Pronunciation: Know Your Mouth, the Fast Physical System

“You only need three pieces of information to make any sound: you need to know what to do with your tongue, with your lips, and with your vocal cords, and there aren’t that many options.” – Gabriel Wyner
Pronunciation can be tricky in English… if you study it the wrong way.

There are several tricks to picking up the correct pronunciation of sounds more quickly. Firstly, listen but don’t always trust your ears alone. Our brains are trained to hear similarities between sounds, so this actually works against hearing small differences.

There are two ways to train yourself to hear and then recreate the different sounds.

Firstly, compare very similar-sounding words like ‘where’ and ‘were’ or ‘two’ and ‘to’ or ‘this’ and ‘these’ – really, minutely, start to hear and feel the differences between them. As soon as your brain can recognize them, that fine distinction will stay with you permanently.

Secondly, use your feelings and muscles to learn the sounds. Not just your ears. Like I said, the ears are not very well-trained to pick up tiny differences in word sound, because we are trained so well to find meaning and similarities. Unless you are a musician, who has very highly trained ears.

But you don’t have to be a musician to get this. Don’t worry.

The key is to make a sound just right, preferably with a native English speaker listening, to nod or shake their head as you try to make the sounds. Then when you are making the sound close to correct, start asking yourself where your lips are.

Put your finger up against your lips and make the sound. Are they loose and flat? Do they form an ‘O’? Do they pull out like you are kissing?

Think about where your tongue is when you make that sound. Is it loose and lying at the bottom of your mouth? Is it pulled into a tube-shape or is it pressed against your teeth?

Ask yourself what your vocal chords are doing. Are you pumping a lot of air through, or just a tiny bit? Are you creating a sudden burst of air, or is it a steady stream?

These three areas – your lips, tongue and vocal chords – are all you need to know about how a sound is created. And when you make this close muscle-based analysis of a sound, you will start to really understand it. You will remember it ten times more easily. And you will truly be able to hear yourself.

That’s the key to fast pronunciation progress!

An extra bonus with this type of analysis is that you really start to remember the words and sounds well. It’s a terrific extra step to add when you are learning new words. If you use them in a few sentences immediately, use memory techniques and spaced repetition. And on top of that you give the word a muscle-based pronunciation analysis. Then that word will stay with you for sure.

One more important factor relating to pronunciation is to listen to and copy the rhythm of full sentences as native English speakers say them. This is another reason why it’s important to learn

English in full sentences right from the beginning. Because in English, just like in any language, no word stands alone.

To speak English well, you have to quickly master sentences, not words. Most students don’t really think about this until much later on. By that time bad habits have set in.

As you begin learning English, listen carefully to the musicality, the rhythm of each sentence as the person speaks it. Really try to copy this rhythm. Act as though you are playing the Englishman. Have fun with it. Be silly if you have to. But make sure that you are getting a feeling for the intonation in a sentence, and the way it goes up and down. Or the way it all squashes together and then the last part stretches out.

Listening and recreating this sentence-rhythm not only helps you to sound like an English person faster. It also helps you to feel the language better. When you can really feel it you will find it easier and easier to express yourself using it. After all, English is a living, breathing thing. An extension of your personal expression.

That’s why it feels so good to learn!

Just as pronunciation can be far easier and faster than you might think, it’s actually the same with grammar. The next chapter will show you how.