Perfecting Pronunciation for the Test
Hair or hear? Pop or bop? Led or red? If you think those pairs of words are difficult to pronounce together, you’re like many of us. No matter how much we practice and study English, it can be really hard to improve pronunciation. Sometimes it’s trouble with a strong accent. Sometimes it’s particular sounds like ‘v’ and ‘f’, or ‘m’ and ‘n’. Other times it can be getting the word stress wrong. The point is, if others don’t understand your poor English pronunciation, your IELTS score is going to reflect this. So what are some ways to overcome this? Read below and I’ll tell you some successful tips that my IELTS students have used over the years.
Visualize your Speaking Muscles
Did you know that every time you speak you are exercising muscles? Many people never think about this. In fact, every sound you make requires a combination of muscles to make that sound. Muscles from your lips to your lungs, to your tongue, work together in specific ways to make specific sounds. For example, to make the ‘p’ sound you open your teeth slightly, give a short blast from your lungs, then let your lips make a popping sound. For a ‘z’ sound you give a steady stream of air, activate your vocal chords, touch the tip of your tongue behind your top teeth, then slightly open your teeth. Now read those sentences again and make the ‘p’ and ‘z’ sounds while you do it. Get the picture?
There are lots of great websites online that both explain and show diagrams for this. The sites describe each sound in the English language and will often have an audio example to go along with this. My suggestion is to watch and read while making the sound. Think about each muscle and movement used to make the sound. You should spend extra attention to sounds that are difficult for you.
As I said, there are a lot of excellent pronunciation websites. I suggest using some key search terms such as pronunciation; speech diagram; ESL articulation; English pronunciation muscles; and mouth muscles. Find one you like and start to visualize your pronunciation muscles!
Say it again, and again, and again…
If you studied English a few decades ago, your class probably included lots of repetition. The teacher said something, then you repeated it. You did this over and over until you were accurate. For many reasons, this method of teaching has become unpopular. That said, teachers and teaching tools in 2019 often ignore it. However, they shouldn’t! Although repetition might be boring and not help much with communication, it does help your pronunciation. Speaking a sound correctly, again and again, is just like training in sport. The more you do it, the more accurate and confident you will be. So, find a place where you can make some noise and start repeating the target English that you are studying.
Saturday Night Homework anyone?
This tip is my all-time favourite for improving pronunciation. It is based on a simple fact – singing songs helps us speak more clearly. Not only does singing give us lots of practice with spoken grammar and spoken vocabulary, but it adds emotion and correct pronunciation to our English. A common problem for students is ‘lifeless’ or ‘dull’ language. When they speak, they sound like a robot – flat and boring. Contrarily, when you sing, the key words are stated with passion and are pronounced so people can hear them clearly. Is that enough reasons for you to start singing in English? What are you doing this Saturday? I hope it’s KARAOKE!
Researching your Mother Tongue
If you don’t know this one, I suggest you do a little research. A well-known fact is that languages are not equal. Different languages have different word order, different grammar, different idioms, and different phrases. Not only that, but no two languages have exactly the same sounds either.
So what does this mean? It means that in order to speak clear English, you need to also learn some new sounds. For example, in Japan, the ‘l’ and the ‘r’ sound are the same, so they can’t tell the difference between ‘ball’ and ‘bar’. In Arabic, the ‘p’ sound and the ‘b’ sound aren’t differentiated. Consequently, many Arabic speakers will have trouble telling the difference between ‘pouring’ and ‘boring’. Do you know the troublesome sounds in English for speakers of your language? Time to find out!
Everybody knows this one, but I feel the need to repeat it. Speak up! Remember that every time you don’t use your English is a missed opportunity. Try it on the bus. Try it with your classmates. Join a club where people speak English. Hang out in a café and have an English discussion. Remember, English is a global language, with a little perseverance, you can always find some people to chat with. What are you waiting for?
So there you have it. Five awesome ways to tackle that challenge of clear pronunciation. Not every tip will work for every person, but with continued focus, a smart approach, and lots of practice, you’ll get there. Best of luck on test day and keep it clear!