Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: consonants

One Small Change Can Improve Your Pronunciation of English

All languages have rules. If you speak English as a second language, then you probably learned the rules of English grammar by studying and practicing until they came automatically. Just as there are rules of grammar, there are rules of pronunciation. These pronunciation rules affect the way native speakers produce the sounds of English. This post is about one of those rules in particular, which can improve your pronunciation of spoken English so listeners can hear your ideas, not your accent.

This rule has to do with the voice. As you may know, some sounds are produced with voice, and some sounds are produced without voice. (These are often referred to as voiceless sounds.) If you are not sure if a sound has voice or not, try saying the sound while feeling with your hand on the front of your throat. If you feel a vibration, that is your voice. If you do not feel a vibration, the sound is voiceless.

Voiced sounds include vowels and roughly half the consonants. Most consonants have a voiced and a voiceless version. For example, /z/ is voiced, but /s/ is not. Besides the voiced/voiceless difference, these sounds are exactly the same.

But back to that rule. Here it is:

A sound that follows a voiced sound will also be voiced.

Sounds simple, right? This rule is of particular importance in English, because of a couple of commonly-used grammatical forms. When we add an S to the end of a word, either because we’re conjugating a verb in the third person singular (he/she/it…) or because we’re making a noun plural, that S is often pronounced as its voiced counterpart /z/, if the sound before it is a voiced sound. If -es has been added to a word to make it plural, it is always pronounced as uh + z. The voiced schwa (written here as ‘uh’) turns the S into a /z/ sound. When we add -ed to apply the past tense to a word, that /d/ actually turns into the unvoiced /t/ if the sound before it is a voiceless sound.

Grammatical Form If the sound before it is voiced If the sound before it is voiceless
Plural -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
3rd person singular verb -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
Past tense -ed -ed is pronounced as -d* -ed is pronounced as -t*

*After /t/ or /d/, the past tense ending -ed is pronounced as -id, as in the words added, collected, demanded, expected, painted, and sounded.

 

Test Yourself

In the following sentences, a word with one of these endings is in bold, with the ending underlined. How should the ending be pronounced? Scroll down to see the answers.

  1. He backed up the truck.
  2. Some people are afraid of snakes.
  3. The chef fries the potatoes.
  4. The dictator banged his fist on the podium.
  5. Do you have the rings?
  6. The mosquito bites itched.
  7. She walked up the stairs.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Answers

  1. backed = t  2. snakes = s  3. fries = z  4. banged = d  5. rings = z  6. bites = s, itched = t  7. walked = t, stairs = z

How to Change Your Consonants

When it comes to accent modification, there are two big general areas of speech that may be changed. In the speech pathology biz, those are called segmentals and suprasegmentals. In short, that just means sounds and intonation, respectively. The sounds can be further divided into consonants and vowels. This post is about consonants.

twofaces

Consonants are fun.

Consonants are fun. They [usually] involve some part of the mouth making contact with another part of the mouth and can be explained a lot more easily than the squishy vowels and the vocal tract that is sensitive to changes in volume (which can drastically change vowels). If you want to learn more about vowel squishiness, check out my previous post, A Tour of the Vowel Quadrilateral.

When people speak a second language, they already have the ability to produce all the consonants in their first language without even thinking about it. Those consonants and the way that they may be combined with other speech sounds will depend on the language and dialect. Some languages don’t have many consonants. Hawaiian, for example, only has eight consonants. Other languages have scores of consonants, like Ubykh, a now extinct language that was spoken in Turkey that has an inventory of 84 consonants!

There seem to be three ways people learn the sounds of a second language:

  1. The sound in the second language is a sound from the first language. This is the easiest because you don’t have to learn a new sound.
  2. The sound in the second language is similar to a sound from the first language, so the language learner produces the similar sound that they already know. This results in a distortion that native speakers of the L2 can hear, but the second language learner may not hear. For a while I produced my ds in Spanish more like an r. I had no clue until someone teased me about it.
  3. The sound in the second language is completely new. The language learner may learn the new sound perfectly or imperfectly. The key to learning a completely new sound is hearing the difference between the sounds in the native language and the new sound.

In short, when you learn a new language, some of the second language’s consonants will not be a problem, some will be similar enough to consonants from your L1 for you to get along, and there will likely be a third class of consonants that will be tricky to get the hang of. If you really want to get good at producing these new sounds, the best thing you can do is to diligently work on your listening skills. If you can hear the difference between the sound you’re trying to learn and the similar sounds in your first language, you’re much more likely to learn the new sound.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, work on listening skills.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, work on listening skills.

If you’re geeky like me and want to learn more, this is part of Jim Flege’s Speech Learning Model (the original article is here; I also recommend you visit his site – he’s a really neat guy!).

So after years of study and work to learn a second language, despite all your efforts, you still have an accent. How can you change your pronunciation of consonants? One of the best ways to do this is with an accent coach. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what I’m selling.

Accent modification services with a professional (someone with CCC-SLP after their name) is best because you need someone with a native ear to listen to your productions and give you feedback about your speech. An accent coach can also explain to you what you need to do differently to improve your pronunciation. Contact us today to improve your pronunciation of English. Let them hear your ideas.

The Key to Improved Pronunciation

The International Phonetic Alphabet, also known as IPA, is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of speech. You already know that the letter a can be pronounced differently depending on the other sounds around it. Because every sound in a language does not have one letter to represent it and only it, we use IPA.

Most people who learn IPA are speech-language pathologists or linguists. However, I believe that IPA is for everyone, especially those of us who want to improve our accent in a second language. After all, if you understand how a native language affects your pronunciation in your second language, you can do something about it.IPAMy favorite resource for general IPA information is Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article for the International Phonetic Alphabet has a lot of different tables and charts that explain all the sounds of speech. These charts use very specific vocabulary to describe how these sounds are produced. You don’t have to be an expert to understand it; the text of the article explains what this vocabulary means.

 

By Badseed This vector image was created with Inkscape, via Wikimedia Commons

By Badseed. This vector image was created with Inkscape. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another thing I like about the Wikipedia article about IPA is its treatment of vowels. Describing the pronunciation of vowels is particularly challenging because the tiniest change in tongue position can result in a big change in how we hear a vowel sound. The Wikipedia article has charts showing how tongue position affects vowels, and text that explains further.

 

As it is the International Phonetic Alphabet, the speech sounds illustrated in these charts are not just for English, but for all the languages in the world!

The other day I was talking with Amber Franklin, a researcher at Miami University in Ohio. She shared with me an excellent resource called The Speech Accent Archive. This website has a list of hundreds of languages. For each language you can find charts of that language’s speech sounds (in IPA, of course) and a recording of native speakers reading the same paragraph in English. The recording has been transcribed, or translated, into IPA beside the standard written English paragraph.

This resource is extra useful because you can compare your native language sample with the example for English from the geographic area closest to where you are (currently, there are 584 speech samples from English speakers) and identify the differences. Once you have identified the differences, you can work to reduce them.

speech accent archive

IPA is the key to improved pronunciation of English speech sounds. Arm yourself with knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and you can improve your understanding of why you have an accent (despite years of study of English) and what you can do to improve your accent.

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