The Importance of Correct Pronunciation
Pronunciation is one of the most important (and difficult) areas that non-native English speakers face when studying English. Improper pronunciation can lead to negative impressions, misunderstandings and ineffective communication.
Making a Good Impression
They say first impressions last, and this is true. When you talk to a person for the first time, your pronunciation is the first thing they notice during a conversation. Understanding the difference between vocabulary range and pronunciation is especially important; given that word choice matters little, if people can’t understand you. Native English speakers may not always be the best speakers either, however they are always subconsciously listening for correct pronunciation and word stress. A speaker with a very strong foreign accent might be initially viewed as ‘exotic’, but after a few sentences that can quickly become a problem if the listener becomes confused.
Pronunciation mistakes can lead to some serious misunderstandings. For example, confusing the short I with the long i can lead to embarrassing mistakes when the listener thinks you are saying an entirely different word. Mix that with the common mistake of using informal requests; I want, I need (instead of using please with modal verbs … could, would etc) and you are at risk of creating awkward situations. Also, many native English speakers can become impatient, and if they think someone is being rude they will not always wait to ‘work out’ the misunderstanding. Or it could be more serious, as this video hilariously portrays. Then there are other common mistakes, such as confusion of consonants (the ‘l’ and the ‘r’, or the ‘w’ and ‘v’, and silent consonants) and let’s not forget the importance of word stress, sentence stress and intonation.
What is the IPA?
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of phonetic notation devised by linguists to accurately and uniquely represent each of the wide variety of sounds (phones or phonemes) used in spoken human language. It is intended as a notational standard for the phonemic and phonetic representation of all spoken languages.
This page shows an interactive overview of the symbols used in the IPA. As it is used for all languages, it would be impractical to explain to English speakers how to pronounce all of the sounds. Therefore, the symbols are grouped based on the features they have, or the parts of the mouth used to pronounce them. A dental consonant, for example, is pronounced using the teeth, while a bilabial consonant uses both lips.
Here are 7 of the most common and worst pronunciation mistakes ESL students can make. Taken from Busy Teacher.
Pronouncing the “th”
The “th” is one of the hardest consonant sounds to pronounce. It can be pronounced in three different ways: as a “d” (/ð/) as in this, that, these, those, they or them; as the voiceless /θ/ in three, thing, thought; or as a /t/ as in Thai or Thames. The pronunciation of the /θ/ is especially difficult for some – students often say tree instead of three.
How to fix it: Go over the difference between the three types of pronunciation. Don’t forget to mention that the third one is the least common. As for the difficulty in pronouncing the /θ/, show students how to place their tongues between their teeth and force air out to make the right sound.
Pronouncing the Schwa
The schwa ([ə]) is a sound that is typical in unstressed syllables, for instance in long words like mem(o)ry, choc(o)late or shorter ones like th(e) or t(o). The usual mistake is for students to pronounce the word syllable by syllable: me-mo-ry.
How to fix it: Introduce the schwa to students and give them plenty of examples. Remind them of the fact that English is a stressed, not a syllabic language, and that unstressed syllables or words in English often have this sound.
Confusing the “l” and the “r”
The “r” and “l” sounds are the stereotypical mistake Japanese students make – they say lice instead of rice. But it is also a difficulty that occurs in other Asian languages.
How to fix it: The problem usually lies in the position of the tongue. To eliminate the confusion first focus on practicing one sound – the “r” –, then the “l”. In both cases, show them and contrast the position of the tongue and teeth.
Pronouncing the Short “i”
The short “i” or [i] as pronounced in words like live, sit, fit, hit usually poses a problem as students may be inclined to pronounce them as leave, seat, feet, or heat.
How to fix it: Give them plenty of practice with these confusing word pairs: live-leave; sit-seat; fit-feet, hit-heat, etc… First say each and ask them if they can hear the difference. Next, repeat each set and have your students repeat. Be sure to either write the words on the board so they can see the difference in spelling or show them word cards. The more practice you give them, the better they’ll pronounce these words.
Confusing the “w” and the “v”
This is a typical pronunciation problem in some European nations. Some students have a hard time pronouncing the “w” sound. Water is pronounced as vater; west is pronounced as vest, and so on.
How to fix it: If you have students who have a hard time pronouncing the “w” show them how to round their mouths into an “o” and then un-round them to produce the right sound, like this.
Pronouncing the Magic “e”
Some students may have a hard time noticing the difference between words like not and note or bit and bite. They may be tempted to split them into syllables: no-te and bi-te.
How to fix it: Once again this is a problem that can be fixed by practicing word pairs. Help them notice that note is different from not in that it has the extra “e” but it’s still not pronounced. The effect of the magic “e” is that it changes the pronunciation of the word.
Pronouncing Silent Consonants
This is one of the problems I have personally encountered the most with native Spanish speakers. They sometimes tend to pronounce consonants that are silent, like the “d” in Wednesday or the “g” in foreign.
How to fix it: In my experience, fixing this problem is as easy as writing down the word on the board and crossing the silent letter out. It is very important for you to not only verbally correct the pronunciation and have them repeat, but also write it down. As many times as you have to.
Some of these mistakes are made more often by some students than others depending on their country of origin. As a pronunciation trainer, my job is to identify the mistakes students make, address them and help students to work on improving their overall pronunciation.
Please contact me to learn more about how you can improve your own pronunciation.