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Learn to pronounce English words as soon as possible

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Guessing can damage your pronunciation

In another article, I’ve explained how speaking and writing with mistakes can damage your English. Here’s how it works in the case of pronunciation:

Suppose you want to say the word determine. Only, you don’t know how to pronounce it, so you take a guess — DEE-tur-mine, to rhyme with mine. That is a mistake (the correct pronunciation is /dɪˈtɜːʳmɪn/), but you don’t know that, so you say it again and again, until it becomes natural for you. Whoops — you’ve developed a “bad habit”!

Because English pronunciation is unpredictable, guessing is a terrible strategy. It often leads to errors, which lead to bad habits. If you guess, you can teach yourself the wrong pronunciation of hundreds of words. Even if you learn the correct pronunciation later, the wrong pronunciation can be difficult to eliminate, because you’ve repeated it so many times.

European schools are full of people who mispronounce something every time they open their mouth. The reason is always the same: they think they can guess how to pronounce English words.

You may think that when you make a mistake, somebody will correct you, so you won’t form a bad habit. But in reality, you can’t count on that. Correcting someone’s mistakes takes not only great English skills, but also time and effort. It’s really hard to find someone who would be willing to correct all your written and spoken sentences.

Bad habits can appear not only when you’re speaking with mistakes — they can also form during other activities. The worst one is probably reading aloud. If you read English texts aloud, but you don’t know the correct pronunciation, you will surely form bad pronunciation habits.

“Normal” reading can also be risky. People sometimes pronounce sentences in their head while they’re reading. If they don’t know the correct pronunciation, they will make mistakes.

That is why, in an ideal world, you would learn pronunciation before you started to read in English.

How to avoid forming bad habits

The longer you ignore pronunciation, the more bad habits you will form. So the solution is pretty obvious: learn to pronounce English words as soon as possible.

How to learn to pronounce English words

  1. Learn to recognize all the English sounds and learn their IPA symbols. Recognition is important because it lets you learn the pronunciations of words from spoken English. Suppose you’re listening to a podcast and you hear the word dock. In order to remember the pronunciation correctly, you need to realize that you just heard /dɒk/ and not /dʌk/. You can’t do this if you can’t tell the difference between /ɒ/ and /ʌ/. You can’t learn English pronunciation if you can’t tell the difference between English sounds, just like you can’t learn spelling if you can’t tell the difference between letters.
  2. Get in the habit of checking the pronunciation of English words in a dictionary.

    • When you’re speaking and you’re not 100% sure how to pronounce something, don’t guess — if possible, check the correct pronunciation before you say it. If not, then at least check it soon afterwards.
    • While you’re reading in English, keep asking yourself: “Do I know how this word is pronounced? Can I transcribe it with phonetic symbols?”. If you’re not sure, look it up in a dictionary. This should happen very frequently when you’re a pronunciation beginner.

    You have to be a little obsessive, especially in the beginning. Remember that English pronunciation is unpredictable. Don’t think you just have to check the “difficult” words like determine or process. Common English words can have very surprising pronunciations.

  3. Listen and notice. Get some spoken input: TV, podcasts, movies, audiobooks, recordings in dictionaries, etc. When listening, pay attention to how sounds and words are pronounced. Think about what sounds you hear.
  4. Practice pronouncing English words from time to time. Practice can take many forms. You can practice in a systematic way (e.g. a 15-minute session with a dictionary or online pronunciation exercises), or you can just repeat a couple words while you’re doing something else (e.g. watching a movie or taking a shower). The important thing is to do it regularly — that way, you will make steady progress.

Getting it right in your head

It can take months or even years before your brain gets used to new sounds. In the beginning, you probably won’t be able to produce a perfect /r/ or make a clear distinction between /eə/ (where) and /ɜː/ (were), to take just two examples.

It is certainly important to pronounce English sounds clearly. If you don’t, people will have difficulty understanding you. But it is far more important to “get it right in your head”.

What do I mean by “getting it right in your head”? When you say an English word, you should know how it should be pronounced, i.e. what sounds you are trying to pronounce, even if you can’t actually pronounce them very well. For example, when you say full, you should know you are trying to say the same /ʊ/ sound that is used in put or could, and you should know that it is a different sound than the one in rude or school. You should know that it should sound different than /u:/ (rude), even if it sounds the same coming out of your mouth.

Why is it more important to “get it right in your head” than to produce the sounds correctly? English has 44 sounds: even if you mispronounce every single one, that’s only 44 mistakes. Fixing 44 mistakes is a problem, but it is not a huge problem. Eventually, you will get better at producing the sounds, and your pronunciation will get good.

It is far worse if you don’t know how English words should be pronounced — for example, if you mistakenly think that museum is stressed on the first syllable (MUseum instead of muSEum) or that desperate rhymes with rate. In that case, you may have hundreds of mistakes to deal with! Fixing such a mess could take you a very long time.

So your first goal in learning English pronunciation should be to “get it right in your head”. First, learn to recognize all the English sounds. Second, learn which sounds occur in which words, even if you can’t pronounce them very well yourself. If your knowledge is right, your physical skills will surely follow.