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A guide to English pronunciation
Learners often neglect their pronunciation. They think that if they can communicate in English with other students in their class, they will be able to talk with native speakers too. They only realize they were wrong when they go to an English-speaking country and discover that people can't understand them!
In my opinion, pronunciation is one of the most important language skills. You may be proficient at grammar and have a huge vocabulary, but if you pronounce words wrongly, you just won't get understood. And even if you speak in an understandable way, you still have to work on your pronunciation. It's the first thing people notice about your English when you talk to them. They will judge you by the way you speak. If your accent is pleasant, they will enjoy talking to you.
Studying pronunciation will also help you understand English better. If you know how different words are pronounced, you will understand more.
How to study pronunciation?
English pronunciation can be tricky. For example, the pronunciation of the word put is /put/ (click on the transcription to listen to a recording of the word). But other words which contain these three letters can be pronounced differently! For example, putty (a soft whitish substance used to fix glass into window frames) is pronounced /'p^ti/. The spelling of a word doesn't tell you how to pronounce it. How to learn pronunciation then? Read my advice below.
Learn the phonetic alphabet
Most good dictionaries give you phonetic transcriptions of words. They tell you how the words are pronounced using symbols of International Phonetic Alphabet to represent sounds. Have a look at this entry from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:
How to decipher the transcription of the word cargo in the picture above? The first thing to notice is that there are actually two transcriptions. The first one is the British pronunciation and the second one is the American pronunciation.
To understand the symbols used in the transcriptions, download and print this pronunciation table: Phonetic alphabets reference. If you are not sure about the pronunciation of the words in the chart, you can have a look at the version with audio recordings: The sounds of English and the International Phonetic Alphabet.
It's also a good idea to learn the ASCII phonetic alphabet. It helps you type the strange symbols from the IPA using the characters on your keyboard. The transcription of the word dictionary in IPA looks like this:
Using the ASCII phonetic alphabet you can easily key in the transcription:
Dictionaries with audio recordings
If you use a computer dictionary (and I highly recommend you do), choose one that gives you both phonetic transcriptions and audio recordings. Each time you look up a word, read its phonetic transcription. Then listen to the recording and try to imitate it.
BTW, some people argue that they don't need to learn the phonetic alphabet, since they use a computer dictionary with audio recordings. But the problem is that you can't always hear everything perfectly. Phonetic transcriptions show you clearly the sounds used in a particular word. Besides, you can always have a paper dictionary with phonetic transcriptions with you - and with a PC it might sometimes be difficult. :-)
Listen as much as you can
I can't recommend listening enough if you want to improve your pronunciation. Ideally, you should listen to audio recordings every day. Try to memorize parts of recordings, then say them from memory imitating the speakers voice. You may even record yourself and compare the recording of your voice to the original one.
Read more about listening: The importance of reading and listening.
Practise reading aloud
You won't achieve good pronunciation without practice. It's not enough to know the correct pronunciation of words - you need to be able say them quickly. You need to train your brain and your mouth to pronounce English words - it's just like physical training.
Reading aloud will help you achieve fluency in speaking. It will also help you identify the problematic areas - words about whose pronunciation you are unsure or things like the pronunciation of numbers. Whenever you say something incorrectly, check out what is the correct pronunciation.
Learn the pronunciation of all the words you use
Whenever you learn a new word, learn its pronunciation, too. It's a terrible thing when you know the word you need, but can't say it because you don't know how to pronounce it.
Change the habits that come from your native language
English has borrowed lots of words from other languages - from ancient Latin and Greek to Eskimo and Farsi. It's very likely that English has borrowed some words from your own language, too. And certainly there are plenty of similar words between English and your native language.
However, while the spelling of words that English borrowed from your language can be similar, the pronunciation is almost certainly different. For example, take the German and English pronunciation of the word hamburger.
Straight to the point - try to become independent of your native language. The sooner you forget the habits that come from your mother tongue, the better.
English pronunciation pitfalls
The proper pronunciation of numbers in English causes trouble to lots of people. Make sure you know how to pronounce the following properly:
Homographs are words which are spelled the same but have different meanings and pronunciation.
Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings and spellings. For example when you hear /pein/ you don't know if it's a flat piece of glass (a pane) or an unpleasant sensation (pain). You have to work it out from the context.
Word commonly mispronounced
These words cause trouble to many learners. Make sure you know how to pronounce them properly!
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