Jared Spool, an expert on the subjects of usability, software, design, and research, once said on the subject of usability in software design:
Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.
Pronunciation mistakes, like poor design, stand out sorely. Just 1-2 slipups in a 10-minute conversation are enough. They’ll show your communication skills in poor light, especially when those listening to you are good at it.
Second, when you’re about to speak words whose pronunciation you’re not sure of, you’ll have an uneasy feeling that you’re about to make a mistake. You’ll hesitate to speak such words, thereby robbing your speech of apt words. Few examples of such words (test yourself and check what the correct pronunciation is):
Cache. Echelon. Gourmet. Hypocrite. Midas. Realm. Sleuth. Trio.
After correcting my pronunciation of more than 3,400 words, I can say with lot of confidence – and experience – that pronunciation is probably the easiest and quickest component of English to improve.
I started with words, but then expanded to proper nouns (names, brands, cities, countries, and so on). I’m still improving. I still add words to my pronunciation list, but now I encounter just a word or two a month, a trickle compared to flood of more than 100 when I embarked on this journey. Now, I’ve started to spot mispronunciations even among fine speakers of English, including news presenters. All this only to tell you that you too can make dramatic progress.
In this post, I’ll broadly cover how most people are not even aware that they’re committing dozens of pronunciation goof ups every day, how you can find out words you’ve been mispronouncing for decades, and then how you can correct them for good.
Let’s start with a small exercise.
Test yourself: a pronunciation exercise
I bet you’ll learn a lot about your pronunciation through this exercise. Pronounce following words aloud without looking at the answers in the table below:
Refrigerator, adjective, Oxford, Wednesday, competitor, kerosene, object (verb), conscience, jewelry, and comb
Here is how people commonly pronounce these words (for ease of perusal, I’ve highlighted the error in red font). Also mentioned are correct pronunciations of these words:
|Word||Incorrect pronunciation||Correct pronunciation|
Pronunciations in this post are written in non-phonetic form, which is more intuitive than phonetic/ IPA form (more on this at the end of the post). To bring out the difference between the two, the pronunciation of word refrigerator has been written below in both the forms:
Note: Feel free to use the above and other images in the post, using the link of this post for reference/attribution.
If you’re new to reading pronunciations in the two right columns of the table above, here is a brief 101 lesson (click to open).
1. Each group of letters separated by the hyphen is called a syllable. For example, the pronunciation ‘re-frij-uh-rey-ter’ has five syllables. Syllables are the building blocks of pronunciation and are spoken as a unit sequentially.
2. The syllables in bold need to be stressed (means they need to be said louder and longer than other syllables). For example, the syllable ‘frij’ is stressed more than other syllables while pronouncing refrigerator. 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.
3. ‘Uh’ or schwa sound appears in almost every second pronunciation. It is a neutral sound that occurs in unstressed syllables. I would suggest you to listen the pronunciation of few words such as address, balloon, and cadet at dictionary.com to get a hang of ‘uh’ sound.
4. When in doubt on any of the pronunciations, type in the word in dictionary.com and listen.
How did you fare in the above exercise?
If not well, don’t lose heart. An overwhelming majority of non-native speakers of English are serial, cold-blooded mispronouncers. To give an example from India, National Spoken English Skills Report (based on a sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges) by Aspiring Minds finds pronunciation and fluency to be the biggest barriers to spoken English.
The same report says that only 15 percent has pronunciation without noticeable number of mistakes, of which only 6.6 percent qualify in the top category:
Let’s come back to the above exercise.
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.
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 pronounce the word as ‘ob-jekt’ whether it is verb or noun. And there are many words such as object.
If you’re speaking in the company of good communicators, even small departure from correct pronunciation (example: refrigerator) can get noticed. Significant departures (example: Wednesday and competitor) stand out like sore thumb.
Pronunciation is tougher in English than in many other languages, because English is not a phonetic language. For the uninitiated, in a phonetic language (examples: Spanish and Italian), words are pronounced exactly (or close to) the way they’re spelt. So easy right. You don’t have to scratch your head over why though and thought are pronounced so differently in English. Variations and exceptions are the only norm in English pronunciation.
People are mispronouncing in volume every day, but, guess what, most aren’t even aware they’re.
Most aren’t even aware they mispronounce by dozens every day
I’ve observed this.
Because this is an area of interest for me, I sometimes mentally note down mispronunciations of the person I talk to, and at the end ask him if he realized he made few pronunciation mistakes. Almost all say ‘no’. They don’t know where they mispronounced.
Aside my asking this question, why would anyone mispronounce knowingly.
Let’s see why this happens.
Pronunciation is rarely touched in schools. We learn pronunciation, over the years, mainly 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 for most.) You’ll pick wrong pronunciation and reinforce it by repeating it many times over the years, right?
That’s why many, including seasoned professionals in top-tier multinational organizations, are blissfully unaware of their mispronunciations and continue mispronouncing by dozens every day, not knowing what impression they’re creating of their communication skills.
You need an external intervention to break this cycle. It won’t correct on its own, and certainly not by speaking more.
I’ll cap this section with a brief anecdote.
A friend of mine who emigrated from India to U.S. more than twenty years back was once corrected by his 10-year-old son on the pronunciation of word panacea. Some may call his son to be exceptional who could point out a flaw in his father’s otherwise impeccable pronunciation. But he is not.
Over the years, my friend ironed out his pronunciation of most common words by listening to native speakers in U.S., but few mispronunciations – most of them of not-so-commonly-used words such as panacea – stayed with him. But his son carried no such pronunciation burden. He heard every pronunciation the right way from the word go.
For the same reason, you’ll rarely find people who have spent considerable time in an English-speaking country or environment making pronunciation mistakes. Shashi Tharoor and Karan Thapar being two examples.
Your pronunciation becomes what you listen.
How to identify words you routinely mispronounce?
One is quick & dirty way to improve fast on common pronunciation mistakes. The other is the age-old, sustainable, common method of listening.
Let’s start with listening.
1. Listen to experts
Most persons who actively work toward improving their pronunciation adopt this method.
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. I say almost always, because they too can slip on pronunciation sometimes, but for most practical purposes they’re fine guiding light.
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. It can put your English Language skills on fast track.
To give an 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 focusing on the commentary word for word. (Like anyone else, I was more focused on visuals, and less on commentary.) I hadn’t heard this pronunciation before, but I immediately knew that the commentator spoke the word seismic, which I used to pronounce as ‘seis-mik’ (the way it is spelt) till then. I noted the word down in my Excel sheet meant specifically for pronunciation (more on this later), and later confirmed through an online dictionary that the correct pronunciation indeed was ‘sahyz-mik’.
You too can easily catch such words even if you’re not consciously focusing on individual words. All it takes is little bit of attentiveness and keen desire to improve pronunciation.
However, a person who is not actively looking to improve his pronunciation may not be attentive enough to notice the difference. And even if he does, he would do so fleetingly and not take any further steps mentioned in the next section.
Keep noting such words you come across when listening to experts. Besides throwing up words you mispronounce, listening, through repeated exposure, will also reinforce pronunciations you corrected in the past.
(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. Get commonly-mispronounced words and names
When you’re just starting out on your journey to improve pronunciation, it’s good to master those pronunciations 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 to pronounce words in English’ to get commonly-mispronounced words. You may use search strings such as ‘difficult to pronounce brands’ to get results for brands. And so on. Listen to the pronunciation of these words and names on an online dictionary or YouTube and note down those which sound unfamiliar.
You can continue with this method till you stop seeing new words and names.
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 to my list. However, majority of entries in your list would come from the first category, dictionary words. Few examples from my list:
You’ll be surprised how rampantly people mispronounce names mentioned in the above table. Try for yourself.
Once you know how to find words and names you mispronounce, it’s time to learn how to master their pronunciations.
How to improve English pronunciation?
1. Note down the words you’ve been mispronouncing
In the previous section, we looked at how to identify words you’ve been mispronouncing for years. When you come across such words, note them down. You may use an App, a word document, or something else. I use an Excel sheet.
Noting words down is not a requirement though; you can improve your pronunciation without it. But here I’m trying to outline the most effective method that will help you retain what you’re learning for the long term. The list you build by noting down words you’ve been mispronouncing is a sine qua non for review (point # 4) through Spaced Repetition.
2. Check pronunciation on an online resource
Why check pronunciation when you’ve already listened to it while listening or watching?
Although you may notice the difference between your and the expert’s pronunciations, you may not get the exact pronunciation in a fast-flowing video or audio. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to refer an online dictionary and confirm the pronunciation. Moreover, checking pronunciation will also enable you to note down non-phonetic pronunciation which is crucial for later review. More on this follows.
Two good online resources for checking pronunciation are dictionary.com and Cambridge English Dictionary. Whereas dictionary.com is one of the few dictionaries that mention pronunciation in non-phonetic form as well, Cambridge dictionary provides both British and American pronunciations separately.
Here is an example of pronunciation in non-phonetic form from dictionary.com:
And here is an example of pronunciation of the same word in phonetic form:
I use non-phonetic form, because it doesn’t contain unfamiliar symbols and is more intuitive.
Check pronunciation of the word you find challenging to pronounce using the above-mentioned or any other suitable resource:
Step 1: Listen to the pronunciation. (Most dictionaries provide audio of the pronunciation.)
Step 2: Imitate the pronunciation you just listened. Speak it out loud few times. Then pronounce the word as part of complete sentences.
A pertinent question at this stage: Is listening and repeating the best way to learn pronunciation? Aren’t there pronunciation rules we can apply to all or most words?
Like we saw earlier in the post, English is not a phonetic language and its words may be pronounced completely different from the way they’re spelt. To repeat what I said earlier, variations and exceptions are the only norm in English pronunciation. It’s difficult to fit plethora of variations and exceptions in few rules.
Listening – and then repeating – remains the best option to learn pronunciation. That’s how babies learn speaking words. They listen to different sounds for several months, and then gradually start imitating those sounds. I do the same to correct my pronunciation.
Step 3: Read the pronunciation in non-phonetic form and copy-paste it in your App or document in front of the corresponding 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 in the blank space what you hear in your native language.)
This will act as a flashcard and help you review what you’re learning. I’m not sure you can store sounds in flashcards, and, therefore, non-phonetic description is a great alternative.
This is how my Excel sheet looks:
If you’re following Step 3 and copy-pasting pronunciation, you can find audio as well as the non-phonetic form at the same place, dictionary.com. If you’re only listening, you can use Cambridge Dictionary as well.
3. Follow spaced repetition to embed pronunciations for the long term
We forget fast what we learn.
The best way known to mankind to retain information for long is Spaced Repetition. As part of Spaced Repetition, you actively review what you learnt in increasing time intervals. A common rule-of-thumb advice it to review after a day, a week, a month, and three months.
However, you don’t need to strictly adhere to this timeline. 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.
But aren’t multiple reviews too time consuming? Not really. You would probably take more time to review once after a month than the combined time taken to review multiple times in Spaced Repetition. I encourage you to read this post on Spaced Repetition to learn how it is done.
It was for Spaced Repetition that copy-pasting pronunciation in non-phonetic form was advised at the beginning of this section.
In your reviews, you can speak out pronunciations using words as the cue, like you do in flashcards. Speaking out gets your vocal organs – tongue, lips, and throat – used to producing the new sounds. In case you’re at a place or situation where you can’t speak out loudly, speak softly 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 at a low volume is way above mental practice.
Spaced Repetition will dramatically improve your retention. When I reviewed the initial set of words from my list after more than two years, I could recall 95+ percent (in a sample of more than 1,000 words) of pronunciations correctly. It works like charm. I can certainly vouch for its efficacy.
I agree wholeheartedly with what Norman Lewis mentioned in his book Speak Better Write Better English:
Frequent repetition of the words aloud will make correct habits so deep-seated that the possibility of error, even in the heat of animated conversation, will be reduced to the vanishing point.
If you’re not able to follow all the steps…
What I covered in this section was the best way to improve your pronunciation and to retain it. However, if, for some reasons, you’re not able to follow all the steps recommended, try at the very minimum to develop the habit of:
- Noticing the difference between your and an expert’s pronunciation,
- Listening to the pronunciation on an online dictionary, and
- Speaking the pronunciation out loud few times
You’ll still take significant strides.
Should I learn pronunciation phonetically using IPA symbols?
As I mentioned earlier in the post, English is not a phonetic language. That is, in English, words are not necessarily spoken the way they’re written. For example, cut and put are written the same way, but pronounced differently. In other words, spelling alone isn’t sufficient to deduce pronunciation of a word.
Therefore, International Phonetic Association (IPA) came up with a set of symbols to represent all 44 sounds in English. We saw IPA symbols for refrigerator and realm earlier in the post.
Let’s come back to the question we started with.
Do you need to learn IPA symbols to master pronunciation?
Much has changed since IPA symbols came into existence. Now every online dictionary worth its salt carries pronunciation in audio form besides either phonetic or non-phonetic text description. The audio very well serves the purpose of IPA symbols – knowing how a word sounds.
Moreover, IPA symbols can easily scare away people – it did scare me. I learnt pronunciation completely through audio and non-phonetic form. Just to give bit of data from an informal survey I did through show of hands, less than 1 percent (sample of around 400) of college students said they’ve used IPA symbols to learn pronunciation. I also showed both phonetic and non-phonetic forms of few words (like the image for refrigerator at the beginning of the post) to them, and asked which is more comfortable to practice, almost everyone went with non-phonetic form. I agree that the sample is small, but the results are so overwhelmingly one-sided that they leave little to doubt.
Here is an independent, strong evidence, which I came across after my own experience with the two forms and that survey by show of hands. In his book Dictionary of Pronunciation, Norman Lewis mentions that in departure from the third edition, fourth and the latest edition of the book contains pronunciations in only non-phonetic form, which he calls respelling form. (The third edition contained both phonetic and non-phonetic forms.) He says phonetic form in the earlier edition was ‘largely ignored’ by the readers and that ‘it was the respelling on which readers leaned’.
People are simply repulsed by alien symbols. They’re probably for connoisseurs. They’re probably for absolute beginners whom some of the 44 sounds in English elude and they need to learn them very precisely.
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 a seemingly irretrievable ‘rough’, you often don’t see those countless shots in practice sessions mimicking a similar tough situation.
Likewise, 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.
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. What you need are few habits, consistent work, and few months.