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Pronunciation Secrets for Non-native English Speakers
Communicating with Native English Speakersby Dr. Dilip Abayasekara, Ph.D., A.S.
A Rope Lesson All I needed was a piece of rope from the local hardware store. That’s a very simple assignment, right? Oh, by the way, did I tell you that I’m a non-native English speaker?
I was a foreign student in the United States, but I was confident of my command of the English language. Why should I not be? I had studied English as a second language in my native country, I had absorbed correct English grammar from my parents who had had “British English” educations, I had placed in the 99th percentile of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, and had earned grades of ‘A’ in my English courses in my first year of college in the US.
Since I didn’t know the layout of the hardware store and I was in a hurry, when I entered the store I went straight to the counter and asked the clerk, “In which aisle is the rope?” The clerk looked at me intently and asked, “What?” I repeated, “Where can I find some rope?” The man gave me a puzzled look and said, “I’m sorry I don’t know what you mean.” Feeling frustration welling up in me and mystified why this man could not understand a simple word like “rope,” I raised my voice and said, “Rope, rope!” The clerk shook his head, gave me a quizzical look, and turned both palms upward – the universal sign that he had no idea what I was talking about. With an explosion of impatience, I grabbed a piece of paper from the counter top and wrote on it, ROPE, and thrust it under the man’s face. Suddenly an enlightened look came upon him, and he said, “Oh, you mean rope!” I exclaimed, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying!” Although I didn’t realize it then, this was a classic case of a non-native English speaker mispronouncing a simple word so that no effective communication could take place with a native-American English speaker. The “rope lesson” taught me that knowing correct grammar is no guarantee that one‘s speech will be understood; proper pronunciation of words is essential for communication to take place.
Years later, when I was coached by a speech pathologist, I understood that the above frustrating incident was caused by my being unaware of the mysteries of the ‘diphthong.’ We will look at the “diphthong’ later in this article.
The Cost of MiscommunicationEveryday, millions of conversations like the one above take place. Many such communications result in misunderstanding leading to frustration and inefficiency. Such floundering communications can lead to loss of time, loss of money, and loss of goodwill. Even more significant, in life and death situations such as calls to emergency personnel, such communication failures can be life-threatening. This article is titled, “Pronunciation Secrets” because although the principles I cite are not secrets, they are generally not known to millions of non-native English speakers. If these “secrets” are applied, better communication and related benefits will result.
Surveying the world landscape, such conversations can be expected to increase. As the world becomes smaller due to the technology revolution, world trade, and easier travel among countries, the English language has emerged as the language of choice to bridge communication among people of different nationalities.
In the United States, immigration has made America more diverse than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey, a language other than English is spoken by 19.41% of the entire U.S. Population and 84.1% of the foreign-born U.S. population. In total number of households, 82.1% speak English only and 17.9% speak other languages besides English.
Although I couldn’t find any studies showing the relationship between English proficiency and life success in the USA, there is a significant body of work that shows a direct relationship between English language proficiency and success in academics and social skills. These studies cover the gamut between elementary school education and medical school for international students. While personal characteristics such as commitment, dedication, responsibility, intelligence, integrity, and capacity for hard work obviously play a significant role in professional success, it makes sense that language proficiency would also positively affect one’s professional success and ability to integrate oneself into a predominantly English speaking society.
So let’s address some fundamental principles that would enable more effective communication for non-native English speakers.
Clarity is more important than accentSome non-native English speakers think that in order to be better understood, they need to lose their accent and adopt the accent of the native English speakers around them. This is arduous and unnecessary. My feeling about my native Sri Lankan accent is that it is part of who I am. In fact, I have often been told by listeners that my accent coupled with my deep baritone voice has a charm that makes them want to listen to me. What is really important is that we speak with clarity so that the listeners understand every word we say. Quite often, it is the way English words are pronounced that interferes with communication, not the grammar or other aspects of the language itself. It is toward that end that this article is written – so that we engage in clear and effective communication using proper pronunciation techniques without having to resort to artificial accents. Keep in mind that your pronunciation does not have to be exactly the same as that of native speakers, as long as it is clear and easy to understand.
The Music of LanguageErin Corrigan, an expert in pronunciation and accent reduction states something for all language aficionados to appreciate in his paper, Music 101: The Key to Pronunciation and Accent Reduction. He says, “The trick to speaking English with clarity and impact is understanding the melody and rhythm that is specific to English, but differs in other languages. Therefore, without the music of the English language, pronunciation is a mistake.”
You may have noticed that some immigrants pronounce English with relative ease, while other immigrants struggle with being understood. The reason for this is that some languages, such as Spanish, share the romance roots of English and other languages do not. The “music” of the Spanish language is similar to that of English, and so, once the basics of the language are understood, Hispanic speakers of English are generally easy to understand. This is not usually so for non-native English speakers from Asia, Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. So if your native language has an entirely different rhythm and melody than that of English, you’d expect to work harder at learning the “music” of the English language.
Pronunciation PrinciplesThe three main components of pronunciation are sounds, word stress, and intonation. Command of these three will allow the non-native speaker to communicate clearly.
SoundsPronunciation refers to the way you produce individual sounds and combinations of sounds. These sounds are produced by correctly moving your articulators -- your mouth, your tongue, your lips, your teeth and the roof of your mouth. If you are a non-native English speaker, the way you tend to sound out some consonants and vowels may be different from the way Standard English sounds are pronounced. Listen carefully to the correct pronunciation of the sounds, tape the sounds and/or write them down, and practice them. Later in this article we will discuss the way to sound out some commonly mispronounced consonants -- V, W, and R.
Written English has 26 letters in the alphabet. However, in spoken English, there are approximately 44 sounds, composed of 24 consonants and 20 vowel sounds. These sounds are called phonemes. The phonemic alphabet has 44 characters to represent these sounds. A good resource for proper pronunciation is a good dictionary. Most dictionaries show phonetic transcriptions of words to indicate the correct way to pronounce words. To show that what is written are phonemes and not letters, phonemic transcriptions are written between forward slashes, //. For example, ‘Pet’ is written /pet/.
Diphthongs – The Special Case of Gliding VowelsWith my Asian-English background, one of the most important discoveries I made in my quest to be clearly understood by an American audience was the use of diphthongs. One of the clearest definitions I found for a diphthong was in Wikipedia: “A monosyllabic vowel combination involving a quick but smooth movement from one vowel to another… While “pure” vowels, or monophthongs, are said to have one target tongue position, diphthongs have two target positions.” In other words, a diphthong is the coming together of two vowel sounds in a single word. Remember my opening story about the frustration I felt in trying to get a hardware store clerk to understand me when I said the word “rope?” The word rope has a diphthong. In the word rope, the vowel ‘o’ is actually pronounced as “ou,” a combination of “oh” and “ooo” sounds. So the native English speaking ear expects to hear “roup.” When I pronounced the word rope just the way it is written, the clerk was hearing “rop.” No wonder the man couldn’t understand me!
The diphthongs are identified by the two vowels which they contain. In Diphthongs as Moving Vowels (Google) American English is cited as having six diphthongs: 1, aI Example: five 2. ei Example: save 3. >I Example: boy 4. oU Example: go 5. aU Example: how 6. iU Example: few
British English has a couple more diphthongs than American English in vowel sounds. Some languages have diphthongs and others do not. What’s important to keep in mind for non-native English speakers is that many English words have diphthongs hidden in them, and if you want to be understood, you need to sound out the diphthongs.
Here’s a short quiz. Pronounce: a) Motor b) Baby c) Cow d) Potato e) Pew
The correct pronunciation for the above words, if written out, would be: a) Mouter (oU diphthong) – Start vowel with “oh” and quickly shift to “ooo” sound. b) Beiby (ei diphthong) – Start vowel with “eh” and quickly shift to “ee” sound. c) Cauw (aU diphthong) – Start vowel with “ah” and quickly shift to “ooo” sound. d) Potaito (aI diphthong; emphasis on “tai”) – Start with “ay” and quickly shift to “ee” sound. e) Piu (iU diphthong) – Start vowel with “ee” sound and quickly shift to “ooo” sound.
If the above words are pronounced without the diphthong, they will sound like the following to the American ear: a) Motar b) Bebe c) Cou d) Poteto e) Piw
There is no simple way to know where diphthongs lurk in English words. Native English speakers seem to know this by having grown up with the music of the language. For a non-native speaker, this knowledge comes only by applying oneself to learn the sounds of the language. Listening carefully to how native English speakers sound out words and sentences, practicing speaking, working with mentors, and challenging yourself to continuously improve are ways to master the art of effective communication in English.
Word StressIn English, certain syllables are stressed when sounding out words and certain words are stressed when speaking sentences. In my experience, the most common error that non-native English speakers commit is to put the emphasis on the wrong syllables or on the wrong words. In words of more than one syllable, one syllable will be more heavily stressed than the others, so that those sounds jump out to the listener (E.g., biology, where the stress is put on “ol” and not on “bi”). The syllable that is stressed is said to carry the primary stress. If the word stress pattern is changed, many native English speakers will not understand what is being said. In words which have more than two syllables, other syllables may carry secondary stress. For example, the word, “receive” is pronounced receive, with the primary stress on “ei” and secondary stress on “re.” The key is to recognize where to put the primary stress. For example, desert, dessert, and dissecting. If you put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, listeners are likely to misunderstand what you say. At the least, they may be puzzled. That is why, in my early days in the U.S., when, after dinner at a restaurant, I mentioned that I was ready for dessert, my American dinner companions looked at me quizzically. We all laughed when my friends explained to me that the way I said the word, it sounded like I was ready to eat sand from the Sahara!
To further complicate matters for non-native speakers of English, the primary stress can change between words derived from the same base (e.g., evaluate, evaluation). If your native language has a word stress pattern that is unlike English, you will need to pay particular attention to word stress. For example, because this is so for my native language of Sinhalese, I have a tendency to stress the first syllable of multi-syllable English words. Native speakers of Tagalog – the main language in the Philippines – tend to stress the second syllable. If you stress a word incorrectly, it can be very difficult for a native English speaker to understand you. So when you learn how to pronounce a word, also learn where to put the primary stress. A good dictionary and/or a mentor will be extremely helpful to you.
IntonationVariation in pitch when speaking is called intonation. Whether the voice rises or falls or remains flat depends upon the meaning, and especially the feeling the speaker wants to convey. For example, there are specific intonation patterns for expressing surprise, boredom, irony, delight, and sadness. The intonation pattern is different whether you are making a statement or asking a question. The English language has standard patterns of intonation for the various meanings you desire to give to your communication.
An excellent resource for learning English intonation is found at www.americanaccent.com/intonation.htm. It states, “Generally speaking, if English is not your first language, this is where you start running into difficulty. Even if you pronounce each word clearly, if your intonation patterns are non-standard, your meaning will probably not be clear.” The above web site gives examples and explanations for Standard English intonation patterns which can be very helpful for non-native English speakers.
How to Sound Out Words with Three Troublesome ConsonantsAs I mentioned earlier, my native language is Sinhalese. The roots of the Sinhalese language are Sanskrit and Pali, two ancient Indian languages. The languages of people from South Asia do not share the roots of the English language and, therefore, have stress patterns that are different. Even though an immigrant may lose fluency in his native tongue (as I have), the stress and intonation patterns that he has mentally ingrained cannot be easily changed. The way sounds are formed by the articulators (tongue, lips, etc.) are also different. Furthermore, some languages don’t have all the consonant and vowel sounds of English. So it should not be a surprise that certain sounds are a challenge for non-native English speakers. Let’s consider three of the most commonly mispronounced consonant sounds. They are V, W, and R. Try making the following sounds in front of a mirror.
The ‘V’ Sound Bring your lower lip up to touch the bottom of your upper teeth and as you utter the sound, move your lower lip forward. Sound out the following words: Victor Victim Vanquished Vanish Varnish
The ‘W’ Sound Start with your lips forward as if you are about to whistle. As you utter the sound, your lips open up and move back. Note that there is no contact between the lower lip and the teeth. Speak the following words: Wonder Willow Warts Wild Weary
Now try these tongue twisters. Focus on making the correct sounds for the words with ‘V’ and ‘W.’ · What worrisome vanity would a woman want vainly? · I wondered why Wanda waited for Walter while Willie went for water. · Vast wastelands will abound if water is wasted in the valleys. · A warrior honors valor as a worthy value. · The wheel of destiny wobbled when Victor Watson warmed up to Vicky Wilson.
If your native language does not differentiate between the “v” sound and the “w” sound, chances are that you will find that you have to think ahead to differentiate words with ‘v’ or words with ‘w’ before you actually say them. You will have to consciously form your lips to conform to the proper sound. Eternal vigilance is the price you pay for freedom as well clarity of communication!
The ‘R’ SoundA very useful site for information about pronunciation is www.pronunciationworkshop.com . I found the following information about the ‘R” sound at the above website, which offers spoken English skills through a DVD program and/or telephone training that is designed and delivered by speech pathologist Paul Gruber. Gruber says that the ‘R’ sound is one of the main reasons why many non-native American English speakers are misunderstood.
In making the ‘R’ sound, in Spanish, Arabic, and many south Asian languages, the tongue is placed right behind the upper teeth and is trilled. In German and French, the ‘R’ sound is produced at the back of the throat. Gruber points out that in American English, the ‘R’ sound is produced as follows: Start with the mouth and lips coming slightly forward (as if saying “ooo”). As you utter the sound, the tongue moves back. Practice the following words: Row, row, row your boat Raise Roast Rap Root
Practical Exercises Spoken English has been described as a stress-timed language. This means that clarity of speech depends a great deal on stressing the correct words the correct way and using intonation consistent with the intonation patterns of the native users of the language. If English is not your first language, you know that this is not easy to master. But the rewards of well-understood speech are huge. Those rewards include being more effective, using time more efficiently, being more influential, being seen as more capable, better relationships, leadership opportunities, and better customer service. Whether you work in sales, in management, in engineering, in science and technology, in a call center, or as an entrepreneur, being understood and connecting with your listeners is a vital ingredient to your success. Your accent can be an asset as long as your speech is clear and understandable. Following are five practices that non-native English speakers can do to sharpen their spoken language skills.
1. ListenMy speech coach told me that her intention was to teach me to listen to the speech patterns of American English speakers so that I could continue my speech education by teaching myself. As a result of her success as a teacher and coach, I continue to learn and improve; building on the foundation she laid for me. Listening requires attention and energy, but the dividends on this investment are great and can last for a lifetime.
Listen to good speakers of English at live programs, on TV, on tapes, and at various functions. Note how they stress certain words, how they use diphthongs, and the intonation of their sentences.
2. Join ToastmastersToastmasters International is the world’s leading volunteer organization dedicated to helping people develop communication and leadership skills. The program is delivered in clubs or chapters composed usually of 20-40 members. There are more than 11,000 clubs in more than 90 countries. Find a club near you by visiting www.Toastmasters.org. There is no obligation to join if you visit a club. I can vouch for the fact that the opportunities that Toastmasters gave me were the most influential factors in accelerating the development of my English speaking skills. I have seen this to be so among many Toastmasters from many different ethnic backgrounds.
3. Find a Mentor and/or CoachLook for a speaker of English who has a good command of the spoken language and who is willing to work with you one-on-one to improve your pronunciation and intonation patterns. I was fortunate to find such a mentor in a Toastmasters club to which I belonged. I asked my mentor to write down any word that I mispronounced during a meeting. After each meeting, I would meet privately with my mentor and she would explain to me how to pronounce the “problem words.” Then I would practice saying the words or sentences until she felt that I had mastered the pronunciation or intonation. If you can find such a mentor, this would be a huge boost to your progress.
In order to accelerate my ability to speak so that American listeners would understand every word I said, I also hired a speech coach. My coach had a master’s degree in speech communication and a master’s degree in speech pathology. My coach’s knowledge and skill as a speech pathologist enabled her to show me how to use my tongue, lips, and other articulators to form sounds that were consistent with the expectations of native American English speakers. Nowadays, there are programs designed by speech pathologists that are available on the internet. There is an old saying that “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” A speech pathologist can help you discover that “perfect” sound.
4. Read Aloud and Tape Your VoiceTape recorders or digital voice recorders are extremely useful tools to help you improve your speaking skills. Record yourself speaking and then play it back to listen to how your words sound to a listener. Ask a friend/mentor to listen to your voice and help you improve your pronunciation.
In order to understand the rhythm of English, some of the best materials to read are rhymed poems. You not only can improve the music of your speech, you also can receive a great deal of enjoyment.
5. Speak Every Chance You GetDon’t let your growing knowledge of spoken English be merely theoretical. You don’t “own” that knowledge until you can put it into practice. So speak, speak, and speak every chance you get. Volunteer to give talks, make presentations, and convey information at meetings. As you do this, you will discover that your competence and confidence to speak clearly and effectively will increase.
The major tools for the non-native English speaker I have shared in this article are sounds, word stress, diphthongs, and intonation. I hope that you will now make these fundamental principles your own by putting them into practice. You will then be on the road to mastering clear communication and receiving the numerous benefits that will result!
Pronouncing Dictionaries and Audio CDs: · A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English by John Samuel Kenyon and Thomas Albert Knott. · Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th Edition) by P. Roach et al Eds. Cambridge University Press, 2006. · English Pronouncing Dictionary (17th Ed.) (with CD-ROM) by Daniel Jones. · Pronounce it Perfectly in English with Audio CDs (Audio CD) by Jean Yates.