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How To Pronounce The Most Difficult English Sounds Correctly

First of all, there is nothing wrong with speaking English with an accent! In fact, because English is an official language in so many countries all over the world, the definition of “standard” or “correct” English is changing. For example, English is one of Singapore’s official languages but because of the influences of its vastly diverse population, the term Singlish has been coined to more precisely describe their unique dialect and pronunciation of certain words (i.e., receipt becomes “reeseep”). Singlish borrows words from Indian English, Malay, and Chinese languages and mixes them with “standard” English.

This example of Singlish may sit on the extreme end of the spectrum of what constitutes English as a language but it serves as an example of how much languages vary. Languages are ever-changing and evolving in both their vocabularies and the ways they are pronounced. Everyone knows and accepts the differences between Australian English, British English, and American English and considers all of them “proper” English.

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Whether or not English is an official or commonly spoken language in your country, you may want to reduce your unique accent in order to increase the efficiency and fluency of your spoken business English. This is especially important when you live and/or work in a place that is not especially international and the population isn’t accustomed to hearing a diverse array of accents.

In the following paragraphs I will focus in on specific sounds non-native speakers commonly find challenging, describe the method for creating the correct sound, and provide an exercise to practice on your own. I also encourage you to take a look at this article for additional English speaking tips to reduce your accent.

Disclaimer: You may feel self-conscious at first when practicing these sounds so I suggest you begin in front of the mirror. Once you get used to the new pronunciations and incorporate them into your daily speech, you will no longer need to exaggerate with your tongue and it will quickly begin to feel natural.

1) L and R are often mixed together by East Asian English speakers

Let’s get our tongues involved! “L” is one of the easier letters to perfect because it sounds the same when it appears at the beginning of a word as well as within in one. When making the “L” sound (|l|) you need to briefly touch your tongue to the bottom of your top two front teeth and then let the tongue linger outside the mouth for a moment. Your mouth needs to remain slightly open in order to accommodate the tongue sticking out.

The English “R” is notably different from its Spanish counterpart. While the Spanish “R” utilizes a rolling of the tongue, the English “R” only vibrates through the throat. To make the “R” sound (|r|) begin by closing your teeth, opening your lips, and make a growling sound like an angry dog ready to attack, “Errrr.” As you make this sound, lightly place a finger where your Adam’s apple is or would be. You should feel a vibration.

Once you become accustomed to creating this sound, you’ll find that you won’t be keeping your teeth closed. As you begin practicing pronouncing full words containing “R”, you will notice the corners of your mouth slightly drawing inwards and your tongue will remain unmoving in its place.

Practice the difference between |l| and |r| with these minimal pairs:

light  – right
fly f – ry
alive  – arrive
long  – wrong

2) W and V are often used interchangeably by German and Indian English speakers

“W” typically makes a “wuh” sound. To create this sound (|w|), pucker your lips together as though you were about to kiss someone. Now, instead of making the exaggerated kiss sound of “mwah”, just skip over the “m.” You’ll notice that you need to release the pucker, or rounding, of the lips immediately.

Practice the |w| sound with these words:

would want will water

To make the “V” sound (|v|), allow your upper front teeth to connect with the inside of your front lower lip. Now try vibrating the top teeth against the bottom lip. Your tongue needs to remain immobile in its place so it doesn’t interrupt the vibration.

Practice the |v| and |w| sounds with these words:

very well very wet very white

3) T and D are often confused by Indian English speakers

The main difference here lies in where the tongue is located in the mouth.

The “T” sound (|t|) is made by tapping the tip of the tongue behind the top front teeth. When practicing the “T” sound it should have an aspirated quality, you should hear the puff of your breath.

The “D” sound (|d|) is created when the tip of the tongue hits much further back on the roof of the mouth.

Practice the difference between |t| and |d| with these minimal pairs:

ten  – den
tore  – door
tip  – dip
town  – down

4) French and Israeli English speakers especially seem to struggle with the hard “H” sound

“H” is a challenging sound (|h|) to create for many English learners because it doesn’t exist in some Romance languages.

To create the “H” sound, begin in front of a mirror. Bringing your open mouth close to the glass, sharply exhale through the mouth and try to produce a “huh” sound. Your tongue should remain immobile and in place and you should fog up the glass with your sharp exhalation. You may even be able to feel the contraction of your diaphragm as you exhale sharply to create this sound.

Practice the sound |h| with these words:

home hard help hat

5) “Th” is often considered the most difficult sound to produce for non-native speakers

The “th” sound (|θ|) often comes out as more of an “s”, leading non-native speakers to say “sink” instead of “think.”

To properly create the “th” sound, represented with |θ|, you need to leave a tongue-sized space between top and bottom teeth and then, as you exhale through the mouth, close the gap in your teeth with your tongue and let the tongue protrude from the mouth. Yes, you must stick your tongue out to properly create this sound!

Practice the |θ| sound with this tongue twister – say it as fast as possible without mispronouncing words.

Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb.

6) The suffixes “-ing” and “-ink”

When spoken, the suffix “-ing” (||) is often overexaggerated, adding a “guh” sound to the end so it sounds more like “singuh” instead of “sing.” Additionally, the ending “-ink” is frequently pronounced when it should be “-ing.”

To create the nasal “-ing” sound (|ɪŋ|), lift your tongue so the back of the tongue is touching the roof of the mouth. The front of the tongue does not make contact with any other part of the mouth. You may notice that the noise is actually being released through the nose.

To produce the “K” in “-ink” (|ɪŋk|) the back of the tongue will briefly connect with the roof of the mouth but it will pull away quickly and produce an aspirated sound as it releases. Think of the back of the tongue as suctioning to the roof of the mouth, closing off the throat. As you rip the suction away, you create the hard “K.”

Practice the difference between |ɪŋ| and |ɪŋk| with these minimal pairs: Record yourself! When you listen, is the differentiation clear?

thing  – think
wing  – wink
sing  – sink

Keep improving your business English

Remember, there is no shame in having an accent when you speak English! As a non-native speaker you may love your unique way of speaking. Your accent is a part of your identity and it represents where you come from. It also denotes that you are bi- or multilingual, which can be a great conversation starter!

That being said, most people don’t want their accents interfering with business communication. I hope you can implement some of these pronunciation techniques and find a happy medium between your natural, accented English and speaking in the workplace with ease. If you’re interested in continuing to improve your pronunciation and reducing your accent, contact us.

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  1. As a native English speaker, a lot of this is harder than it needs to be. R is a growling sound, as stated. Now, while making the R, raise your tongue to the roof of your mouth anywhere in the front half. That’s the L.

    For the T, don’t use your vocal cords; just tap your tongue to the top of the front half of your mouth and let air out of your lungs. Now do the same thing while using your vocal cords. That’s the D. IMPORTANT: No matter where you put your tongue on the roof of your blow, if you blow too hard, you’re going to get a T.

    For -ING, don’t ever say ‘singuh’. Just let the sound die before you fully form the G. Hold your mouth for the G sound, just don’t press as hard and let it go. If you do say ‘singuh’ scoot your tongue back just a bit, and you’ll get the -INK.

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