08 November, 2016
English learners can improve their pronunciation skills with training exercises used by singers. A smartphone with a camera can help, too.
These suggestions come from Michael Berman. He works in the Reading, English as a Second Language (ESL) and Linguistics Department at Montgomery College in the American state of Maryland.
Many students of a foreign language have trouble with word stress and intonation – raising and lowering the sound of your voice when you speak.
Michael Berman believes that such problems are not as serious as some people might think. Up to a third of his students, he says, have increased their ability to be understood by using two simple actions: slowing down and speaking up.
VOA Learning English's video series Let's Learn English tells about a situation that many English learners have probably experienced:
Anna: So, what's wrong? You look sad.
Pete: I don't have a job.
Anna: Sorry, I can't hear you.
Pete: I do not have a job.
In the video, Anna asks Pete to repeat his sentence because she did not understand him.
And like many English learners, pronouncing words correctly is not Pete's problem.
The reason Anna does not understand Pete is because he is not speaking loudly.
In Pete's case, he is not raising his voice because he is sad about not having a job.
For some English learners, the problem of speaking softly is that the speaker appears to be showing weakness, says Berman. English learners may want to hide their mistakes by speaking quickly or softly. Or, Berman adds, they are bringing customs from their native language.
Whatever the reason, the result is this: English learners might not be understandable to a native speaker.
Berman says there are several different ways to successfully deal with these problems.
Tip #1 Use strategies that come from vocal music training
The first is simple: focus on the speed and volume levels of one's voice.
By thinking about slowing down and speaking louder, you can slowly change your speech over time.
In addition to thinking about how you speak, you can also use strategies from the music industry. In voice training, Berman says, singers will often train by opening their mouth wider than they usually do. This enables them to get a better tone and a better pitch when they perform.
Singers will often imagine their voice coming up on a string to a target 3 to 5 meters away. When English learners imagine their voices hitting a target at a distance, Berman says, they often improve their ability to speak louder.
Tip #2 Use Selfie Videos
In an earlier Education story, we discussed the value of self-testing.
Educational consultant Sarah Lynn said that testing yourself often is one of the best ways to learn. Lynn teaches at Harvard University's Bridge Program in Massachusetts.
So, how can you take this idea and use it to improve your pronunciation?
One way is by taking a selfie video, says Michael Berman.
All you need to do is place the electronic device 1-2 meters from where you stand. Then, record yourself speaking.
When you listen back to the recording, you can get valuable information about how you sound when you speak. You can share the videos with friends or your teachers. They can give you advice, too.
The value of this practice, adds Berman, increases because young people – often called "millennials – place a high value on the idea of posting videos on social media.
When millennials know their video will appear on social media, he explains, they are likely to repeat the performance many times before filming. "If you're talking about English intelligibility issues, that kind of repetition and practice and focus is amazing", Berman says.
So, give the vocal music and selfie video tips a try, and let us know how they work for you!
I'm John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
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Words in This Story
pronunciation – n. the way in which a word or name is said
smartphone – n. a telephone that can be used to send and receive e-mail, connect to the Internet and take photographs
stress – n. greater loudness or force given to a part of a word in speech or to a beat in music
intonation – n. the rise and fall in the sound of your voice when you speak
focus – v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific
volume – n. the amount of sound that is produced by someone oe something
string – n. a long, thin piece of twisted thread that you use to tie things together or hang things
consultant – n. a person who gives professional advice or services to companies for a payment
intelligibility – adj. able to be understood