|Improve Your Pronunciation by
Training Your Ears
Many English learners work hard to improve their pronunciation skills.
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 this skill.
Judy Gilbert is a pronunciation expert. She has written many books on
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
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 are reduced."
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 prepositions.
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 chants
Stout enjoys using songs and song-like material in his classes. These
things reproduce the natural rhythm, intonation, and stress of
Listening to songs, says Stout, can help speed up your progress.
"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
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 how.
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
Stout also uses jazz chants, a method popularized by book author and
songwriter Carolyn Graham.
Listen for the stressed words in this jazz
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
"…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 conversation.
"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
"I find that most Americans like to hear an accent – so long as they can
easily understand what the person is saying."
Remember, the goal is to be understood – not to sound like a native