From VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.
Pronouncing English can be difficult. One reason is because English has some difficult sounds that are – unfortunately for English learners – very common.
But English learners can improve their pronunciation by using simple, everyday objects. These objects include candy, a pencil, and a mirror.
What are some of these common difficult sounds? Well, you have already heard or read them several times in this story.
The "th" sounds
In English, two different sounds are spelled with the same pair of letters: "th." You hear (/ð/) in the word "this," and (/θ/) in the word "thing."
When you say "this," your voice box moves. When you say "thing," air moves freely through your throat.
Marla Yoshida teaches English as a foreign language at the University of California, Irvine. She notes how strange these sounds are:
"Those [sounds] are hard for speakers of a lot of languages, because they are very unusual sounds... Very rare. I don't want to hurt those sounds' feelings by saying that they're strange... but, they're [strange]..."
Sometimes, “th” sounds are difficult for English learners to make because saying them seems impolite, or rude.
All cultures have rules about polite ways to speak to each other. When speaking English, learners may need to break some of the rules of politeness they use in their native language.
Tamara Jones, a program coordinator at the English Language Center at Howard Community College, explains. She tells why English learners might feel uncomfortable making the "th" (/ð/) and "th" (/θ/) sounds:
"This can be really tricky for lots of different speakers because in many languages, it's not polite to stick your tongue out of your mouth when you are speaking. But in English, to make the "th" (/θ/) or "th" (/ð/) sound, you have to put your tongue between your teeth."
So how can English learners teach their tongues to pronounce "th" (/ð/) and "th" (/θ/) correctly?
Tamara Jones recommends a tasty, fun way to get in the habit of sticking your tongue between your teeth: using a lollipop.
"I like to give my students lollipops, and they hold the candy right in front of their mouth and they can practice saying words like "thanks" or "there" or "this," and they can practice sticking their tongue out between their teeth far enough so that they can taste the candy. So, this is another fun way to practice saying that tricky sound."
The "-er" sound
Other sounds in English may not be as strange as "th" (/ð/) or "th" (/θ/), but they can still be difficult to pronounce. One example is the "er" (ɚ) sound. English speakers often use “–er” (ɚ) when they make comparisons.
Here is an example of an “–er” (ɚ) sound in a popular song by Britney Spears:
Stronger than yesterday
Now it’s nothing but my way
My loneliness ain’t killing me no more
Tamara Jones at Howard Community College says many English learners have problems clearly pronouncing the "-er" (ɚ) sound.
Part of the difficulty is finding the right tongue placement. To practice using the tongue correctly, Jones recommends that English learners use a pencil.
"But one little trick that students might find useful is to put a pencil in their mouth lengthwise. So they're biting down on the pencil, and the pencil is sticking out of both sides of their mouth.
"And then saying the sound "-er" (ɚ). When they say the "er" (ɚ) sound, their tongue should not touch the pencil. It should be down, under, or around the pencil, but it shouldn't touch the pencil.
"So this is a nice way, kind of a fun way, to make sure that they are pronouncing that sound correctly."
Common problems with vowel sounds
Consonant sounds are not the only common difficult sounds for English learners. Vowel sounds are often difficult, too.
Marla Yoshida, the teacher at the University of California, Irvine, points out that English has many vowel sounds. She says that English dialects can include between 13 and 15 vowel sounds. By comparison, some languages, such as Japanese and Spanish, have only five vowel sounds.
Two of the hardest challenges for English learners are pronouncing the "i" (ɪ) and "ee" (iː) vowel sounds.
Listen for the difference between the "i" (ɪ) and "ee" (iː) sounds in popular music, such as in Tom Waits' song "All the World Is Green."
Pretend that you owe me nothing
And all the world is green
We can bring back the old days again
When all the world is green
Tamara Jones at Howard Community College says one way English learners can start improving their pronunciation of the "i" (ɪ) and "ee" (iː) sounds is to use another common object. Look in a mirror, she says, while you say the words “pin” and “green.”
"Because to say "i" (ɪ), your face is very relaxed, but to say “ee" (iː), you are pulling the sides of your mouth, almost like you're smiling – it's a bigger mouth movement; it's a tenser sound "ee," “ee” versus "i" (ɪ) that is more relaxed. So, looking in a mirror can help students verify that they are saying the sound correctly because their mouth is moving in the correct position."
Using these tips
Clearly pronouncing common but difficult sounds can help you communicate better in English. Improving your pronunciation will take time and hard work, but a few basic objects will help.
- Touch a lollipop with the tip of your tongue to practice "th" (/ð/) and "th" (/θ/) sounds
- Bite a pencil but do not touch it with your tongue when saying the “er” (ɚ) sound
- Use a mirror to make sure your face is relaxed when you say "i" (ɪ), and that your face is tense when you say "ee" (iː)
As you learned in the previous Education Tips story, pronouncing individual sounds correctly is only part of the pronunciation puzzle.
Future Education Tips stories will give you more suggestions for how to improve your pronunciation.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly J Kelly was the editor.
Did this method help you? What other things do you do to improve your pronunciation? Let us know in the Comments section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
pronunciation – n. the way in which a word or name is pronounced
candy – n. a sweet food made with sugar or chocolate
mirror – n. a piece of glass that reflects images
tricky – adj. difficult to do or deal with
stick – v. to put something or someone in a specified place
lollipop – n. a round piece of hard candy on the end of a stick
tongue – n. the soft, movable part in the mouth that is used for tasting and eating food and in human beings for speaking
relaxed – adj. not strict or carefully controlled
tense – adj. not relaxed but hard and tight