First, realize that this is going to be a long process. You’ve been studying and speaking English for a long time—maybe for decades—and your pronunciation habits are well established. Changing habits isn’t easy or quick, and it can be frustrating. In fact, in many ways, it’s like going on a diet. You start out with good intentions to eat only healthy, low-calorie foods, and you look forward to the wonderful results of your diet. At first you stick to your plan, but as the days go by, it’s easy to fall back into old eating habits. After a while you’re eating hot fudge sundaes and potato chips again. It’s hard to change established habits.
But don’t be discouraged. If you approach pronunciation improvement seriously, recognizing that it’s a long-term project that will require daily attention and practice, you can make good progress. Here are some suggestions:
Make a plan and practice often. Practicing for a few minutes every day will give you better results than practicing for hours every couple of weeks.
Choose a specific model to imitate. Think of someone whose voice you really like—an actor, singer, news announcer, etc. It can be more effective to choose a specific target instead of a general one—“I want to sound like Denzel Washington” or “I want to sound like Julia Roberts” instead of “I want to sound like an American native speaker.”
Learn to listen. Of course you’ll say “I already know how to listen. I do it all the time.” But to improve your pronunciation, you need to take listening to a whole new level—to hear all the details of the sounds and music of pronunciation without the “filter” of your own language. When you listen to a sound, don’t just think, “Oh, that’s an /l/ sound.” Ask yourself what kind of /l/ it is. Is your tongue up close to your teeth, or farther back? Is your tongue tip flat against the roof of your mouth, or more upright with just the tip touching? There are infinite variations of sounds.
Listen intensively. Choose a scene from a favorite movie or TV program on DVD or a short video clip from YouTube. Start with a recording that’s slow and clear, like those on the VOA Special English website. It helps if you can also find or create a transcript for the clip.
Listen to the clip once or twice, following along with the transcript. Underline words that contain the sounds you want to practice. Mark pauses, intonation, and linking. Listen again many times, paying special attention to the words or other things you’ve marked.
Listen to the clip again and again. This will help the sounds of the language become ingrained in your mind. Try to say the dialog along with the characters. Repeat the words exactly the way the speakers said them. Sometimes this might give you a funny feeling, as if you’re mocking or making fun of the speakers, but for our purpose, that’s OK. The speakers can’t hear you anyway.
As you practice, the sounds and melodies of English should start to feel clearer and more distinguishable. They’ll gradually work their way into your consciousness so that you can hear and say them more accurately. You’ll start to hear differences that you didn’t notice before, and your pronunciation will become more like that of your model.
Listen extensively. Listen to as many different kinds of English as you can, whenever you can. Surround yourself with the sounds of English, even if you don’t understand everything. Listen to news and talk sources on the radio or the Internet, like National Public Radio. Find podcasts on topics that interest you. You have to hear the language a lot in order to have enough “sound data” for your brain to work with—to build up a sense of its sounds, rhythm, and intonation patterns. Just listening to textbook “repeat after me” sentences isn’t enough (although it’s not a bad way to practice). You need to hear real people speaking real language for a long time. The more exposure you have to the sounds and music of authentic English, the more they’ll feel natural.
Don’t try to practice everything at once. Choose a sound that causes you the most trouble and concentrate on improving that first. Listen for it when you’re watching TV or listening to someone talk, and monitor your own pronunciation of it. When you can produce that sound more comfortably and accurately, move on to another sound. This often works better than trying to improve everything at once.
Start slowly, then speed up. If you’ve ever learned to dance or play a musical instrument, you know that you can’t do it at full speed right from the start. You have to go slowly at first, thinking consciously about each movement, how they fit together, and what comes next. After you’ve practiced for a while, the movements start to feel more comfortable and automatic, and you can do them more quickly and smoothly. Pronunciation is the same way. Practice reading a passage or saying a difficult sound combination slowly at first, and then gradually speed up as it becomes more comfortable.
Carry a small notebook to write down words that give you trouble or interesting words that you notice and want to practice later. You could use a smart phone to keep a list of these or to record interesting new words that you hear. Keep a dictionary (paper or electronic) handy to look up new words and check their pronunciation.
Practice reading aloud. Find something to read: a news story, a page from a novel, a dialog, even a page from a textbook. Mark pauses, intonation patterns, and words that you particularly want to work on. Practice reading out loud, and then...
Record your voice. Listen to the recording and self-monitor. Try to hear which sounds aren’t quite right, then experiment with how to adjust your pronunciation to make it sound better. Play the recording for someone else and ask for their opinion and suggestions. Practice again, concentrating on those challenging sounds.
Practice in front of a mirror. Watch the movement of your mouth, lips, and tongue and notice how far you’re opening your mouth. If you’re imitating a video, compare your mouth movements with those of the characters in the video. Try whispering or saying words without making any sound at all. This helps you really concentrate on the movements of your mouth.
Get help from a friend whose pronunciation you trust. But be careful who you ask for advice. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about, even if they’re a native speaker. Unless your friend is an experienced English teacher or phonologist, he or she probably won’t be aware of how pronunciation really works and might not know what to do to help you. You can provide some guidance by asking specific questions. For example, you might make a list of words that you have trouble with or need to use often, ask your friend to model them for you, and then check your pronunciation as you say them.
You can also ask a friend to help you by correcting your mistakes when you talk, but this doesn’t always work well. Your friend may be paying attention to the meaning of what you’re saying and not notice how you say it. Or they may be reluctant to hurt your feelings by making corrections, even if that’s what you really want. It’s not realistic to expect anyone to catch every detail of pronunciation.
Let go of old habits. To be really good at pronunciation in a new language, you have to be willing to let go of old pronunciation habits, and this can be difficult. Aside from the physical challenge of changing the way your mouth, tongue, and lips move, there’s also a mental challenge. You have to be willing to sound different and sometimes even act in a different way than you’re used to, and this can be a little scary. Your voice and pronunciation are such a deeply rooted part of you that many people feel uncomfortable or threatened when they start to change their pronunciation. It can almost seem like you’re losing a part of yourself or becoming a new, strange person. It helps to remember that this new voice you’re creating doesn’t have to be permanent. You can go back to your old way of speaking if you want, or if it might be advantageous in a particular situation.
Don’t give up. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get the results you want right away. Remember that improving your pronunciation is a long-term effort that will always be in progress. Stay positive and enjoy the journey.