7 Easy-Breezy Tips: Better Spoken English

Brenda de Jong-Pauley, MA
The English Center 2020

As you get better at English, you may want to focus a bit less on grammar and more on your sound. After all, your voice is an instrument that can be developed. Grammar is quite cognitive and is all about remembering the rules, but your sound (your accent, pace, volume, articulation and fluency) are more in the creative and physical realms.

Here are 7 tips to help you sound better in English.

1. Imitate native speakers. Netflix and YouTube are great language acquisition tools because you can pause them. Pick a movie or series you like and try to reproduce the speech you hear – just as you heard it spoken. Mimic your favorite actor and develop your “chops.” (= your ability to make a series of difficult sounds). Have fun and see how close you can get to the actor’s accent and style. Even when you sound bad, you are developing your listening skills and your vocal muscles. It’s great language exercise.

2. Do not believe what you see!

Spelling should tell you how words sound, right? But unfortunately, English spelling is quite disconnected from English pronunciation. Consider, for example, this series of words: through, crew, blue, shoe, too and two. What do they have in common? Not much, except that these words all rhyme. Spoken English must be learned with your ears. And if you can read and listen at the same time, you will get maximum value. So turn on captions and subtitles and enjoy learning!

3. Go up and down.

Listen carefully to native speech with special attention to the ups and downs. The peaks and valleys, fast and slow & loud and soft patterns of language are called intonation; and those differences add essential meaning to our words. Compare “I didn’t say he stole the money.” with “I didn’t say he stole the money.” Same words, very different meanings.

4. Discover the schwa.

The schwa sound is the most common sound in English. It is a rather primitive little  sound, but it appears everywhere and with all kinds of spelling patterns.

Just to name a few examples, The Schwa is
the A in – a/bout and both the A and O in a/bove.
the E in – ta/ken, spo/ken.
the ION in – fas/ci/na/tion, ex/plor/a/tion (Extra note: the T sounds like SH)
the U in – su/pply… and many more.
Practice the schwa sound by repeating, “Up the bluff, Bud runs with the cup of love.”

5. Relax.
Relax your throat and face. In general. English is a deep, relaxed language with a nice underlying hum. Again, if you are Dutch you have an advantage here. But if your L1 ( = language 1) is a relatively tense or high pitched language, try to drop your voice down into your chest to sound better in English.

6. Slow down.
I cannot tell you how often we have to remind people to slow down. I suspect that some folks unconsciously believe that if they speak fast, others will not notice their errors. Or that people will think they are smart. But in truth, if your sound is poor, going fast will just make you unintelligible (= impossible to understand.) Now, that does not mean that is is good to ugh… pause….uhm… too much. The best manner of speaking is with a moderate pace that you can manage. It’s just like driving. Going too fast is dangerous.

7. Finally, say goodbye to old habits.
We all have habituated ways of speaking. These are based on our “mother tongue” and on what linguists call fossilized errors (= mistakes we learned in our L2 acquisition). These habits take time and attention to correct. Trust your ear and your teacher and let go of your old ways so that you can achieve a more native, accurate sound.

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