Pronunciation can be one of the most challenging aspects of learning a new language, but, if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, you can make real progress! When trying to master a new consonant or vowel, the three main steps are:
- Understand how the sound is made
- Listen carefully to how native speakers say it
- Practice it yourself and get feedback, especially by recording yourself
In this post, we’ll walk through an example pronunciation challenge and the steps required to deal with it.
Understand how the sound is made
Let’s say you have trouble with the “v” sound. You’re not the only one! Many of the most common languages in the world don’t have the same differences between “v”, “w”, and “b” as English does. Let’s look at the specifics. For systematic explanations on how to make each sound in English, check out this website. It can be tricky to understand some of these terms, but the diagrams do a good job of showing you how to make each sound.
To make a “v” sound, which is a voiced labiodental fricative, you need to put your teeth on your bottom lip (labiodental), make a humming sound (voiced), and blow air through your mouth (fricative).
Practice making this sound on its own, then try contrasting it with some other similar sounds, like “w” and “b”. Words that are pronounced the same except for one sound are called “minimal pairs,” and you can find a lot more here. Here are some good word pairs to use to practice:
- Vine Wine
- Veal Wheel
- Vow Wow
- Rover Rower
- Stove Stow
- Vote Boat
- Very Berry
- Veiled Bailed
- Have it Habit
- Curve Curb
Do you feel the difference? Do you think someone listening to you could tell the difference?
Listen carefully to how native speakers say it
Start with an online or app dictionary (my favorite is The Free Dictionary). Look up some words with the ‘v’ sound and click the audio button to hear how they say it. Try words with the sound in the beginning, middle, and end to get a full picture of the sound.
An easy way to do this is find video or audio with a transcript where you can read along with the speaker. TED Talks, National Public Radio, and CNN 10 are great sources for these.
For example, in her interesting and funny TED Talk “Why We Laugh” (YouTube Link, Transcript Link), Sophie Scott uses several important ‘v’ words (including “of”) in the first paragraph:
Listen to her carefully as you read along, especially to the “v” words.
Text: Hi. I’m going to talk to you today about laughter, and I just want to start by thinking about the first time I can ever remember noticing laughter. This is when I was a little girl. I would’ve been about six. And I came across my parents doing something unusual, where they were laughing. They were laughing very, very hard. They were lying on the floor laughing. They were screaming with laughter. I did not know what they were laughing at, but I wanted in. I wanted to be part of that, and I kind of sat around at the edge going, “Hoo hoo!” (Laughter) Now, incidentally, what they were laughing at was a song which people used to sing, which was based around signs in toilets on trains telling you what you could and could not do in toilets on trains. And the thing you have to remember about the English is, of course, we do have an immensely sophisticated sense of humor. (Laughter)
How did these words sound? Do they sound the same as how you pronounce them?
Practice it yourself and get feedback, especially by recording yourself
Now try recording yourself reading it, and then listen to it. You can use a Voice Memo app on your phone , or take a video with your camera. I know it’s uncomfortable to listen to yourself, but I bet you’ll notice something that you usually don’t notice when you talk! This is really important when you don’t have a teacher or native speaker to give you feedback. Practice it again and again until you hear that aspect improve.
When you listen to yourself, you will also notice other pronunciation issues that you never considered before. Make a list of new sounds to work on, and repeat this process for each one!