Hello lovely students! I’ve got a treat in store for you today. Do you sometimes find that pronunciation in English is difficult? Are there any English words at all that seem like tongue twisters? If that’s the case, then English language learners rejoice: I’ve prepared this article with you in mind.
No matter what your native language is, you’ll be a pro at English pronunciation in no time.
Are you ready to practise English pronunciation?
Why is English pronunciation so confusing?
In my years of teaching, this is a question many of my students have. I’ve even thought about how tricky English pronunciation must be when I’ve been learning other languages, such as Spanish and Italian. English pronunciation is hard, but a few rules are in place to help (more on that below).
But why can English pronunciation be difficult? First things first, it’s a mixture of different languages, such as Latin, Greek and German, and even contains borrowed words from other languages, like pyjamas, which comes from Urdu. An estimated 60% of English words have Latin or Greek roots, which is odd as English is considered a Germanic language.
These languages all have their own pronunciation rules, which is why English pronunciation can be inconsistent. What you write is different from how you say it.
It perplexes English learners so much that a poem was written about it in the 1900s by Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenite. The poem titled The Chaos helped students with their pronunciation problems. Let’s look at this sentence from the poem.
Just compare heart, hear and heard.
Although the three words start with hea and look like they should have similar sounds, they have entirely different pronunciations.
1) heart = hɑːt (hart)
2) hear = hɪə(r) (heur)
3) heard = hɜːd (hurd)
Can you see how certain words, such as these, may be confusing to pronounce? To find out more, read Trenite’s full poem here.
Here’s a warm-up exercise to get started. What are tongue twisters, you ask? A tongue twister is a sentence or phrase that is difficult to say quickly and repetitively, and even native English speakers (like me) have difficulty expressing them.
It’s an excellent way to get your tongue and brain warmed up before you begin pronunciation practice. Let’s take a look at some.
1) She sells seashells on the seashore
This is a tricky first one. The sh sound is present in she, seashells and seashore. To make this sound, the front third of your tongue (the blade) should be behind your gum ridge, without touching it. Your tongue then spreads and touches the sides of the upper teeth, forming a seal.
Make sure your tongue is slightly curved, and pointing slightly downwards, with the sides higher and the middle lower, forming a groove. After this, breathe out – the air should pass out of this groove. You will make a ‘sh’ sound.
2) Red lorry, yellow lorry
Usually, with red lorry, yellow lorry, the r’s in lorry turn into l’s when you say it fast. We end up saying red lolly, yellow lolly. If this is the case for you don’t worry: make sure you stress the r in lorry. It’s pretty strong.
3) I saw a kitten eating chicken in the kitchen
Now this one is hard. Why? Because English learners, native or non-native, often muddle chicken and kitchen. Lots of people whose native language is English, for instance, more than likely got these two words confused when they were younger. You probably want to say kitchen instead of chicken in the first instance, as kitten begins with a strong k. However, try not to say it.
Did your tongue get confused saying these? Don’t panic. It’s a little something to start. Tongue twisters should be fun too. Why not ask a friend to join you so you can practise together?
Now that I’ve shown you some tongue twisters, let’s look at some tips to help you sound like an advanced speaker (either a non-native or native speaker).
Improving pronunciation tips
No, I don’t mean that kind of stress. Although, if you learn about stress in pronunciation, you will be less stressed.
Word stress and sentence stress are critical. Proper word stress (also known as syllable stress) is the emphasis we place on a specific word syllable when the word has two or more syllables. It would be odd for us to say all the syllables with the same stress. A good example is the word wonder. Wonder has two syllables. However, the first syllable (won) is the stressed syllable.
I WONder what he is doing.
They WONder about me all the time.
If I put the stress of the second syllable, it wouldn’t sound correct.
I wonDER what he is doing.
Try and say both examples out loud. Can you spot the difference? The stress is on the wrong syllable in the second example.
Sentence stress is similar to word stress. The difference is that it’s used in whole sentences. You may not realise this, but when we speak English, some words in our sentences are emphasised more than others. For example, verbs, adjectives and nouns are more likely to have syllables stressed than auxiliary verbs or prepositions.
I can SEE that the SUN is BRIGHT
See how some of the nouns, verbs and adjectives have stressed syllables here? It’s a good rule to keep in mind.
2) The schwa sound
The schwa sound (ə) is the most common sound in English. It is an unstressed sound that appears in many words as not all syllables are stressed and it is mainly used in place of written vowels. It’s used a lot in articles and prepositions.
Examples of this include the words man and policeman.
The word man is a content word which would be generally stressed in a sentence, the written a is pronounced (æ).
However, in the word policeman the syllable man is unstressed and the letter a is pronounced (ə).This is a schwa sound. It is weaker.
3) Minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are words that differ only by a single sound, even if spelt differently. Examples are below.
Key (kiː) and tea (tiː)
Desk (desk) and disk (dɪsk)
Wood (wʊd) and should (ʃʊd)
Best (best) and vest (vest)
The list is endless, but it is good to know these.
An easy way to memorise these tips is by using the acronym SSM (stress, schwa and minimal pairs).
English pronunciation exercises to improve your pronunciation
Eliminate pronunciation mistakes with these helpful activities for English pronunciation practice.
1) Mimic mouth movements
I cannot stress this enough. When you see someone speaking in English in real life or on television, focus on their mouth movements. This will help you so much because you see how the mouth goes to help you perfect pronunciation.
2) International Phonetic Alphabet
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a no-brainer for consonant and vowel sounds in English. Check out this interactive chart with all the phonetic sounds here.
3) Tongue twisters
As I mentioned above, this is a great way to wake your pronunciation brains up. Practise the tongue twisters above.
Do you want to know more?
Join me, Lucy, in my jam-packed pronunciation course. Sign up for it here.