5 Easy Ways to Improve Pronunciation

Contributed by Erin Hendry, English Instructor, ILSC-San Francisco

Edited by Lacy Edney, Marketing and Social Media Coordinator, ILSC-San Francisco 

Pronunciation Practice Through Listening by Flickr user Michael Heigl

Listening and Mimicking by Flickr user Michael Heigl

One request that we often hear from our students of French, Spanish, Mandarin and Italian here at ILSC San Francisco is that they want know how they can improve their pronunciation. It’s a common problem for adult students because our mouths get less elastic as we grow older and our ears become less able to distinguish between sounds that we don’t have in our own language. But don’t lose hope! The good news is there are lots of ways to improve your pronunciation.

Here are 5 easy tips to help improve pronunciation. One word of warning – many of these tips involve acting silly, so it’s important to not worry about what your boyfriend/roommate/dog is thinking of you!

1. The mirror is your friend

One of the most important parts of correct pronunciation is the shape of your mouth and the position of your lips, teeth, and tongue. First, you need to know what the correct mouth shape looks like. There are a lot of videos on YouTube where the correct mouth positions are demonstrated. Here’s an example for French. Once you know what the correct mouth shape looks like, you need to find out if you are doing it correctly. To do this, sit in front of a mirror and watch your mouth to see if you are moving in the right way. Once you have the correct position, practice making the sound at least 20 times. You will feel very silly, but this is one of the best ways to improve.

2. Listen to yourself

This is something that people find very difficult, but it can be very helpful. To find out where are your trouble spots, it’s a great idea to record yourself and then listen to your own voice and hear the parts that are incorrect or not clear. It can be embarrassing to listen to your recorded voice but try to be objective and imagine that it’s a different person that you are listening to. If you don’t have a voice recorder or a microphone, you can call your own phone number and record yourself using your voice mail.

3. Be a parrot

Parrots learn to mimic the sounds of human speaking by repeating words and phrases over and over again. This is a great way for language learners to practice pronunciation, rhythm, and stress. When you are listening to a podcast or watching a movie in the language that you are learning, try to copy the exact rhythm of the speaker. Does their voice go up and down? Which part of the word or sentence do they emphasize? Is it a question or a statement of fact? The more that you practice copying the way that native speakers speak, the more it will come naturally when you are speaking. I recommend starting with something really funny or passionate so you can practice with extreme sounds. Try watching a soap opera or telenovela and mimic the surprise of the contessa when she finds out that her lover has been sneaking around with the maid who is also her long-lost sister.

4. Practice BIG!

Pronunciation and Enunciation by Flickr user Demi Brooke

Speaking out by Flickr user Demi Brooke

The key when you are practicing pronunciation is to make the sounds much bigger than normal. You have to exaggerate and enunciate the sounds. Open your mouth very big and make the sounds loudly and clearly. Another way to practice this way is with a friend who is learning the same language. Make the position with your mouth but don’t make any sound. If you make the position correctly, your friend should be able to guess the word or sound that you were trying to make.

5. Practice often

This is probably the hardest tip! To improve your pronunciation, you have to work hard and practice often. If you are serious about improving your pronunciation, it’s a good idea to make a routine. Focus on 1 or 2 sounds per week and use the different techniques here to practice. If you feel silly or self-conscious, find a place like a closet, bathroom, or other small room with a door to practice without being disturbed by others. Some people find that a glass of wine helps them to relax and not feel quite so weird. It’s a secret that really works, that’s why we always make sure that students have a glass of wine available in our small group language classes. If you follow these tips, your pronunciation will definitely improve. But remember, it isn’t necessary to lose your accent completely. It’s completely normal for people to have accents and it doesn’t make you look unintelligent (many people even think accents are sexy and exotic). So don’t worry about speaking just like a Brazilian or an Argentinian, the most important thing is that people understand you. After all, communication is what it’s all about, right? And if you want more in-person practice. Sign up for one of our Language Courses in San Francisco,MontrealVancouver, and Toronto!

Good luck!

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