Mastering English Pronunciation and Communication

Being understood is essential for business communication, especially when communicating between different cultures. Mispronouncing a vowel sound or putting stress on the wrong syllable can create confusion and misunderstandings. For example, are you trying to discuss a personal” problem or a problem regarding the “personnel” of your company? But, with awareness and attention, anyone can become a clear and articulate English speaker. For a Business English student, this clarity can make the difference when negotiating a business deal, acquiring a new client, or advancing in a company. In this article, we will explore some of the most relevant aspects of pronunciation.

 

Alphabet symbols and pronunciation confusion

Learning a new language that shares the same alphabet as your native language can be challenging. It becomes confusing when one symbol from the Latin alphabet represents a different sound and a different formation in the mouth in another language. Furthermore, sometimes the same symbol can have several different sounds within the same language. In English, for example, the –ed at the end of past tense verbs is pronounced three different ways, depending on the final sound that comes before the –ed. Try pronouncing “waited”, “turned”, and “walked”. Similarly, the –s at the end of plural words is also pronounced three different ways, depending on the final sound that comes before the –s. Try pronouncing “changes”, “dreams”, and “books”. I will share several tips to help you with this. 

 

The 4 essential tips 

Tip 1

Identify the letters that symbolize different sounds and make a list of words that contain these sounds. You can also practice identifying words with these sounds in an article or book chapter. For example, if you are struggling to correctly pronounce the /th/ consonant blend, make a list of words with the sound, such as “thank”, “path”, “these”, and “weather”.

Tip 2

Listen to a podcast by a native speaker and practice repeating specific phrases. Record yourself speaking the phrases and compare your pronunciation to the podcast speaker’s pronunciation. Sometimes these new sounds use facial positions and facial muscles that you’ve never used before, so become aware of how your tongue, lips, and teeth are used. Don’t be afraid to get out a mirror to check your facial position. For example, to make the /th/ sound, place the tip of your tongue lightly between your front teeth and blow air through. This makes the unvoiced /th/ sound, as in “thank”. Add your voice, the vibration of your vocal cords, to make the voiced /th/ sound, as in “these”. Focus on the sensation of the /th/ sound.

Tip 3

Write down your own conscious reminders. If you have any experience with the international phonetic alphabet, or the phonetic symbols used in a dictionary, this can be a helpful tool. However, you can simply create your own phonetic symbols to represent the sounds in a way that you understand. To remind yourself about the difference between unvoiced and voiced /th/, you might underline the voiced /th/ sounds.

Tip 4

Finally, practice each day by speaking the list of words out loud, reading different articles out loud, or repeating specific phrases from a podcast out loud. Embrace the strange, new feelings, which in time will become familiar.

 

Syllable stress

Stressing the correct syllable in a word can make the difference between being understood or not. A syllable is a part of a word that contains a single vowel sound. For example, the word “sound” contains two written vowels, but only one vowel sound, so “sound” is one syllable. On the other hand, the word “syllable” contains three vowel sounds, “sy-lla-ble”, so it is three syllables.

Let’s delve into the weeds. In every English word, one syllable receives the primary stress, meaning it is longer and louder than the other syllables. Sometimes, if the word is very long, another syllable receives a secondary stress. As the name suggests, secondary stress is less noticeable than primary stress. All of the remaining syllables are reduced, or unstressed. The vowels within reduced syllables become a neutral “uh” sound called a “schwa”, or /ə/ in the international phonetic alphabet. Reduced syllables can be spelled with a, e, i, o, or u, but they all make the same “uh” sound. For example, the word “professional” is broken into four syllables, and the second syllable receives the primary stress. All of the remaining syllables are reduced. Here is the phonetic representation of the word: /prə-fe-shə-nəl/. In this word, the unstressed “o”, “io”, and “a” vowels are reduced to the same neutral “schwa”, /ə/, or “uh” sound. As you can see, for English pronunciation, it is more important to know which syllable is stressed than how the word is spelled. This understanding is often revelatory for non-native English speakers.

A special tip: In many two-syllable nouns and adjectives, the first syllable is stressed, as in “present” /pre-zənt/. Contrastingly, in many two-syllable verbs, the second syllable is stressed as in “present” /prə-zent/. For example, “I would like to present you with this present.” As the function of a word changes, so too does its syllable stress.

 

Keywords in a sentence

Similar to syllable stress, knowing which words to stress in a sentence is also essential for clear communication. This creates the rhythm of the language that helps convey the meaning. In English, keywords carry the most meaning. Usually these are nouns, verbs, and sometimes adjectives. If you spoke using just keywords and removed the surrounding words, the general idea would still be understood. Think of keywords like newspaper headlines or keywords in a Google search, as in “learn language” → “How can I learn to speak another language?” The above sentence illustrates how longer sentences are naturally divided into phrases that form conceptual units. Phrase one is, “how can I learn”, and phrase two is, “to speak another language”. We instinctively pause between phrases, although the pause is not as long as when there’s a comma or a period. Within each phrase, there is always one keyword that carries the most important information and, therefore, receives the most stress. As a general rule, the last keyword of a phrase gets the most stress. “I’m beginning to understand the rhythm of this language.” How does the rhythm of English compare to the rhythm of your native language?

 

Intonation: the rise and the fall

Last, let’s look at intonation, the rising and falling melody of a language. In spoken language, we use intonation to replace punctuation and communicate intention. Intonation tells the listener whether the speaker is finished talking or whether they have something more to say, whether the speaker is asking a question or whether they are making a statement. It also conveys the speaker’s emotion and opinion.

In English, falling intonation is used at the end of a statement and at the end of wh-questions (questions that use: who, what, when, where, why, and how). Falling intonation signals the end of a thought. To produce it, simply lower the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. Be careful! Lowering the pitch does not mean speaking more quietly, it only means moving to a lower note. You still stress the last word. For example, “Why do you want to learn English?” “So I can work with my colleagues in other countries.”

In contrast, rising intonation is used at the end of yes/no questions and tag questions (questions that are asked to confirm what we think we know). Rising intonation signals a request for affirmation. To produce it, simply raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence. For example, “Did you read the article?” “Yes, I couldn’t believe it, could you?” In longer sentences, raise your pitch before a comma to signal the continuation of your thought, and then lower your pitch at the end of the sentence to signal that the thought is finished. For example, practice raising your pitch on both “opinion” and “English” and lowering your pitch on “improve”: “In my opinion, if you listen to podcasts in English, your comprehension will improve.” Similarly, when listing items, or when giving a choice between two or more things, raise the pitch of your voice on each item, but lower the pitch of your voice on the final item. For example, “When learning another language, it is important to practice the skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.” “Do you prefer to practice writing or speaking?” Notice how the pitch of your voice ascends and descends like a melody.

Intonation can be used to express specific emotions and attitudes, such as anger, sadness, joy, surprise, uncertainty, agreement, and many others. To express different emotions, speakers can change the pitch within words. Try saying the following phrase, “What did you say?” in three different ways (e.g., uncertainly, angrily, and excitedly). Can you start to hear the soundscape of the English language?

Here, you have a starting point to consider the nuances of English pronunciation. In this article, we have explored how to identify alphabet symbols with multiple sounds, how to practice forming new sounds, how syllable and word stress affect meaning, and how intonation conveys intention. Yet, this is only the beginning.

Do you want to practice more to master English pronunciation? Consider signing up for sessions with a Flowently native English tutor. We can help you navigate the specific sounds, rhythm, and flow of the language, ensuring clear and effective communication. Take your speaking skills to the next level and find a tutor today!

 

Written by Danielle Gosselin

Published by: Flowently

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