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What is good English pronunciation?

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

There are three levels of English pronunciation:

  • Level 1: People often don’t understand what you want to say. You use the wrong sounds in English words. (example)
  • Level 2: People can understand what you want to say, but they have to concentrate to understand you. (example)
  • Level 3: People can understand you easily. Your pronunciation is clear and pleasant. (example)

More about Level 3 (clear and pleasant pronunciation)

There are only two widely understood accents of English:

  1. General American (GenAm)
  2. Received Pronunciation (RP), spoken in Britain

If you speak GenAm or RP, you will be understood by native and non-native speakers of English from all parts of the world. GenAm and RP are used on TV, in movies and in English teaching materials — that’s why they are familiar to everyone. (Which one should you choose? Here’s some advice on that.)

It should be noted that not all native speakers of English speak GenAm or RP, and not all have Level 3 pronunciation. If you were born and raised in Scotland, you are likely to talk something like this. This accent would be easily understood by anyone in Scotland, and probably anyone in the UK, but not necessarily by an American — and certainly not by a non-native speaker of English. Speaking like that, you would probably have some difficulty communicating with an English speaker from Houston, Berlin or Seoul.

How close to GenAm or RP do you have to be?

Your pronunciation can be easy to understand even if you have a slight foreign accent. However, the truth is that every foreign feature in your pronunciation will make it a little harder to understand you because not everyone will be used to your foreign features. (Everyone is used to a GenAm/RP accent, but not everyone is used to a Russian or Spanish accent.) The less native-like your accent, the more frequently you will confuse your listeners, and the more frequently you will have to repeat yourself.

Here’s an interesting fact that I’ve noticed:

Native speakers (especially Americans) are pretty good at understanding a variety of foreign accents because they have to communicate with immigrants every day in their own country. So, a light Spanish or Chinese accent will not be a problem for an American.

Non-native English speakers are much less tolerant — if you speak English with a Chinese accent to someone from Germany or India, you will probably give them a very hard time!

Of course, not all pronunciation errors are equally bad. For example, it is not a big problem if you pronounce a few English sounds in a slightly non-native way. The worst errors are:

  • talking too fast because you think it sounds more native
  • skipping sounds (e.g. worl instead of world)
  • misplacing the stress (e.g. DEvelop instead of deVELop)
  • using the wrong sounds in a word, especially if the sounds are very different from the correct sounds (e.g. pronouncing determine so that it rhymes with mine or pronouncing target with a j sound)
  • confusing two different sounds (e.g. pronouncing slip and hit the same way as sleep and heat, pronouncing hope the same way as hop)