Your Pronunciation by Training Your Ears
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Improve Your Pronunciation by
Training Your Ears
From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.
Many English learners work hard to improve their
If you are not making as much progress as you'd hoped,
you are not alone. You may be surprised to know that a
number of teachers do not know how to effectively teach
Judy Gilbert is a pronunciation expert. She has written
many books on the subject.
A few years ago, Gilbert gave a talk at the New School,
a private university in New York City. She explained
that, for the past 50 years, most English language
teachers have not been trained to teach pronunciation.
For years, teachers mainly demonstrated the
pronunciation of individual sounds, such as the "wh"
sound in the word "what." But individual sounds are only
one part of pronunciation, as we noted in an earlier
Education Tips story. Other elements include rhythm,
intonation, and stress – the loudness you give to part
or all of a word or words.
These qualities together make up the system of spoken
English. In everyday speech, some words and sounds are
almost always pronounced fully and clearly, while others
are reduced and less clear.
William Stout teaches English as Foreign Language at
Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He has been
leading pronunciation workshops for 10 years.
He says the goal in improving your pronunciation should
be communicating to be easily understood, not removing
your accent, which is often difficult or impossible.
Learning how to listen
Stout says one of the most important things you can do
to improve your pronunciation is to learn how to listen
to English effectively. And, a big part of doing this is
to recognize and understand reduced English words when
you hear them.
Stout says his pronunciation workshops mainly center on
training his students' ears to listen for these things.
"Someone might say, 'What do you want to get him for his
birthday?' And in this case, even beginner students can
usually hear the content words -- what, get, birthday –
and they can guess the meaning. But the words in between
And you can hear how some words join together to sound
almost like one word. For example, the words "get him"
sound like "geddum." The letter "h" in "him" disappears
and the vowel sound in that word is shortened. And the
letter "t" in "get" changes to a "d" sound.
In everyday speech, some words are almost always
reduced. These words can include pronouns, helping verbs
(such as "can" or "do"), conjunctions, articles and
Other parts of speech are almost always pronounced
clearly, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.
Stout says that knowing these rules can help you train
your ears more effectively. And, this can help you
reproduce the sounds of everyday English speech so that
you are more easily understood.
Using songs, limericks, and jazz
Stout enjoys using songs and song-like material in his
classes. These things reproduce the natural rhythm,
intonation, and stress of conversational English.
Listening to songs, says Stout, can help speed up your
"I think songs are a nice way to practice and I've found
that students who like to sing in English generally
improve their pronunciation very quickly."
In class, he plays a song or other example of natural
speech, and asks students to write down what they hear.
Then, the class talks about which words were reduced and
Listen for reduced words and sounds in this limerick:
There was an old man from Tarentum
Who ground his false teeth ‘til he bent them.
When they asked him the cost
Of what he had lost,
He said, “I can’t say, 'cuz I rent them.”
Did you notice the reductions? There are many. One
example is the dropped "h" in the pronouns "his," "him"
and "he." Note that the word "'til" means "until" and "'cuz"
means "because." In English conversation, Americans
often shorten the words just as the limerick does.
Stout also uses jazz chants, a method popularized by
book author and songwriter Carolyn Graham.
Listen for the stressed words in this jazz chant:
Where does John live?
He lives near the bank.
Where does he work?
He works at the bank.
When does he work?
He works all day and he works all night.
It's a bank. It's a bank. It's a great, big bank.
Here are two suggestions for using these methods.
Tip #1: Start now
William Stout says as you listen to fast-paced English
in songs, films, and other natural speech, try to notice
all of the words that are reduced. Then….
"…work on imitating just one phrase or a sentence
several times. But my main advice is not to wait. And
you can improve your pronunciation at all levels of
proficiency…and the sooner you start to notice the
patterns of English pronunciation, the sooner you're
going to improve. And, that way, you don't develop bad
pronunciation habits that are hard to change over time."
Tip #2: Take chances
Stout advises that you let go of the fear of not
sounding like "yourself" when you're practicing English
"A big part of how we define ourselves, a big part of
our identity, is in the way we talk, the way we sound.
But, sometimes, we just need to take on a new
personality in the way we speak in a different language
and we should just take chances. I think that's an
important aspect is being willing to take chances and
sound different to yourself."
And again, improving your pronunciation is not about
completely removing your accent.
"I find that most Americans like to hear an accent – so
long as they can easily understand what the person is
Remember, the goal is to be understood – not to sound
like a native English speaker.
I'm Phil Dierking.
And I'm Alice Bryant.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English.
George Grow was the editor.
Which words in the limerick are reduced? Which words in
the jazz chant are stressed? Write your answers in the
Facebook comments section below.
Words in This Story
pronunciation - n.
the way in which words are said
- n. a regular,
repeated pattern of sounds or movements
intonation - n.
the rise and fall in the sound of your voice when
- n. the ideas, facts,
or images that are in a book, article, speech,
- v. to crush or break
something into very small pieces by rubbing it
against a rough surface or using a special machine
- v. to use force to
cause something to become curved
- n. the regular and
repeated way in which something happens or is done
- n. something that a
person does often in a regular and repeated way
- n. a part of
- n. a way in which a
group of people says a word or words