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Get it right in your head

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

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 (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 from (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 idea is stressed on the first syllable (idea instead of idea) 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.