English Pronunciation: Measuring Improvements in Your Speech
Many students arrive for tutoring with only a basic idea that they want to improve their speaking skills. One student recently told me that she felt she had no idea what was happening at first and only realized the steps she had achieved after the accent had lessened. The voice is a subject that many people never study. In American schools, public speaking is an elective, and even then, the content is more important than the way a person speaks. So the question is: how do we measure improvements in speech?
Milestone 1: Sounds of Letters
Most people from other countries have several letters that they pronounce differently. The common ones are R, L, T, A, I, H, Th, V, and W. Also, the vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u) may not be clearly understood by spelling rules. Until these letters are pronounced clearly, there will always be some difficulty. In lessons, it is best to choose which letters need work and achieve results on these letters first. A little work on rhythm can be incorporated but is not the focus.
Milestone 2: Reading the Vowels
Once you are comfortable with vowel sounds, most people have to learn that Americans stress vowels more than consonants. If you think about how American English sounds smooth compared to British English or certain other languages, you will see that this is true. This milestone is simple but takes practice because you have to change a basic habit. You can achieve this by reading aloud every day.
Milestone 3: American Rhythm
Once you are reading the vowels, you are already part way there. To understand rhythm, you learn the rules about how we reduce some sounds, blend words together and stress one or two words in each phrase. Reducing and blending other words causes the stressed words to stand out more. This needs to be practiced with both reading aloud and in-practice conversation.
Milestone 4: Finishing Grammar
Some people have no trouble with written grammar, but difficulty with speaking correctly. The common problem points are verb tenses, the use of “a,” “an,” and “the,” and use of prepositions (in, on, at, for, behind, and so on). Studying rules for these small words and practicing using the rules with a teacher will perfect your speaking skills. However, you can study grammar throughout your pronunciation work. While you work on Milestones 1-3, you can practice by reading grammar rules and sentences aloud.
Milestone 5: Cultural Speech
There is still one more step. If you have not studied them already, it is useful to learn idioms. Idioms are colorful phrases/expressions that do not literally mean what they say. It is important to know idioms so that you can understand native speakers. For instance, “let’s give it a shot” has nothing to do with shooting anyone. If you heard that and did not know the idiom, it could confuse your understanding at that moment. You also sound more natural to native speakers when you use a few idioms–choose ones that feel natural to you and that match your personality. Beyond idioms, if you are a career person, study business culture. Every culture has ways for various people to interact together.
Milestone 6: I Lost My Accent: What Now?
If losing your accent troubles you because you feel detached from your culture, you can also get it back. After learning to speak with an American accent, you can learn other American dialects, the British accent, a Chinese accent–anything that seems fun! Soon you will understand that all accents are based on sound and rhythm. A few key sounds are pronounced differently, and there is a basic rhythmic pattern in every language. At that point, you will know how to speak with your old accent or with your new one, or with several new ones.
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