How to Pronounce English Words Correctly

Wondering how to pronounce vowels and consonants in American English? Accurate pronunciation is an important part of learning any foreign language. But the tricky thing about pronunciation is that it is not just a question of acquiring knowledge, it's a physical skill that you need to practice regularly. And the problem is that the English spelling system is very complicated and typically, words are not pronounced the way they are spelled. So how to pronounce English words correctly?

In fact, there is little consistency between the 26 letters of the English alphabet and the sounds we use when saying them out loud. Besides, there are just 5 vowel letters (a, e, i, u, o) and about 15 various vowel sounds. Furthermore, the English alphabet has 21 consonant letters and about 24 consonant sounds. So how can you pronounce a word you have never read? Guessing is a terrible strategy that leads to a lot of errors and bad habits. What is the way out? To pronounce words correctly, you need to learn to recognize all the sounds in American English and their symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

What is the IPA?

International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA is the system to transcribe words of any language as they sound using universal phonetic symbols. In the IPA, each symbol is associated with a specific English sound. If you learn all the symbols, you will know exactly how to pronounce any word because most English dictionaries use IPA to describe pronunciation of the words. Using the IPA, you'll be able to improve your pronunciation and feel more confident speaking English. Keep reading to learn how to pronounce IPA symbols.

How to Pronounce Vowels

When it comes to pronunciation, vowels are the hardest part of American English. Vowel sounds are produced with an open vocal tract. Here are the IPA symbols for vowel sounds in American English.

  • /i / is used in beet, heat, see, read. When pronouncing this sound, you need to keep your tongue high and form your mouth into a wide narrow shape.
  • /ɪ/ is used in bit, kit, sit, fill. Keep your lips and your tongue neutral and relaxed and make the sound at the back of your throat.
  • /ɛ/ is used in set, bed, get, ten. Keep your lips and jaw loose and hold the middle of the tongue slightly rounded upwards.
  • /æ/ is used in bad, cat, land, sad. Hold your lips apart and push the front of your tongue further forward.
  • /ɑ/ is used in cot, hot, god. Hold your jaw more open and keep the back of your tongue lower than for any other vowel sound.
  • /ɔ/ is used in all, saw, want, cause. Push your tongue back and keep it low slightly rounding upward.
  • /ʊ/ is used in good, book, put, foot. Raise the back of the tongue to a mid-high position and pull your lips into a loose circle.
  • /u/ is used in school, too, boot, cool. Pull your lips into a small circle and raise the back of the tongue to a high position.
  • /ʌ/ is used in cup, one, but. Relax the body of your tongue and keep it low in the mouth. Keep the jaw in a neutral position.
  • /ə/ is used in about, people, common. The schwa sound occurs in unstressed positions.
  • The next vowel sounds are diphthongs that begin with one vowel sound and change to another in the same syllable.
  • /eɪ/ is used bait, make, way, say. You can make it if you form your mouth into a wide narrow shape.
  • /aɪ/ is used in bite, five, why, time. It's a diphthong that ends with brief /j/.
  • /ɔɪ/ is used in point, boy, oil, choice.
  • /aʊ/ is used in now, mouth, down, out. The sound ends in a brief /w/.
  • /oʊ/ is used in so, both, go.

How to Pronounce Consonants

Pronouncing the correct consonant sounds is equally as important as the vowel sounds. Consonants are produced by pushing air through a small opening in the vocal tract or by building up the air in the vocal tract and then releasing it. Consonants may be voiced and unvoiced. The following IPA symbols are used for American consonants:

  • /p/ - pan, pen, happy. It is an unvoiced sound and vocal cords don't vibrate when it is pronounced. It is the counterpart of /b/. Make it by closing your lips to prevent the air from leaving the vocal tract.
  • /b/ - bag, ribbon, bad. It's the voiced counterpart to /p/.
  • /t/ - today, tea, still. Press the tip of your tongue against the tooth ridge to prevent the air from leaving the vocal tract. The sound is unvoiced.
  • /d/ - day, dog, add. It is the voiced counterpart of /t/.
  • /k/ - kite, cat, queen. Lift the back of your tongue and press it against the soft palate at the back of your mouth.
  • /g/ - got, guest, egg. It's the voiced counterpart to /k/.
  • /tʃ/ - chicken, much, teacher. To create this voiced sound, you need to press the tip of your tongue against the tooth ridge. The sound is pronounced when the air is released with friction.
  • /dʒ/ - jacket, age, major. It's the voiced counterpart to /tʃ/.
  • /f/ - fall, life, often. Hold the jaw nearly closed and press the bottom lip to the bottom of the top teeth.
  • /v/ - voice, give, ever. It's the voiced counterpart to /f/.
  • /θ/ - three, death, nothing. It's an unvoiced sound. Place the tip of your tongue behind the top front teeth or between the bottom and top front teeth.
  • /ð/ - this, smooth, mother. It's the voiced counterpart to /θ/.
  • /s/ - sun, also, so. To produce this voiceless sound, keep the tip of your tongue near the upper backside of the top front teeth.
  • /z/ - zoo, does, music. The z sound is voiced and is the counterpart to /s/. To produce it, you need to keep the front of your tongue close to the tooth ridge.
  • /ʃ/ - shoe, fish, social. Keep your lips tense or slightly protruded when producing this sound.
  • /ʒ/ - genre, vision, garage. It's the voiced counterpart of /ʃ/.
  • /h/ - he, how, perhaps. You should slightly constrict your throat and breathe out through the mouth.
  • /m/ - milk, man, summer. Press your lips together and make this sound with your vocal cords. The soft palate drops and some air passes through the nose.
  • /n/ - nine, know, penny. Press the tip of your tongue against the tooth ridge. The air moves through the nose as when producing /m/ sound.
  • /ŋ/ - thing, think, sing. This is a nasal sound as well. Raise your tongue and keep it further back in your mouth.
  • /l/ - lip, last, fell. There are 2 allophones: the light l and the dark l sound. To create the l sound, place the tip of your tongue against the middle of the tooth ridge.
  • /r/ - red, wrist, rat. Raise the tip of your tongue and curl it back behind the tooth ridge while keeping the back of your tongue low.
  • /j/ - yes, million, yet. Hold the body of your tongue near the tooth ridge and the hard palate and keep your lips mostly closed.
  • /w/ - wine, wet, why. To produce this voiced sound, imagine you are whistling or blowing a candle.

Simple and Useful Strategies to Master Your Pronunciation

Now you know how to pronounce all American English sounds correctly so it's time to train your pronunciation skills. Here are some tips on how you can effectively master your American accent.

Listen as much as possible

Get your ear used to the way native speakers sound. Watch TV shows, movies, find free videos on YouTube, and listen to songs and podcasts. Focus on the sounds that don't exist in your native language and learn to distinguish them. Besides, you should pay attention to difficult words and focus on rhythms, breaks, and intonation.

Read out loud and record yourself

The best way to achieve success in any challenge is to keep track of your improvements. Find interesting English texts and practice reading them aloud. Pay attention to the pronunciation of the sounds and try to follow certain intonation patterns. Record yourself reading and you will have reference to assess the progress. Ask a native speaker to listen and tell you what errors you have made. You should focus on the areas that are most difficult for you, practice a lot, and record yourself regularly to see the improvements.

Practice with Accent Hero

Take a free pronunciation improvement course from Accent Hero and master the pronunciation of 200 tricky English words that are commonly mispronounced by non-native speakers. The online course lasts for 4 weeks and you can practice anytime and anywhere. The course uses advanced speech recognition tools to provide you with immediate feedback and help you understand which mistakes you typically make. With Accent Hero, you are sure to learn to speak like an American.

Biases of Your Native Language

When we learn a second language, our pronunciation is influenced by our mother tongue. And the closer your native language is to the language you are learning, the better you'll be able to speak the target language. English learners whose native language is Spanish or French face fewer difficulties when learning English than those whose native language is Japanese or Chinese. Still, every native speaker of another language has his or her issues with English pronunciation.

Typical mistakes of Russian speakers

Russian speakers face many of the same obstacles to the correct English pronunciation that learners from other countries do but they also have their own share of pronunciation difficulties.

  • Russian speakers tend to pronounce dark l sound even darker than native English speakers. Besides, they pronounce dark l in all positions, even where light l should be pronounced.
  • Russian speakers often substitute /w/ which doesn't exist in their native language with /v/.
  • They often pronounce “th” as s and z sounds because there are no /θ/ and /ð/ in Russian.
  • They often replace /h/ with its closest Russian equivalent /x/.
  • Russians typically say /n/ or /ng/ instead of /ŋ/ which doesn't exist in the Russian language.
  • Russians find it challenging to pronounce various vowels and diphthongs, particularly, they struggle to pronounce /æ/ and often use /ɛ/ instead.

Typical mistakes of Chinese speakers

Chinese speakers usually face a number of pronunciation errors because many English sounds don't exist in Chinese and are new to them. Here are some of the most common problems that cause miscomprehension.

  • Consonant clusters don't exist in Chinese and Chinese speakers find it challenging to pronounce a group of consonants especially if it contains “r” or “l” sounds. They often add vowel sounds between consonants or substitute consonants that are easier for them to pronounce.
  • In Chinese, words and syllables never end with consonants except with /n/ and /ŋ/. Chinese speakers often add an extra schwa sound after a consonant or omit the final consonant.
  • In Chinese, there is no word stress. That's why most Chinese speakers have problems with vowel reduction and schwa sound.
  • English sounds /r/ and /v/ don't exist in Chinese. Chinese speakers often replace /r/ with /l/ and /w/. Sound /v/ is typically replaced with /b/ or /w/.
  • Chinese learners often confuse /l/ and /n/ sounds.

Typical mistakes of Spanish speakers

English and Spanish have a lot of differences in terms of phonetics and one of the most important of them is that there are 5 vowel sounds in Spanish and 15 vowel sounds in American English.

  • Spanish doesn't have a distinction between short and long vowels so Spanish speakers often confuse pairs of short and long vowels like /i/ and /ɪ/, /u:/ and /ʊ/.
  • They often substitute the schwa sound /ə/ for another vowel sound, pronouncing the English letters as in Spanish.
  • In Spanish, words never start with consonant clusters such as /sl-, sm-, st-, sn-, sk-, sp-/ so Spanish speakers commonly insert a schwa sound before words that begin with /s/+ another consonant.
  • Spanish learners often voice and devoice consonants. They may have difficulties with z pronunciation in a combination /z/+ vowel and s pronunciation in /s/+ consonant.

Typical mistakes of Japanese speakers

Japanese speakers can have a difficult time with English pronunciation due to the significant differences between English and their native language. The most common pronunciation problems for Japanese speakers are:

  • They confuse l sound and r sound because /r/ doesn't exist in Japanese.
  • They insert vowel sounds in consonant clusters.
  • They add vowel sounds at the end of English words.
  • They often replace /θ/ and /ð/ which don't exist in Japanese with /s/ and /d/.

Bias for Action?

We have identified the most common problem areas in English pronunciation for non-native English speakers. So now you know which sounds require additional practice if you want to perfect them. Of course, making changes in your American English pronunciation will not come overnight. That's why we recommend that you take a free accent training course at Accent Hero. With proper effort and practice, you will be able to master new sounds, reduce your accent, and learn to speak English like a native faster than you can imagine.

Try out Accent Hero