How to Improve Your Pronunciation for Clear Communication in American English

Do you think your pronunciation affects the way you communicate in English?

In this workshop, we’re going to talk about the relationship between pronunciation and clear communication in English.

More specifically, we’ll discuss the elements of accent reduction that are truly essential for being understood by native English speakers.

And I have a feeling what I say may be very different than what you hear elsewhere.

Remember, it’s not about complete accent elimination!

It’s about focusing on the aspects of English pronunciation that you need to focus on in order to communicate more clearly, more confidently, and more effectively.

If you’ve been avoiding working on your pronunciation because “it doesn’t matter,” I hope this video changes your mind.

And if you think accent reduction isn’t related to becoming a better conversationalist and improving your communication skills, I hope this inspires you to try something new.

How Does Your Pronunciation Affect How You Communicate?

Almost every single day, I receive a comment from someone who shares that they want to sound more like a native English speaker, develop a native-like accent, or speak just like an American.

On the other hand, there are people like me who accept that they may never completely change their accent.

When I speak my second language, Spanish, I focus more attention on what I’m saying than how I’m saying it.

As non-native speakers, no matter our level, we have to decide how much time and energy to spend on accent reduction.

Where do you stand with regards to your pronunciation? Do you want to improve your how you sound when speaking English?

Connect with the Reason Why You Want a Better Accent in English

If so, you’re in the right place. But now, we need to get more specific.

Why do you want to improve your pronunciation?

Does it have anything to do with how well you communicate in English? Or do you want to fit in with native English speakers?

Or do you just want to be less obvious when interacting with native speakers?

(That’s my personal reason for wanting to reduce my accent in Spanish. I just don’t want to stand out and draw attention to myself as a non-native speaker.)

What are your reasons for wanting to improve your pronunciation, reduce your accent, and sound more like a native English speaker?

This “why” is really important.

You know I always tell you to come back to your “why.”

Knowing the reasons why you want a change will guide your actions and help you actually get results.

In order to truly transform your accent, you need to connect with your deeper “why.”

If you just have a vague idea that you want to “sound better” in English, it’s so easy to push your accent reduction goals to the side when life gets busy.

I’ve seen this with my clients; life gets busy sometimes.

But if you have a deep internal motivation in order to reduce your accent, improve your pronunciation, communicate better, that’s going to keep you moving, even when stuff happens in your life!

The people who successfully reduce their accent and sound like a native English speaker have a more emotional reason, like fitting in with their friends and colleagues, or feeling more confident at work, or feeling capable and clear in high pressure situations like meetings, presentations, and networking events.

This urgency and desire for immediate change motivates you to commit to the work you need to do to get results.

Pronunciation Is Not Just the Articulation of Sounds or Words

For me, accent reduction and clear communication are inextricably linked. But let’s take a step back.

When we talk about “pronunciation,” what comes to your mind?

If you’re like most people, you’re probably worried that you’re mispronouncing words.

You might worry about pronouncing certain sounds wrong in the most challenging or most common words.

If you often use certain words in professional settings, you should absolutely make an effort to get them right.

But when you spend a lot of time fixing how you say 10 or 20 words, is that truly going to help us understand you better?

Is that really going to help you communicate more clearly in English?

I don’t know. Improving your pronunciation word by word probably isn’t going to help you with your overall communication goals.

On the other hand, a lot of people think that improving their pronunciation means improving the articulation of certain sounds, or the way that we form sounds using the lips, the mouth, the jaw, and the tongue.

If I’m honest with you, correct articulation of sounds is actually quite challenging for non-native speakers of any language, even if you’ve been living in an English speaking country for 20 years.

The reality is that your mouth has developed “bad habits” related to your native language, especially if you still speak it frequently.

To improve your pronunciation through the articulation of sounds, you have to identify the bad habits and default mouth positions, break yourself of them, and relearn the correct movement of your mouth, lips, tongue, and jaw.

(If this is truly important to you, I encourage you to invest in working with a speech language pathologist, who can teach you exactly how to move your mouth.)

But here’s the thing: the articulation of sounds is only one part of clear communication in English.

If you’re focusing all of your attention on the physical aspects of pronunciation, you’re not going to reduce your accent.

Four Aspects of Pronunciation That Are Essential for Clear Communication

Let’s discuss the aspects of pronunciation are truly essential for clear communication in English:

  • word stress
  • sentence stress
  • intonation
  • thought groups (phrasing, chunking, breathing, and pausing)

Many people shy away from these topics because they require you to increase your sensitivity to the rhythm and music of English.

Word Stress and Clear Communication

To improve your stress, you need to pay attention to details because there aren’t rules you can follow 100 percent of the time.

Most people intellectually understand that word stress matters, but then they don’t do anything about it because there aren’t rules you can study like with grammar or vocabulary.

Mastering stress and intonation requires you to transform how you hear the language and break habits from your native language that are felt inside your body.

For example, many languages are what we call syllable-timed languages. In a syllable timed language, each beat is one syllable long.

On the other hand, English is what we call a stress-timed language, which means the rhythm comes from the stressed syllables in stressed words in the sentence. It’s a completely different rhythm.

For more explanation on the difference between syllable- and stress-timed languages, watch my detailed video on Word Stress in American English.

When I work with my accent reduction clients, I often learn that they’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the sounds they’re getting wrong, but haven’t been paying as much attention to word stress.

They’re always surprised (and relieved) to learn that’s the biggest reason why they still have an accent!

Even if you have developed a sensitivity for stressed syllables, you probably need to more clearly distinguish between stressed and unstressed syllables.

As a reminder, word stress is when we make one syllable of a word longer, louder and higher in pitch.

To speak clearly, you need to vary your pitch between stressed and unstressed syllables, create contrast between lengthened and shorter syllables, and signal which syllables matter by changing your volume.

I find that most people struggle with making the stressed syllable longer because syllables are “even” or “regular” in a syllable-timed language.

It’s hard to break the rhythm of your native language!

If you’re struggling to be understood by native English speakers, it’s probably your word stress, especially on shorter words you use all the time.

When you rush through one-, two-, or three-syllable words to get to the longer, harder words, or simply because you speak quickly, we won’t be able to hear that stress.

As I mentioned in my video on how to understand fast native English speakers, our ears are tuned to this rhythm; we expect to hear it!

We listen for stressed syllables on stressed words to identify what we’ve heard.

If you are emphasizing every single syllable or pronouncing them all evenly, you’re going to sound choppy or even robotic, and it’s going to be hard for a native English speaker to follow your speech.

Even if you articulate the sounds of a word correctly, but your stress is off, your pronunciation is not going to sound like a native speaker.

When someone asks, “Could you repeat yourself? I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you,” ask yourself if all of your syllables are the same length or if you have varied your pitch between stressed and unstressed syllables.

For more guidance on this topic, please check out these resources:

I repeat: pay attention to your stressed syllables.

Sentence Stress and Clear Communication

Beyond word stress, sentence stress is crucial to communicating clearly in English.

Native English speakers signal which words are important by putting extra stress and emphasis on them.

We expect to hear you tell us which words are important because their stressed syllables are longer, louder and higher in pitch on the stressed syllable.

In other words, sentence stress helps us know which words we should listen to.

Sentence stress gives English its natural rhythm through the rises and falls, the ups and the downs, and the contrast between the words carry the meaning and those that don’t matter.

To create sentence stress, you have to emphasize important words by making the stressed syllable on these words longer, louder and higher in pitch.

Intonation, Tone of Voice, and Clear Communication

Intonation, or tone of voice, is how we express the emotions and attitudes behind the words that we say.

As the common saying goes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

In English, we communicate so much meaning through our tone of voice.

If you say something that should be friendly or positive, but your tone is flat, then it can sound sarcastic or annoyed, which means the other person may not believe what you’re saying.

That’s why you can give someone a compliment, but they might not hear it as a kind comment because your tone of voice is not enthusiastic.

Or if you speak with a rising tone, you’ll sound uncertain, like you’re questioning the other person.

You might even sound condescending, like you don’t trust them to follow what you’re saying.

To express yourself clearly, pay attention to your tone of voice and learn to communicate additional meaning through intonation.

Keep in mind that intonation includes how we shift around the stress within a sentence in order to emphasize certain words for special reasons.

We may call extra attention to the words we want you to listen to most in order to respond to a question, to change the meaning, or to be even more clear when we’re speaking.

For example, moving the stress onto a different word can help soften your language in order to make your comment sound a little more polite.

For more guidance on intonation, be sure to check out the following resources:

Why Connected Speech and Reductions Can Distract From Your Meaning

As you’ve probably noticed, these elements of pronunciation have nothing to do with the articulation of sounds.

Using the wrong sound or substituting a sound from your native language can reveal your accent, but it won’t affect your ability to communicate clearly.

On the other tone, the rhythm and music of English helps people follow what you’re saying because you’re signaling which words are important, along with the deeper, more emotional meaning behind your words.

At this point, you may be asking, “What about reductions, connected speech, and linking, and assimilation of sounds?”

Learning reductions like “gonna,” “wanna,” “shoulda,” “coulda,” and “tryna” can be fun to say.

They’re certainly easy to practice: you can imitate the sounds.

But if you’re not correctly stressing the rest of the sentence when using any of these reduced forms, then it’s still going to be hard for someone to understand you.

Simply using a reduction or contraction will NOT help you sound like a native speaker.

You need to stress the rest of the sentence correctly.

Like I said, we’re listening for stress throughout the sentence, not just on this shortened phrase.

When you say “wanna” or “gonna,” it has to be part of the rhythm or flow of the entire sentence.

Once you master rhythm through word and sentence stress, you’ll naturally start reducing unimportant sounds and linking words.

That’s when you’ll start sounding natural and more like a native speaker!

And just to reiterate: connected speech is not required for clear communication.

Instead, it happens as a result of clear communication.

When you stress syllables on stressed words, you’re making them easy to hear and understand.

The reductions come from de-emphasizing the less important words and syllables.

Think of connected speech, contractions, linking, and reductions as a byproduct of clear communication.

Start practicing with the most common contractions:

Advanced Communication: Thought Groups, Chunking, Phrasing, Breathing, and Pausing

Finally, let’s discuss the more advanced aspects of pronunciation that will help you with clear communication.

To express ideas like a native speaker, you need to separate ideas into thought groups through phrasing, pausing, and breathing.

Chunking, otherwise known as phrasing, is when we naturally break our speech into digestible chunks that are separated by a micro pause, a breath, or even a change in tone.

Pausing between thought groups or chunks helps with the flow of the sentence.

In addition, we pause to emphasize words we want to draw your attention to in order to make a point.

For example, think about how much former President Obama pauses during his speeches.

This tunes people into what he’s saying and helps them to hear which words are important.

In normal, everyday speech, we don’t always have clear breaks or punctuation at the end of a sentence or between thoughts.

We ramble. We go on and on.

That’s why we break up our thoughts with these micro pauses or a change in tone in order to keep the flow of speech!

When you learn how to use thought groups, it helps you sound more interesting and engaging and can even show some charisma, especially when you combine it with expressive intonation.

Using pauses and thought groups helps people understand you because you’re the one separating your thoughts so they can easily follow.

Like I said, you’re breaking ideas down into digestible chunks!

But keep in mind that you don’t want to have too few or too many breaks. It definitely takes practice.

It requires you to slow down and be more thoughtful about your speech until you get the hang of it. And then you can start speeding up again.

Thought groups are connected to sentence stress. Within each thought group, one word receives the most stress.

That’s how we signal which words are most important to hear in each chunk.

For more on this topic, check out my article on how to use your voice and breath to sound more professional in English. I cover thought groups in depth in Stress Simplified and Intonation Clinic.

Your Turn

As we’ve discussed, pronunciation is not just the articulation of sounds!

Which aspects of pronunciation are truly essential for communication?

Let’s review: word stress, sentence stress, intonation, and thought groups (in other words, breathing, phrasing, chunking, and pausing).

These four elements help the person that interacting with listen to you and follow what you’re saying.

So now it is your turn to share your experiences with pronunciation and communication.

In the comments, please answer these questions:

  • What do you worry about with regards to your pronunciation?
  • How do you feel about your communication?
  • Have you connected these two concepts before?
  • What are you going to focus on now?

After this article and video, I hope you feel a little more confident what you need to work on in order to be understood by native English speakers.

Remember, the end goal of accent reduction is always to connect in conversations in English!

If you want to get started on clear communication, I suggest you start with the Stress Simplified program. This program will help you master word and sentence stress and understand how to correctly stress words, phrases, and expressions that are commonly used in personal and professional settings. Best of all, it contains a 30-day boot camp to help you make progress quickly! Learn more here.

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