If you speak to any person learning a new language, he/she will tell you that pronunciation is the key to communicating in the new language. You can learn grammar and vocabulary, which are also important aspects of learning a language, but unless you can pronounce the words of the language clearly, no one is going to understand you!
Pronunciation consists of sounds, stress and intonation, all of which helps us understand what is being said. Without proper pronunciation, communication breaks down and confusion arises.
Here are two examples where the spelling of the word is the same but the pronunciation of the word gives the word a different meaning. (These words are called heteronyms).
Let’s look at the word ‘invalid’. This word can be pronounced in two different ways, thus giving two different meanings.
Invalid (noun) - /'ɪnvəlɪd/ - a person made weak or disabled by illness or injury.
e.g. the invalid was taken to hospital on a stretcher.
(Here the stress is on the first syllable, giving it a stress pattern Ooo).
Invalid (adjective) - /ɪn'vəlɪd/ - null or void
e.g. The ticket to the concert was invalid because it had the incorrect date stamped on it.
(Here the stress is on the second syllable, giving it a stress pattern oOo).
The word ‘minute’ can be pronounced in two different ways.
Minute /'mɪnɪt/ (noun) – a unit of time, equal to 60 seconds.
e.g. It will take more than a minute to walk to the shops.
Minute /maɪ'nju:t/ (adjective) - tiny, infinitely small
e.g. Craftsmen can paint detailed portraits of people on a grain of rice using minute paintbrushes.
So, “How can I improve my pronunciation?” you may ask.
Here are three tips which are easy to do:
Listen to native speakers – the easiest way to do this is to listen to podcasts. They are easy to find on the internet, and cost nothing! Find a topic that interests you and you can listen for 5 minutes, 10 minutes or as long as you like. When I am doing the ironing or cleaning the house, I listen to a podcast – it certainly makes doing chores less tedious!
Practise speaking aloud – practise those tricky words while you are folding the ironing, cleaning the floor or washing the windows!
Take a lesson with a professional teacher – he/she will be able to help you with stress patterns, rhythm and flow of the language.
And, remember, like all things in life, practise, practise, practise!