Mispronouncing a word is one of the fastest ways to leave poor impression of your communication skills, especially when those listening to you are good at it. Even 1-2 pronunciation slipups in a 10-minute conversation are enough.
People naturally goof up at complex pronunciations (complex because the pronunciation can’t be inferred from the way the word is spelt, which is so common in English language), but I’ve observed many mispronouncing even common English words.
Many of you may be surprised at the pronunciation of ‘Wednesday’. (Most pronounce the word as it is spelt.) I had been pronouncing it wrong for decades till I learnt it two years back.
Most of us think these words are pronounced the way they’re spelt, and hence the mistake.
Do you see the subtle difference between the correct and incorrect pronunciation of ‘refrigerator’?
Do you see that ‘object’ is pronounced in a way different from you may be used to. This is because the word here is being used as a verb, not noun. If it were used as a noun, then the pronunciation ‘ob-jekt’ was correct. However, most of us are used to pronouncing the word – and many other words – ‘ob-jekt’ whether it is verb or noun.
You may be wondering, “Who is going to notice such fine distinctions in my speech?
Where your pronunciation departs significantly (few examples in the first list above) from the correct, it gets noticed like a sore thumb. Where the departure is small (examples in the second list), it may not get noticed by people with average communication skills, but those with strong skills will notice. And more often they’re the opinion makers.
Lack of proficiency in pronunciation affects you in two ways:
Outright pronunciation mistakes show your communication skills in poor light. And because you likely don’t even realize you’re mispronouncing words by the dozens every day, you don’t know what impression you’re emanating.
You’ll hesitate to speak words whose pronunciations you aren’t sure of, thereby robbing your speech of apt words. Or if you do speak, you’ll likely take an unnatural pause. Few examples of such words (test yourself and check what the correct pronunciation is):
This too spoils your communication.
Pronunciation, little wonder, affects your spoken English in a big way. Here is what National Spoken English Skills Report (based on a sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India) by Aspiring Minds says are the biggest impediments to spoken English in India, which is likely the case in other countries where English is not the first language:
Pronunciation and fluency are the biggest barriers, followed by grammar, in effective Spoken English.
Despite this, pronunciation isn’t a high-priority component of communication skills for most. People are more focused on vocabulary, and even grammar.
One reason for the neglect is that most aren’t even aware they’re serial, cold-blooded mispronouncers. (Test: if you’re mispronouncing many of the words in examples above, then you’ve a pronunciation problem at hand.)
Most aren’t even aware they mispronounce by the dozens daily
(I’ve observed this. After hearing mispronunciations in a conversation, I often ask the other person if her/ his pronunciation of those words was right or not. Very few say ‘wrong’. Aside my asking this question, why would anyone mispronounce knowingly.)
How do we learn pronunciation?
Pronunciation is rarely touched in schools. And even in few isolated pockets where it is, we learn pronunciation gradually over the years by listening to how others pronounce. Isn’t it?
But what if what you’re listening to from others is not the right pronunciation? (That’s what mostly happens in countries where English isn’t the first language.)
That’s why many people, including seasoned professionals in top-tier organizations, blissfully unaware, continue mispronouncing words by the dozens daily.
You need an external intervention to break this cycle. It won’t correct on its own, and certainly not by speaking more.
Let’s proceed stepwise.
As an important first step, let’s see how to identify words you mispronounce.
How do you know which words you mispronounce?
Unless you listen, you won’t know how many pronunciation mistakes you’re making.
You can listen to experts and observe which of their words sound different from how you pronounce those words. You can actively Google search for commonly mispronounced words to build an initial base when you’re just starting out on your journey to improve pronunciation. You can also read aloud and listen to yourself to identify words where you fumble.
I followed all three, with the last one – reading aloud – identifying most words for me. Let’s take each.
1. Listen to experts
When I say ‘experts’, I mean proficient speakers who are less likely to make pronunciation mistakes – news anchors, professional speakers, and native speakers to name few. They’re almost always spot on in their pronunciation.
When listening to them, pay attention to words that sound strange… strange because you pronounce the very same words differently. You don’t really need to strain your ears to spot such words. You just need to be attentive.
For example, when watching the 2017 Shanghai Rolex Masters final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I heard the commentator say ‘sahyz-mik’. It instantaneously caught my attention even though I wasn’t paying attention to the commentary word for word. (Here, I was more focused on the visuals, and less on the commentary. You too would be able to catch such words even if you’re not consciously focusing on the words.) I hadn’t heard this sound before, but I instantaneously knew that the commentator spoke the word ‘seismic’, which I used to pronounce ‘seis-mik’ till then. I noted the word down in my Excel sheet (more on this later), and later confirmed that the correct pronunciation was indeed ‘sahyz-mik’.
How would a person who is not actively looking to improve her/ his pronunciation react in the same situation? S/he too would notice the difference between the two sounds, albeit fleetingly, but would pay little attention and certainly not note the word down to learn the exact pronunciation. That momentary focus on the difference and later confirmation of the exact pronunciation in itself puts you several notches ahead of a disinterested person. (You can take it to an altogether different level by noting the word down and reviewing it few times. We’ll cover this part later in the post.)
Keep noting such words you come across when listening to experts.
(Caveat: on few occasions, the pronunciation will sound different because the speaker may be using American pronunciation whereas you may be used to British pronunciation. However, you don’t need to bother on this count because, in practice, you’ll encounter very few such words.)
On choice of what to listen, you should avoid listening to something only for the purpose of improving pronunciation (or for that matter any other aspect of English). Assimilate what you’re already watching (and listening) into your pronunciation exercise. In case you need to add more to your list of content, pick something that is educative. Improving English should ideally be an offshoot of your main work or should fill the time you otherwise waste, after all you’ve only 24 hours in a day.
2. Search for difficult-to-pronounce words and names
When you’re just starting out on your journey to improve pronunciation, it’s good to ace pronunciation of words where most people stumble. This would mean more work in the beginning, but it’ll raise your level fast to a respectable level.
How do you get these words?
Search them on Google and YouTube with search strings such as ‘difficult pronunciations in English’ and ‘difficult to pronounce brands’. Scan these pronunciations (better listen in an online dictionary or YouTube) and note down words where you’re found wanting.
I mentioned ‘brands’ in one of the search strings above. Idea is to cover everything, and not just dictionary words, that comes up in regular conversations. (Conversation! Never forget the end goal.) I’ve added not just regular dictionary words, but also brands, celebrity names, cities, countries, cuisines, and more. Few examples from my list:
However, majority of entries in your list would come from the first category, dictionary words.
3. Read aloud
This is how I spotted my most pronunciation mistakes.
In July 2015, I started reading a leading English newspaper aloud for five minutes daily mainly to improve my diction. While reading out loud, I noticed I occasionally fumbled on few words, not sure what I was pronouncing was correct or not. Note that, unlike when listening to an expert, here I couldn’t be sure what I was pronouncing was right or wrong. (When you listen to an expert, you can clearly compare your pronunciation with her/ his and know if yours is correct or not. Not when reading loud because here you’re the speaker as well as the listener.)
I jotted down such words in a little spiral notebook and later listened to their pronunciation at an online dictionary. It would take barely 2-3 minutes to check up to 10 words. Over the next few weeks, I found that 70-odd percent of such words where I fumbled little bit or wasn’t sounding convincing to myself and therefore had an itch to check were indeed the words I was making pronunciation mistake, sometimes just tiny. (Because it takes hardly any time to check the pronunciation of a word, be liberal in noting down words for a check. Let your hit rate be 50 percent, or even lower.)
Because it’s important, let me summarize what I observed during my initial days of reading aloud:
If you’re reading silently, you wouldn’t know if you can pronounce a word correctly or not. When reading, most people assume that they know how to pronounce a simple-looking word. Reality (rather, aberration) comes out when you move your lips.
This was as a revelation to me. And since, I’ve continued my multi-purpose read-aloud practice, harvesting most of my difficult-to-pronounce words through this method.
After you’ve spotted the words (covered in the previous section), it’s time to learn – and consolidate – their pronunciation.
1. Check pronunciation on an online resource
I use dictionary.com for this purpose.
(To be honest, there has been no time better than the past few years to learn pronunciation, as plethora of online resources have come up where you can listen pronunciations. Earlier, people had little option but to read pronunciations, which I believe is less efficient.)
As shown above, listen to the pronunciation by clicking on the speaker icon. (Even better, guess the pronunciation before searching the word, and then tally your guess with what you listen. This way you’ll stretch yourself and, in due course, become better at pronouncing even new words correctly.)
Also, read the pronunciation in the ‘spell’ mode (shown below) loud and imitate the pronunciation you just listened. This will get your vocal cords used to the new sounds. I use ‘spell’ mode, and not IPA mode (shown above), because the latter carries unfamiliar characters and hence is less intuitive, at least to me.
If you notice, pronunciations throughout this post contain few letters in bold and few hyphens separating group of letters. The group of letters separated by hyphens are called syllables. And the syllables in bold need to be stressed (means they need to be said louder and longer than other syllables).
For example, the pronunciation of word ‘refrigerator’ (ri-frij-uh-rey-ter) contains five syllables, with stress (denoted by bold) on the syllable ‘frij’. So when pronouncing the word, you’ve to say ‘frij’ longer and louder than other syllables. It may seem complicated when you read this, but it’s not. Listen to the pronunciation of ‘refrigerator’ here, and pay attention to how the syllables are spoken separately (however, quickly) and how ‘frij’ is stressed. You’ll get better at it as you listen to more and more pronunciations.
There are other online resources too for learning pronunciation, Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster being two prominent ones. The former is especially good if someone wants to listen to American as well as British pronunciation.
On rare occasions, you’ll come across words that won’t be covered by aforementioned online resources. In such cases – and they’ll be very few – just Google [word] + pronunciation. Example: search ‘refrigerator + pronunciation’ to learn pronunciation of ‘refrigerator’.
You would find pronunciations of even some categories of proper nouns (cities, countries, and cuisines, to name few) on these online resources, but not all. For example, you won’t find brand names. Follow the process mentioned above to look for pronunciation of such proper nouns. More often than not, you’ll find super-short YouTube videos on such searches.
You can bookmark these online resources on your browser under a folder for easy access.
2. Note down the pronunciation
After I listen and read the pronunciation, I copy-paste the pronunciation in the ‘spell’ mode on to my Excel sheet right next to the word. (For names and few words which you can’t find on online dictionaries, leave the space blank. Listen to the pronunciation on resources such as YouTube, and later, after you take the printout, write down what you hear in your native language.)
To make the process efficient, I accumulate 46 words (my flashcards carry 46 words) in my Excel sheet before accomplishing the above exercise for all the words in one go. Thereafter, I take a printout and paste it on to a physical flashcard, 23 on each side.
Within an hour or so of completing this exercise, I cover the pronunciations and, looking at only the words as prompts, pronounce the words loudly. Since the sounds I listened to from the online resource are still fresh, it’s important to take this step early. If you get few pronunciations wrong, speak them out loud again few times.
3. Follow spaced repetition to embed pronunciations for the long term
I repeat the process (looking at only the words and pronouncing) the next day. Then after a week, a month, and three months. Each time, repeat pronunciations you get wrong. This, also called spaced repetition, is the best way to embed something in your long-term memory. (You don’t need to strictly adhere to this timeline, though. Even if you miss them by few days here and there, you’ll be largely fine. The earlier rounds – immediate and after a day – however are more sacrosanct than the later rounds and therefore you should be more disciplined about them.)
You may be thinking that repeating the list so many times can be so time consuming.
I take barely 7-8 minutes for the first review (that happens within few hours of preparing the list) of 46 words. Subsequent reviews take just 2-3 minutes because by that time these pronunciations start getting embedded in my long-term memory. And I do this review when commuting, thereby squeezing out time from a time-waster. (As you’ll read in other posts too, many such activities geared toward improving communication skills can be performed during times you otherwise waste.)
In all these repetitions, speak the words out so that your vocal organs – tongue, lips, and throat – get used to producing those sounds. In case you’re at a place or situation where you can’t speak them out, withhold your voice while still working your vocal organs. You’ll still reap most of the benefits that come with speaking out. A review of 35 studies showed that mental practice alone – picturing oneself performing the activity from start to finish – improves performance significantly. Now, speaking, but withholding voice, is way above mental practice.
If you want to make this spaced repetition even more effective, start pronouncing the words as part of complete sentences after you get comfortable pronouncing standalone words in the list, which will typically happen after 2-3 repetitions.
For example, once you get comfortable pronouncing ‘gaffe’, you can start pronouncing the word in a complete sentence such as ‘He committed multiple gaffes in the press conference.’ This is a step closer to real situations you’ll face. (You don’t speak standalone words, but complete sentences in the real world.)
I started with pronouncing standalone words and it was several months later that I came to pronouncing the words as part of complete sentences after I saw somewhat better results with the latter. (You’ll see again and again in my posts that I start with real-world performance as the end goal and then go backwards to get the process right. That was the reason why I included proper nouns such as brands, cities, and cuisines into my pronunciation list.)
Spaced repetition certainly works.
When I reviewed my first set of cards again after more than two years, I could recall 95+ percent (in a sample of more than 1,000 words) of pronunciations correctly. That’s as close to perfect as possible.
‘Do I need spaced repetition? It seems onerous.’
Spaced repetition will dramatically improve your retention. Ideally, you should follow it, but if at all you’ve to compromise on the number of repetitions, don’t cut out the early repetitions.
In case you’re not able to follow spaced repetition, make it a habit of quickly checking – and speaking out loud – pronunciation whenever you struggle with one you already covered in the past. Maybe bookmark an online resource to reduce friction in accessing the page.
Continue reading out loud
Did I stop reading out loud after I covered most words (from the perspective of pronunciation) used in common conversation and new difficult-to-pronounce words came in a trickle?
On the contrary, I’ve doubled down on this (now twice a day, 5 minutes each time), and, in fact, have made the reading material more diverse – and tough – to stretch myself.
I encourage you to make reading out loud a habit – do it once, if not twice – for two reasons.
One, it not only helps you catch new difficult-to-pronounce words, but it also reinforces the pronunciation of words you’ve already learnt. You accomplish the latter because the words whose pronunciation you learnt earlier would invariably crop up one or more times in future reading. Two, it improves your intonation (laying different stress on different parts of a sentence) and hence improves your fluency. You may learn more on this here:
And what it takes? Two sessions of five minutes, and that too when you’re already reading something. You don’t have to make extra time. You have to make a habit.
My progress so far
I’ve been following the process outlined in this post to improve my pronunciation since October 2014. And at the time of writing this post, I’ve accumulated 3,243 difficult-to-pronounce words and proper nouns whose pronunciations have become second nature to my speech.
Because they’ve become second nature, I can use correct pronunciations of these words on the fly, without pausing while speaking. And I can spot mispronunciations even among news anchors – though they’re few and far between – subconsciously. (‘Subconsciously’ because when watching television news, I, like anybody else, pay attention to the content and visuals, and not to pronunciation of individual words. As I’ll explain in the last section of this post, it’s not that difficult.)
I could have never imagined at the start of this journey that I would cover so much ground in few years that I would struggle to get new words to add to my list. If you’re regular at something even at a small scale, you’ll end up with something big. Read more on this here:
In the first 4-5 months, I had torrent of words (250 to 300 words per month) to ace as, initially, there were more unfamiliar sounds and I actively searched for difficult-to-pronounce words and names on Google and YouTube. During this period, I focused mainly on words where my pronunciation was way off the mark from the correct (example: scion). In the later months, I also added words where the difference was tiny and almost unnoticeable to the listeners (example: refrigerator).
At this peak volume, it took me around 5 hours a month to complete step 1 and 2 in ‘Ace pronunciation’ – noting pronunciation, preparing the flash card, and reviewing it immediately. Five hours a month! And that too for the first few months, after which the time required started dropping.
Step 3, spaced repetition, hardly takes any time (just two minutes for 46 words), and for me that time too comes entirely from a time-waster.
In essence, improving pronunciation doesn’t take much time out of your schedule and what you gain – one key pillar of your communication improved – stays with you for life.
After the initial burst, the stream gradually turned into a trickle. Nowadays, I barely enter 10 words in a month in my Excel sheet, which requires just 2-3 hours in the entire year to complete the aforementioned exercise.
In due course, after listening to variety of pronunciations, I’ve got an intuitive hang of how to pronounce new words. So before checking the correct pronunciation, I now first guess it. And guess what, I’ve had a respectable success rate with the new words. If you keep improving, magic starts happening after a tipping point.
Now, besides difficult-to-pronounce words, I even note down words I know I can pronounce correctly but haven’t spoken them for a long, long time (or never). (Try saying even a simple word the first time, and notice the slight element of doubt you’ve on the sounds you’re producing.) Two examples I faced: ‘adhere’ and ‘bemoan’. After few repetitions, I’m 100 percent confident when using them the next time.
What I didn’t do?
Although recording one’s voice and playing it back to spot errors is a good practice, I didn’t adopt it because I thought I couldn’t do it on a regular basis. In contrast, reading aloud was frictionless and I could do it anywhere.
In short, I adopted methods that worked as well were sustainable in the long term.
What kept me going?
The reason I’ve been able to sustain learning pronunciation for so long and I still eagerly look for new words is the success I tasted. I started using the correct pronunciation on-the-fly, without pause while speaking. I started spotting pronunciation errors effortlessly even in experts.
In short, my efforts weren’t confined to theoretical realm. They were working in the real world.
Success, howsoever small, fuels passion.
So, start observing progress you’re making. However, observing success isn’t straightforward because it builds slowly over a long time.
If you need motivation to start your pronunciation journey, read this:
(Remember, pronunciation is a key pillar of spoken English.)
I’ve been mispronouncing for years. Can I improve?
You can improve to the extent that you start correcting even the most fluent speakers.
When you hear them as part of a conversation, you’ll immediately spot them because they’ve been pronounced incorrectly. And you’ll spot them even if you’re not focusing on individual words.
Because you’ve heard these words many times. (I deliberately picked common words.) And therefore the sounds (or pronunciations) of these words are deeply embedded in your long-term memory. When you hear someone, including a fluent speaker, mispronounce any of these words, you’ll intuitively catch it, “It sounds wrong”. Observe this phenomenon when you’re communicating with your friends.
Now there is nothing special about these five words.
You can similarly spot errors in thousands of difficult-to-pronounce words… if you’ve heard their sounds too multiple times. And you’ll be able to speak them fluently – like you do ‘bat’ – if you’ve spoken those sounds previously.
That’s the fundamental.
Each word that you pronounce correctly today is a result of first listening and then speaking it multiple times so that your vocal organs – lips, tongue, and throat – get accustomed to producing the sounds of that word. (That’s how babies learn speaking. They listen to different sounds for several months, and then gradually start imitating those sounds.)
Let me give a parallel to end this post. Matthew Syed in his book Bounce describes how professional golfers practice:
When he [professional golfer] finds a difficult or unusual shot, he hits up to half a dozen balls, providing feedback that will prove invaluable when he finds himself in a similar situation during a competition.
When you see a professional golfer connect a winning swing from an irretrievable ‘rough’, you often don’t see those countless shots in practice sessions mimicking a similar tough situation.
Native speakers, because they’re exposed to English more than you are, have heard those sounds and practiced those sounds at least few times. That’s why they seem flawless in their pronunciations. You too can imitate these sounds at any stage of your life and ace pronunciation… and it’s much simpler than golfing retrievals.