“I’ve been speaking English for years. I work hard to say my vowels and consonants correctly. Why are people still having trouble understanding me?”
This is a question I hear frequently. Believe it or not, even if you know how to say all the English consonants and vowels correctly, you still may not be speaking clearly. This is because there is more to understanding English than accurate vowels and consonants.
Research shows that the prosody of speech has a bigger impact on English pronunciation than individual speech sounds. What exactly is prosody? Prosody is the stress, intonation, and rhythm of a spoken language. The way you use these elements of speech will affect how well native English speakers understand you.
Here are 4 tips to improve your English pronunciation:
1. Understand that English is a stress-timed language.
This means that stressed syllables are longer and unstressed syllables are shorter. This is in contrast to languages, such as Cantonese, French or Spanish, that are syllable-timed, where each syllable is spoken with relatively equal length.
Keep in mind that native English speakers are not listening to every speech sound when someone speaks. They are listening for the word stress and pitch to let them know what information is important. If your stress and pitch differ too far from expectations, native English speakers will struggle to understand you.
2. Know which syllable to stress.
Every word in English that is two syllables or longer will have one syllable that receives the primary stress. Even if you say all the sounds in a word correctly, you will not be easily understood if you use incorrect word stress. As you learn new vocabulary words, memorize which syllable receives primary stress. Use online dictionaries to help you.
A commonly mispronounced word for non-native speakers is “development.” Often it sounds like this in a sentence, “It was a big devil UP mint.” All the sounds are correct but the meaning is lost because of incorrect syllable stress. The native English listener trying to figure out what you just said may be missing the next part of your message. Know the common words in your industry and every day life and make sure you stress them correctly (such as deVELopment) to improve your speech clarity.
3. Know which word to stress in a phrase.
Just as every word has a primary stress, every phrase has one word that receives the primary stress. Typically, the last word in a phrase that carries new information will be spoken louder, longer and with a different pitch than the other words in the phrase.
A native English speaker is listening for the word stress cue to understand your point. Other languages will use special words like “doch” in German, or “ga” or “wa” in Japanese to emphasize the main point. Some languages, such as Spanish, will change word-order to draw attention to the main idea. English depends on word stress to draw attention to the most relevant information. Without correct word stress your listener may not be paying attention to the point you want to make.
4. Use intonation to make your point.
Each dialect of English has slight variations on how intonation, or changing pitch, is used to convey a message. This description will address North American English (NAE) intonation patterns. In general, native speakers of NAE will use a falling pitch at the end of their phrase to indicate they have completed their thought. This helps with taking turns in conversation because the listener knows that it’s his turn to speak next.
Contrast this with some Indian languages that use a falling pitch right before they’re about to make their point. If they apply this rule to English they will probably find themselves interrupted often, which can become frustrating. It can also be confusing to their listeners since it seems like they only finished half a thought before signaling they were done.
NAE also uses a rising pitch to ask certain questions, make requests or indicate surprise. Phrases like “Will you be there?” “Are you serious?” or “Can you pass me the salt?” are typically spoken with a rising pitch. When a listener hears the rising pitch their expectation for the message changes.
In some Chinese dialects it’s considered polite to use a falling pitch to make a request. I had a client who said this would cause disagreements with her American husband because the falling pitch she used to make a request sounded to him like she was impatient with him. Her intention was to be polite but the pitch rules in English sent a different message.
Speak with clarity
Stress and intonation are as important as correct vowels and consonants to be understood when speaking English. Just a few changes to the way you speak may make all the difference. There are many ways to practice stress and intonation, including listening activities and speaking with native English speakers as often as possible. These skills can be tricky to develop on your own. To really make progress quickly, consider seeking out a qualified accent trainer who can explain clear speech techniques in ways that are easy to understand, and identify the areas you need to work on most.