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Check the pronunciations of English words

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

In a previous article, I explained why English pronunciation is a minefield and why this means that 1 you have to be paranoid if you want to avoid picking up bad habits, and 2 you simply have to put a lot of pronunciations in your brain. What do these two conclusions mean in practice?

Check the pronunciation while (or after) speaking

Being paranoid when speaking English means: no guessing. If you’re not sure how to pronounce an English word, you shouldn’t try to guess its pronunciation. Don’t treat spelling as a guide – if you are a pronunciation beginner, and you think you know the pronunciation of a word because it’s spelled similarly to other words that you know, think again: English is full of nasty surprises. Finally, beware of words that you know well – basic words like were or pear, as well as “international” words like automatic, can have very surprising pronunciations. (More details on being paranoid)

The ideal way to avoid guessing is to check the correct pronunciation before you say the word. When you’re talking with a native speaker (or someone who is good at English pronunciation), you can simply ask them: how do you pronounce this word? It is very important to ask them directly because native speakers have a tendency to ignore mistakes made by foreigners.

When you’re talking with a less competent speaker, you have two choices. The best choice is to say wait a minute, take out a dictionary, and look up the word. (If you can do that, you are truly a hard-core English learner and I tip my hat to you.) You can also try to “talk around” the problematic word — express the same meaning with some other word or phrase that you know how to pronounce.

If you are forced to guess the pronunciation, at least make a mental (or real) note of the word, and check it after the conversation. Even if you mispronounced the word this time, you can make sure you say it correctly next time.

Check the pronunciation while reading

Here’s one good way to put a lot of word pronunciations in your brain: use your dictionary to look up pronunciations while you’re reading in English. As you read, 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. As you learn the pronunciations of the most common words (from a dictionary or from spoken input), you will use your dictionary less and less.

Of course, you should be paranoid when you do so: don’t trust your instincts (unless you’ve already learned to pronounce thousands of words), and don’t assume you can pronounce a word just because you know it well.

Do you have to do this? Couldn’t you go 100% natural and pick up the pronunciations of words just by listening to English? The answer is: you could, but learning from a dictionary is better for beginners. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Recordings in dictionaries are usually clearer than what you will hear in spoken input (movies, TV shows, etc.)
  2. Dictionaries have phonetic transcriptions. While modern computer dictionaries have recordings, I recommend that you always look at the phonetic transcription as well as listen to the recording. There are many reasons to do that, but the main one is that your ears are not perfect – they can fool you. Sometimes you hear an e sound where there is an ə, an ɒ where there is an ʌ, etc. Even if the dictionary has high-quality recordings, it is always good to see all the sounds in a word written down.

Check the pronunciation while listening

When you’re listening to spoken English, sometimes the following happens: you hear a word, you understand it, but you are not sure what the exact pronunciation is. For example, you’re not sure whether you heard /tʃuːz/ or /tʃuːs/.

When you are in this situation, look the word up in a dictionary. That will let you read the phonetic transcription and listen to a clear recording of the word. This should clear up your doubts.

A handful of tips

  • If you think you may forget the pronunciation of a word, add it to your SRS (spaced-repetition system), either as a sentence item or pronunciation item.
  • Don’t push yourself too hard. The most important things in the Antimoon Method are to have fun and get input. You should never let a dictionary get in the way of that. Looking up words in a dictionary can get boring after a while, even if you like dictionaries and really are interested in pronunciation. If you get bored with using a dictionary, it’s OK to give yourself permission to stop for a while. You should also remember that you don’t have to look up every word — you should be primarily interested in words you may want to say yourself. Literary words like ferocity, pertinent or sequin should not be your priority because you probably won’t need to say them.
  • In addition to using a dictionary in your everyday study, consider learning the pronunciations of most common English words in a systematic way. You can get a list of most frequent words and look up their pronunciations in a dictionary. Or you can use my English pronunciation software that teaches you the pronunciations of 500 most frequently used English words and makes you remember them with spaced repetition technology.