Updated: Dec 30, 2019
As a student or teacher, the most frustrating element of learning|teaching a new language is bridging the gap between written communication, grammatical understanding and actual use of the language. A student may be familiar with how to structure a sentence and easily pass grammar tests, likewise with listening but sometimes when they open their mouths...either the words don’t come out or they do and they can’t be understood.
Why learn a language if you can only communicate in writing? Well, this is the hardest part for many.
One difference between a native language and English as an additional language is the sounds and combinations of sounds that demand the use of tiny muscles in and around the mouth that perhaps aren’t used as much in a native language, or at least not in the same sequences.
They need exercise. Just like that guy at the gym that only works out his upper body but has chicken legs.
Here are some tools and exercises that will help you train your mouth and in doing so, improve your pronunciation, helping you to be better understood and communicate effectively. With this training comes confidence in your ability, so be vigilant. Monitor and reward your progress.
Celebrity spirit animal
Some Native American believed they could inhabit the bodies of animals, viewing the world through their eyes. In training your mouth to do the seemingly unnatural movements that English requires, you need a spirit Brit (or American, or Ozzie, as you see fit).
In this exercise, I ask students to spend some time thinking about a native English speaker they admire for their pronunciation and mannerisms. For example, one student, a huge Harry Potter fan adored Emma Watson. So, I asked her to spend the weekend watching videos of Emma Watson, acting, in interviews and so on. Paying attention to her annunciation, the way she holds herself when she speaks.
Be the Watson, invoke the Watson.
After some observation, I asked that she try to mimic some of the words and sounds. This is basic vocal training, it allows the speaker to start stretching those tiny muscles, but it also provides a mode of speech, an accent and more than anything a ‘persona.’
This was the vital element with this student in particular, she was a little shy when speaking, so we decided to treat this as an acting exercise, not only was it vocal mimicry but she was also to assume the confidence and delivery of her SpiritBrit. And she did, the class was shocked when a few weeks later she stood in front of them and spoke with a measured clarity and grace, as if by magic.
Of course, this type of exercise takes time and depending on how much you can dedicate your results will vary. Try and monitor by recording yourself, choose a sample sentence or even just one word containing challenging vowel sounds. Listen, repeat, record, repeat. Try this over a couple of weeks. Give your mouth a thorough workout.
Be the Watson.
Learning to describe things using visual prompts is not only an excellent way to expand and discover new vocabulary, it is also an integral part of most English exams speaking exams.
With this tool you can choose your own images, from the internet or your own files and highlight specific areas as you are talking about them. It is easy to share the video and audio afterwards, so you can share with other students or your teacher for some feedback on your pronunciation and use of vocabulary.
This can be very useful if you have a community of learners willing to assess each other, if you have a whatsapp group with classmates or why not share with the Bulldog community in our English resources room where you can also find other useful English learning tips and tools.
As mentioned in this useful article on self-study tools, this dictation tool (there are others available) simply transforms your speech into text. However, the algorithm is very sensitive and will guess words based on a sentence structure or if the pronunciation is not clear. Essentially, what your computer writes (with an allowance for error) is in theory what people will hear when you speak.
Try this simple exercise, take a paragraph from an article and read it into the dictation tool. Read slowly and clearly, take the time to consider your annunciation, remember you are exercising the tiny muscles that may not be familiar with these shapes and sounds.
Review your text against the original. Make a note of the errors, in a separate document if you would like to keep a record. There should be a pattern emerging with specific sounds. Work your way through the list and try to fill a page in the dictation tool with the correct pronunciation of each word, you can use the google translate audio button to hear the word pronounced correctly or the tool below.
Not only are you creating a synaptic link between the vocabulary in written and vocal form, you are also training muscle memory, so your mouth will more easily form the shapes necessary for the sounds that you find challenging.
Pronounce specific vocabulary
In support of any of the above tools, this platform can train you in the pronunciation of specific vocabulary. Youglish is a simple search engine connected to YouTube, search a word or phrase and it will instantly provide you with videos of the language being used in context in US, UK or Australian accents. Each video has subtitles activated so you can follow the dialogue as well as listening to the language in context. Fantastic for difficult vocabulary or
Youglish say “Use YouTube to improve your English pronunciation. With more than 30M tracks, YouGlish gives you fast, unbiased answers about how English is spoken by real people and in context.”
"The mind is restless and difficult to restrain, but is subdued by practice."- Bhagavad Gita