Check out the key areas to focus on
Quite understandably, students often aspire to speak ‘perfect English’, including using pronunciation that doesn’t identify them as a non-native speaker. But what is perfect pronunciation?’ Are we talking about the Queens English or a national or regional variation?
If you’re taking an exam, the good news is the assessor will not be expecting ‘perfect’ pronunciation. You’ll simply need to show you can speak clearly, pronounce individual sounds such as vowels and consonants accurately and make use effectively of stress and intonation patterns. If you manage all this, whether with a French, Brazilian, Chinese or German accent, you’ll score well in the Speaking paper.
To work on pronunciation, start with a progress check and identify your strengths and weaknesses – if you have any! Let’s look at the main areas to focus on:
- individual sounds of vowels, consonants, and diphthongs
- word stress
- sentence stress
- features of connected speech
Understanding how these areas impact on clear speech will help you to measure your own ability and the areas you might need to work on. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.
As an advanced student, you’ll already be aware of any problems you have with individual vowel or consonant sounds, perhaps ones common to speakers of you first language. For example, Spanish students may have problems with short vowels, elongating them so that some words cause confusion, such as ‘hit’ x ‘heat’ or ‘ship’ x ‘sheep’. They may also have difficulties with consonant sounds like /dʒ/ and /j/ as in ‘jot’ and ‘yacht’. Then there are consonant clusters, groups of consonants together, like those that begin a word as in ‘place’ and ‘trace’, those within a word such as ‘control’ and those at the end as in ‘desk’ or ‘tourists’.
English is a stress-timed language, where words with more than one syllable will have certain syllables stressed. For students whose native language is syllable-timed, such as French or Japanese, and who give each syllable equal emphasis, some English words can be mispronounced. Common examples of this are in the words ‘PHOtograph’, ’phoTOgrapher’ and ‘photoGRAphic’. Sometimes this can lead to confusion where incorrect word stress can mean a different word is pronounced such as ‘REcord’ and ‘reCORD’.
Here are some expressions used to talk about travel. Where is the stress on each phrase? Answers at the bottom of the page.
- charter flight
- departure lounge
- holiday destination
- wildlife safari
Just as individual syllables are stressed in multiple syllable words, certain words are stressed in a sentence whilst others are unstressed. It can help understand how this works if you consider the difference between ‘structure’ words and ‘content’ words. Structure words like prepositions, articles and pronouns are often there to give the sentence grammatical structure whilst content words provide the meaning. Take away the structure words and you would probably still understand what is being said. For example if you omit the unstressed words from the following statement, the meaning is still clear.
I’ve GOT a TICKET for the PLAY if you WANT it
There are exceptions to this of course, for example if we want to emphasise a point, structure words might become important, content words as in:
It was HIS fault, not YOURS.
The book is ON the table not UNDER it.
Practise sentence and word stress together by identifying and then reproducing the rhythm of a statement. Repeat the following again and again, stressing the correct word or syllable and you will hopefully hear the rhythm in each statement.
Closely related to the stress of certain words within a statement is the rise and fall of speech. Intonation can have a huge impact on communication. The same statement can express anger, confusion or relief or a whole host of other emotions depending on the intonation used. It can also make you sound more interesting to listen to in your exam compared to a candidate that uses ‘flat’ speech without any intonation. There are various general patterns to be aware of:
Falling intonation at the end of an utterance:
- in general statements
- in ‘wh’ questions
- question tags for confirmation
- in commands
Rising intonation at the end of a sentence:
- yes/no questions
- question tags expressing uncertainty
Rising and falling intonation
- when saying lists
- when presenting options
Let’s practise! Say the student’s statements out loud using the correct intonation.
a) Interlocutor: Where you’re from?
Student: I’m from Lisbon. The capital of Portugal.
b) Interlocutor: Have you been to any other countries?
Student: I’ve been to Spain, Italy, France and Germany
c) Interlocutor: What job do you want to do when you finish university?
Student: I’d like to go into finance or marketing.
d) Student A (to Student B): Would you like to start?
e) Student A (to Student B): Which of the options is the most important?
f) Student A (to Student B): You said you work in this industry, didn’t you? (Certain
g) Student A (to Student B): You said option A was the most important, didn’t you? (Uncertain)