How to improve your English pronunciation | Canada Talents - Blog

Everyone has an accent! All accents are right accents, worthy of appreciation and respect, and all accents can change. To make a long story short, if you moved to a country with a different language after you began puberty, you would likely have an accent that can cause substitutions. You are using a French lens to perceive the English sound system, which acts as a filter to everything you hear and say. French and English share many sounds, but not all. This filter causes substitutions that can make it difficult for your listener to understand everything you’re saying. The fact that 60% of English vocabulary comes from French doesn’t help - it’s like trying to park in a space that already has a car - one memorized form resists the adaptation, so a new “parking space” must be constructed for that car to park, using the speech movements of English to “drive” this addition.

This article should help and give you a “software update”. Keep in mind, it’s not enough to form the sounds using English rules, you also must inhibit the French rules that are eager to filter the way you speak and the way you hear speech. Controlling your pronunciation is an exercise in mindfulness: observation, awareness, and building your comfort in your new skills. It’s also a physical exercise like going to the gym, not only will it fatigue you, it’s the beginning of a lifelong endeavour of self-improvement. Like a personal trainer, your speech coach is there to guide and motivate you throughout the process, keeping you accountable until you’re ready to continue with self-study. With that in mind, let’s get started!

Do stressed words give you anxiety?

Stressed words and syllables are louder, longer, and more emphasized. English is a stress-timed language, and French is syllable-timed. In English some words (often content words) are emphasized more than others, causing unstressed words (often function words) to be reduced. French syllables and words are similar in stress and duration in contrast. Coming from one language to the other causes errors in word and syllable stress. You must learn to produce stressed syllables with more effort, higher in volume and pitch, longer duration, and with more facial emphasis, whereas the reduced or unstressed syllables will be flat or lower in pitch, quieter, with less facial emphasis. I demonstrate syllable stress in examples by using BOLD CAPS.

Practice Words
  • cre.ATE
  • CUR.ate
  • i.RATE
  • CUR.rent
  • COUR.ri.er
  • ca.REER
  • PAR.a.llel
  • MIR.ror

Remember: words ending in -tion, -sion, or -cion have stress on the syllable prior

Practice Words
  • cre.A.tion
  • sol.U.tion
  • dis.CRE.tion.ary
  • sit.u.A.tion
  • il.LU.sion
  • in.for.MA.tion
Practice Words
  • con.TRACT (verb)
  • CON.tract (noun)
  • BUTT.er
  • gui.TAR
  • pol.LU.tion
  • dis.or.gan.i.ZA.tion
  • e.LA.tion

Common substitutions of VOW.els in English caused by lip rounding or tongue/cheek/jaw tension errors

The difference between these two vowels is often neutralized (one sound used for both)

  • /i/ po.LICE, feet, eat, and SILL.y tongue is tensed against sides of teeth
  • /ɪ/ it, sit, kick, myth and BITT.er tongue is relaxed, the jaw is lower than /i/

This sound is like the "è" in French, like "crème"

  • /ɛ/ end, bet, less, and LETT.er corners of the mouth pulled, tongue flat

This sound is absent in French - corners of the mouth are pulled, back of tongue pushes forward. Similar to /ɛ/ but with the back of the tongue pushed forward and jaw lower

  • /æ/ at, APP.le, fat, bad, pants, can’t and MATT.er

The difference between these two vowels neutralized in French. One sound is used for both.

  • /u/ cool, tune, soup, and shoes lips are rounded, cheeks/jaw tense
  • /ʊ/ book, should, PUDD.ing, foot no rounding, relaxed cheeks and tongue

This lax (unstressed) vowel has relaxed cheeks/tongue and is farther back than /ʊ/.
Can be in stressed syllables.

  • /ʌ/ is the “uh” sound, as in bus, blood, come, Ken.TUCK.y and up

This lax (unstressed) vowel sound has relaxed cheeks/tongue. Jaw less open than /ʌ/.
Unstressed syllables only!

  • /ə/ KING.dom, pho.TO.graphy, phil.OS.ophy, KET.chup, and a.BOUT

The schwa-r sound (r-coloured vowel) named so due to no separation between the sounds.

  • /ɚ/ BUTT.er, COLL.ar, FLA.vor, firm, her, girl, SQUIRR.el, world, and burst

This sound is present in French but may be used as a substitute for the /æ/ sound in English. Compare them!

  • /ɑ/ FA.ther, walk, arm, heart, wasp, LA.ger, WA.ter, and AARD.vark

Diphthongs

They are two-part vowels that begin with one shape and shift to another. Below are underlined the words that contain nasalized vowels.

  1. /oi/     boy, toy, avoid, spoil, coin, de.STROY.ed
  2. /ou/   bone, phone, home, boat, LOA.ding
  3. /ei/     bay, pain, rain, DAN.ger.ous, va.CA.tion
  4. /ai/     buy, pie, cry, sky, child, mind, BY.laws
  5. /au/   cow, about, found, loud, POW.er

If you want to learn more on individual words, check here or watch some videos.

The th sound is substituted by s or f, and z or v

English has two th sounds - one is voiceless, and one is voiced. They’re both made with the tongue tip lightly touching the teeth, allowing air friction to pass over top. There’s no “th” sound in French, so speakers often substitute s or f for voiceless th, and z or v for voiced th, which makes sense because they are such close neighbours.

Practice Words
  • Voiced: this, that, other, mother, breathe
  • Voiceless: think, thin, author, with, bathtub,

The h sound and words beginning with vowels

Many words spelled with a silent h (borrowed words from French) in English start with a vowel sound. However, many words require an h-onset, which is a voiceless friction sound created at your vocal fold muscles in your throat. The constriction will vary depending on the following vowel, so your h-shape will change according to your following vowel shape. In casual speech, the h at the beginning of the pronouns he, her, him will be reduced, as well as the th sound in them. The ending of the word before is like a liaison.

Practice pairs
  • heat - eat
  • hear - ear
  • hungry - angry
  • Reduced h sound: get’im, took’er, let'em
Sentences
  • I hurt my ankle,
  • I hope my aunt is hearing okay,
  • I hope’he hates it,

You can check Alyson's video about these sounds.

English r is at the tongue tip and lips, while French r is as the back of the tongue at the velum

You’ll need to shift your r sounds, especially at the ends of syllables, to your tongue tip - simultaneously flaring (not rounding) your lips. The curl/tension in your tongue tip combined with flared lips creates the English r sound.

Compare:
  • French sur English sir
  • French corridor English CORR.i.dor

Two L sounds in English: onset (light l) ending (dark l [ɫ] )

The l at the beginning of words is made by pressing the tongue tip against the area above the teeth, allowing voiced air to pass over the sides of the tongue.

Practice words:

  • light
  • leaf
  • lane
  • line

The l at the ends of words is made similar to light l, plus extra tensing at the back of the tongue - press the tongue tip firmly against the ridge to create tension in both the front and back of the tongue. It can sound like an extra syllable if the syllable is stressed in the sentences.

Practice words:

  • FE.el
  • RE.al
  • WHE.el

Combine both, with syllable stress:

  • LE.gal
  • LO.yal
  • LAU.rel
  • LA.dle

You can check Alyson's video about these sounds.

You can’t hum while plugging your nose… [n] [m] [ŋ]
(nasal sounds in English)

In French, the syllable-final sound n is often just hinted at by only a nasalized vowel. In English, when it comes to the sound n, it’s made by pressing your tongue tip/blade fully against the ridge above your teeth, creating a complete seal, forcing air to come out through the nostrils only. Compare the word “quand” in French to the word “con” in English. You can plug your nose and say quand, but not con. N needs to come through the nostrils. The same goes for the m and ng [ŋ] sounds. When a syllable ends in [n], ensure you complete the closure for [n] before going to the next syllable. Try it with different syllable stress!

Practice Words:

  • CON.tact
  • CON.vert
  • con.TROL
  • con.TAIN

Aspiration at word onsets and in clusters

At the beginning of words with p, t, and k, there will be a puff of air called aspiration. This is what differentiates those sounds from their voiced counterparts in English (i.e. b, d, and g). You can feel aspiration at your lips using your hand. Leading into stressed syllables, there is also aspiration. (e.g. de.pend). However, this aspiration will disappear if the p, t, or k sound is after an s! If you over-aspirate those sounds, it will confuse your listener.

Flap t instead of aspirated t

In English, t sounds after r, n, and between two vowels (the latter of which is in an unstressed syllable) will usually be a quickly voiced t/d sound, called a “flap t” or alveolar flap. Your tongue will rapidly hit the roof of your mouth and come back down, given enough speed!

Practice words:

  • butt.er
  • bett.er
  • matt.er
  • wat.er
  • sitt.er

Question intonation

When you’re asking a question with a yes or no answer, your intonation will go up at the end to indicate this. Your listeners, especially monolingual English speakers, will be expecting to hear this shift in intonation - or else they won’t know they’ve been asked a question. When you ask a content question (i.e. who, when, where, why, how), your intonation will first shift up, then down, to indicate that it’s an open-ended question. This differentiates it from a yes/no question for your listener. In questions and statements, intonation is the main feature that distinguishes North American English from British English.

Example:

  • Are you coming ^ with us? (intonation rises at the end)
  • When will you ^ be ready? (Intonation rises, then falls at the end)

Silent letters

Because English borrows so much from French, we do have some silent letters - but far fewer than French. When you see an n or m written, it means you’ll seal off your mouth and allow the vocalized air out through your nostrils. It’s not enough to nasalize vowels or to hint at the sound, as is done so often in French! We also pronounce r sounds more frequently than is done in French - words ending in -er will have the blended schwa-r sound /ɚ/ you learned about in the first part of the article.

How to take the next step?

First, you should practice the advice that you learn in this article. If you need to practice or learn more, you should contact Alyson for an accent training session. Our members get our first session for free.

Remember, everyone has an accent! All accents are good accents, worthy of appreciation and respect, and all accents can change.

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Alyson is a UBC-trained phonetician and pronunciation expert that loves working with Francophones to cultivate their Canadian English phonology system. These custom-crafted lessons are developed based on your goals, personalized to your needs, and driven by analysis of your recorded speech