10 Tips for Mastering Tricky English Pronunciation

Paying attention to pronunciation really pays off.

Focus on being clear, not on your accent.

1. Forget your accent-- at least for now.

Focusing on accent must not come ahead of the task of developing pronunciation skills for clear communication in English.

A focus on accent can take many forms such as acquiring a new one, simply reducing yours, or even struggling to retain your original accent so as not to lose this aspect of your identity when you speak English.

Good English language pronunciation does not mean losing your first language accent. Of course, you may inevitably "lose" your accent when making certain sounds because doing so will help you pronounce them correctly and be better understood more often. Focus on being understandable, not on your accent.

2. Learn to use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Irregular spelling is one of the downsides of learning the English language. Although any learner of any secondary language should learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, learners of English can benefit from it more than most. The International Phonetic Alphabet is used to transcribe sounds. Learners familiar with the IPA "see" the correct pronunciation of words even if they can't yet hear the subtler sounds.

Relax and accept that understanding every word you hear is not the goal in learning pronunciation.

3. Just listen--really listen--to us.

Sometimes learners quit listening because they become too frustrated. This is a huge mistake. Instead, relax and accept that understanding every word you hear is not the goal in learning pronunciation.

Of course, it is more challenging to pronounce words you've rarely or never heard or don't remember hearing. Your brain may not have enough information yet to allow you to hear these words in your head.

The importance of listening to speech cannot be underestimated. Think about it: Babies and very young children listen a lot before they ever speak. Of course, babies have more time to listen and less pressure to speak than we do; however, as much as possible, allow yourself that luxury.

Exercise to improve your listening accuracy: 5 Steps

a) Locate any audio-only, non-visual programming (with a transcript) that really interests you. Try podcasts or an audio book. You can also use the audio track of audio-visual programming.

b) First listen for a little while without trying to understand every word. Gather what you can.

c) Then choose just 30 seconds or less of constant speaking. Listen and re-listen.

d) When you feel ready to try, write what you heard.

e) Use the transcript to check your transcription for accuracy. Use a dictionary to learn each word's definition and how it is written in the IPA.

Although any learner of any secondary language should learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, learners of English benefit can from it more than most.

4. Learn minimal pairs using rhyme.

Minimal pairs are pairs of words which sound very much alike except for one subtle sound like "sit" and "set." Learning to pronounce these words correctly means first being able to hear the differences.

A shortcut to this is to use more familiar words that have same difficult sound. Words that rhyme with one or more syllable in the new word are especially useful for this.

For example: "Sit" rhymes with "it." "Set" rhymes with "met."

5. Watch our mouths then watch yours.

Watch the mouths of native speakers when we speak. Take advantage of videos online featuring detailed explanations of the position of the tongue and lips for English pronunciation. Use a mirror to correct the positions of your tongue and lips.

6. Go ahead. Mimic us.

Try this during your listening exercises. Even if you don't understand a phrase you hear, stop listening just for a moment and try mimicking the sounds. Pay special attention to which syllables and words are stressed as well as to the cadence or rhythm. It may help to mimic everything about the speaker including their attitude or gestures.

Do whatever helps even if it makes you feel ridiculous: your goal and how you will feel when you achieve it is far more important.

An exercise in exaggerated pronunciation is necessary to teach your mouth to make new sounds.

7. Exaggerate. Make practicing pronunciation fun--or funny.

To more rapidly develop useful second language speaking skills, you must be willing to look silly. One trick t