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Why you should study English pronunciation

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

First impressions

Pronunciation is definitely the biggest thing that people notice when you are speaking English. Let me tell you a personal anecdote about this.

Michal and I once went to a conversation class taught by Americans. Before the class started, the teacher said to us: “So, do you speak good English?”. I replied “We think so”, and the guy said “It sure sounds like you do”.

Notice that I just said three words, and the teacher could already tell if my English was good or bad. Why did he think my English was good? It wasn’t because I used difficult words or advanced grammar structures. It was the way I pronounced English words.

When you talk to a person in real life, they may not notice your limited vocabulary or grammar mistakes. But they will notice right away if your pronunciation is good or bad. If your pronunciation is poor, they will think about you as the guy/girl who speaks bad English, and good grammar and vocabulary won’t help you!

Communication

Good pronunciation should be one of the first things that you learn in English. You can live without advanced vocabulary — you can use simple words to say what you want to say. You can live without advanced grammar — you can use simple grammar structures instead. But there is no such thing as “simple pronunciation”. If you don’t have good pronunciation, you have bad pronunciation.

And the consequences of bad pronunciation are tragic. Even if you use correct grammar, people may simply not understand what you want to say.

For example, if you pronounce sleep like this, and not like that, or if you pronounce ghost like this instead of this, native speakers will have serious problems understanding you! In my opinion, you should know how to say English sounds like the ee in sleep or the o in ghost, before you even learn words like sleep and ghost.

Here is an anecdote about this. After coming back from a vacation in the United States, a friend of mine said:

Whenever I spoke to a person in America, they kept asking me What? What? I would repeat my sentence again and again. Finally they would say Ah-ha! and then repeat my sentence, using exactly my words! It was very humiliating. I knew my words and grammar were good, but nobody would understand me, just because of my pronunciation. I am very motivated to learn English now.

Can you communicate in English?

Almost all English learners say “I don’t need to study pronunciation. I just want to communicate in English.” Many of them think that they can communicate in English because they can communicate with their teacher and other students.

Do not make this mistake! You have to remember that:

  • Your teacher has been listening to bad English for years. He or she can understand it much more easily than the average person.
  • Other students are usually from the same country as you. Therefore, they speak English like you and they make the same mistakes. So it is easy for them to understand you.

The only true test is: Go to America or Britain and try to talk to “normal people” — a clerk at a supermarket, a bus driver, etc. If they can understand you, then you can say that you can communicate in English.

Unfortunately, many learners ignore pronunciation. They can communicate in class, so they think that they are good enough. After a few years they go to England or the USA and... nobody understands what they are saying. Remember my friend who went on vacation to America and couldn’t communicate? He was the best student in his English class.

Communication is not enough

Michal wrote a short story to help learners understand the importance of good pronunciation.

If you can communicate in English with people from other countries, congratulations! It’s a big achievement. Now you should ask yourself two questions:

  • Is my English easy to understand?
  • Is my English pleasant to listen to?

Some people communicate successfully in English, but have a strong foreign accent. Although you can understand what they are saying, it is not easy. You have to listen to them really carefully, which takes effort. In addition, some foreign accents are simply unpleasant to listen to.

If you speak English with a strong foreign accent, you are making things difficult for people who listen to you. If understanding your English takes effort or your accent is unpleasant, people will avoid talking to you if they have the choice. Would you like to listen to zis speaker for 15 minutes? On the other hand, if you have a clear, pleasant accent, people will simply enjoy talking to you. They will want to spend time with you.

Further reading