Thursday, February 22, 2007
How to improve your pronunciation
This week ESL Pro Systems is offering our readers a number of tips and strategies for improving one of the most difficult areas of the English language- pronunciation. Here are some self-study tips and strategies you may want to try.
Word stress is the key to understanding spoken English. English is considered a stress-timed language, which means certain syllables receive more stress than others while the other non-stressed words are quickly glided over. Native speakers of English use word stress naturally. It’s so natural for them that they don't even know they use it. Word stress is not used in all languages. Some languages, Japanese or French for example, pronounce each syllable with e-qual em-pha-sis. So, non-native speakers who don’t use correct word stress often encounter two problems:
1.They find it difficult to understand native speakers, especially those speaking fast.
2.The native speakers may, in turn, find it difficult to understand the non-native speakers.
So, what exactly is ‘word stress’? Native speakers of English do not say each syllable with the same force or strength. In one word, they accentuate ONE syllable. They say one syllable loudly and clearly and all the other syllables more quietly.
Let's take 3 words: photograph, photographer, and photographic. Do they sound the same when spoken? No. Here’s why:
PHO to graph
pho TO graph er
pho to GRA phic
ONE syllable in each word is stressed more than the others. And it is not always the same syllable. This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: TEAcher, JaPAN, CAnada, aBOVE, converSAtion, INteresting, imPORtant, deMAND, etCETera, etCETera, etCETera.
The syllables that are not stressed are ‘weak’ or ‘small’ or ‘quiet’. Native speakers of English listen for the STRESSED syllables, not the weak syllables. If you use accurate word stress in your speech, you will instantly improve both your pronunciation and your comprehension.
Try to hear the stress in individual words each time you listen to English - on the radio, or in films for example. Your first step is to HEAR and recognize it. After that, you can USE it!
When you learn a new word, you should also learn its stress pattern. If you keep a vocabulary book, make a note to show which syllable is stressed. If you do not know, you can look in a learner’s dictionary. All good learner dictionaries give the phonetic spelling of a word. This is where they show which syllable is stressed, usually with an apostrophe (') just before or just after the stressed syllable.
In addition to word stress, you also have to use correct sentence stress to sound like a native speaker.
As a general rule,
▪ stressed words in a sentence are considered content words. These include nouns (e.g. kitchen, Peter), (most) main verbs (e.g. visit, construct), adjectives (e.g. beautiful, interesting), and adverbs (e.g. often, carefully).
▪ non-stressed words are considered function words. These include determiners (e.g.: the, a, an), auxiliary verbs (e.g.: is, am, were), prepositions( e.g.: before, of, in), conjunctions (e.g.: but, and, so), and pronouns (e.g.: they, she, he)
Read the following sentence aloud:
The beautiful mountain appeared transfixed in the distance.
Now read this sentence aloud:
He can come on Saturdays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening.
Notice that the first sentence actually takes about the same time to speak well! Even though the second sentence is approximately 30% longer than the first, the sentences take the same time to speak. This is because there are five stressed words in each sentence.
Try this simple activity to practice using correct sentence stress:
Write down a few sentences, or take a few example sentences from a book or exercise. First, mark the word stress (check a good learner’s dictionary if you’re unsure), and then underline the stressed words in each sentence. After that, read aloud focusing on stressing the underlined words and gliding over the non-stressed words. If you do this regularly you’ll be surprised at how quickly your pronunciation will improve! By focusing on stressed words, non-stressed words and syllables take on their more muted nature.
When listening to native speakers, pay particular attention to how those speakers stress certain words and try to copy this when you speak.
1.Remember that non-stressed words and syllables are often "swallowed" in English.
2.Always focus on pronouncing stressed words well. Non-stressed words can be glided over.
3.Don't focus on pronouncing each word in a sentence with equal stress. Focus on the stressed words only.
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