to guess which syllable you think the word stress falls on. 

It helpfully tracks the number of words you get correct, so you can see your progress as you practice. Plus, you can click to reveal a word’s part of speech, definition, stress and its International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols.

2. Forgetting to use correct intonation

If you didn’t raise or lower your voice at certain parts of each sentence, you’d sound like a robot!

Intonation involves the rise and fall of your voice when speaking in full sentences. Incorrect intonation can change the meaning of a sentence or just sound very strange to native speakers. It’s especially important for conveying feelings or adding nuance to sentences.

For example, think about the sentence, “Why are you home so late?”

Imagine asking your spouse this simple question, genuinely wondering why he or she is home late. Practice the question aloud with a tone of curiosity. Perhaps you’d use a light falling intonation at the end of your sentence.

Now, practice saying it while imagining that you’re angry, believing that your spouse has been out doing something you aren’t happy about. When using an accusatory tone, your pitch might rapidly rise and fall.

It’s important to master English intonation if you want to sound natural and keep listeners focused on the content of your sentences. Here’s an in-depth guide to how English speakers use intonation in different contexts. For more practice, FluentU is a language learning program that’s based on native English videos. Watching videos to hear natural intonation and correct pronunciation is a powerful way to improve your own speaking skills.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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3. Saying heteronyms the same way

Heteronyms are words that are spelled exactly the same way but mean different things.

For example, “read” looks the exact same in both the present and past tense.

However, the pronunciation is quite different, with the present tense using a long “e” sound, like “reed,” and the past tense using the short “e” sound, like “red.” 

I read every day.

I read a chapter last night. 

To avoid this mistake, learners should take the time to familiarize themselves with some of the most frequently used heteronyms. Here’s a helpful list of common heteronyms and how to pronounce them.

4. Sounding out each vowel only one way

English vowels can be complicated and one letter can have many different sounds.

For example, the little vowel “o” has three distinct sounds, and that’s without considering vowel combination sounds! Listen to the following words.

stove

lose

wolf

Notice how each “o” is pronounced differently.

It’s really important that learners take the time to study every possible sound made by English vowels. For an in-depth guide on all the English vowel sounds, check out this article.

5. Pronouncing “th” only one way

Here’s another mistake similar to the one above. The English syllable “th” has two distinct pronunciations, which many English learners tend to forget.

“Th” can either be voiced (with vocal chord vibration) or voiceless (without vocal chord vibration). Here’s how that actually sounds.

than — voiced “th” 

path — voiceless “th”

The easiest way to tell the difference is to put your fingers on your throat and see if you can feel vibrations.

You can see and hear a list of words that use the voiced “th” on this page from the University of California Berkeley. They also have one for the voiceless “th” here.

6. Vocalizing silent letters

It’s important to remember that pronunciation doesn’t always go by the letters in a word. Very often, certain letters aren’t pronounced in English words.

Consider the word “used” in the following two sentences. When alone, as in the first sentence, you pronounce the final “d” in “used.” However, when it’s a part of the phrase “used to,” the final “d” sound is dropped.

used I used the last of the shampoo.

used to I used to hate broccoli.

Ah! Tricky, right? Here’s a helpful video on some of the most common silent letters in English.

The Best Resources to Practice English Pronunciation

After all that, it would be a good idea to practice even more! There are many diverse online resources you can use to practice English pronunciation and the following are a great place to start.

BBC Learning English

importance-of-english-pronunciationFor those of you who are visual or auditory learners, the videos on this site are a great tool to learn British pronunciation.

You can start with their series “Tim’s Pronunciation Workshop,” which tackles a variety of pronunciation topics and, as a bonus, includes transcripts for the videos.

At the bottom of this site, you can also find video instructions to pronounce individual sounds in English.

Cambridge Dictionary

importance-of-english-pronunciationTo study both British and American English, you can use a pronunciation dictionary like Cambridge Dictionary, which offers side-by-side comparisons of the different accents.

As an added incentive, the site lets you create vocabulary lists and quizzes so you can save and work on the words giving you particular pronunciation trouble.

Minimal Pairs

Preply logo Another great way to practice English pronunciation is by working with minimal pairs (words with only one sound difference) at Preply.com, an online tutoring platform.

Focusing on minimal pairs helps fine-tune your ear in English and catch your own bad pronunciation habits.

Phonetic Alphabet Course on Memrise

importance-of-english-pronunciation

It’s a good idea to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols, as they’re widely used to write phonetic notations.

If you know the IPA, you can understand the correct pronunciation of a word just by looking it up in the dictionary and reading its IPA spelling.

You can practice the IPA with audio and exercises on Memrise, a language learning site that centers around memorization. They break the IPA down into 14 lessons.

In addition to these online resources, you can also use songs to practice your English pronunciation in a fun and engaging way! 

 

Hopefully, you recognize the necessity of studying pronunciation and are ready to dedicate new time and energy to mastering this important English skill!

And One More Thing...

If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:

learn-english-with-videos

If you want to watch it, the FluentU app has probably got it.

The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.

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FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:

learn-conversational-english-with-interactive-captioned-dialogue

FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

practice-english-with-adaptive-quizzes

FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.

Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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