In my last blog post, 'How to improve your pronunciation for IELTS', we looked at what we mean by ‘good’ pronunciation in the context of the IELTS Speaking test. We looked at the criteria IELTS examiners use to assess pronunciation, and identified two scales: pronouncing words and sounds correctly (clear pronunciation), and using a range of pronunciation features (effective pronunciation).
In this blog post, we are going to look in more detail at the first scale – clear pronunciation of words and sounds. This depends on two features:
Your pronunciation of individual sounds (phonemes)
To understand how phonemes and syllable stress affect your pronunciation, I’d like you to watch two videos – the first is Tina, who we also saw in my first blog post.
Start by watching the first part of the videos and answer these questions:
What hobbies has Tina chosen? Why does she like shopping?
What kinds of people does Xin say become famous in China?
Tina likes shopping, picnics and volunteering, and she likes shopping because it helps her relax when she feels stressed out. Xin says actors, sports stars and rich business people become famous in China.
Now, you probably found Xin easier to understand than Tina, but why is this? Watch the first part of the videos again. What do you think makes Xin easier to understand than Tina?
The first difference between Tina and Xin is that Tina mispronounces sounds quite frequently. Firstly, the accent of her first language (L1) affects the pronunciation of vowel sounds, so ‘time’ sounds more like ‘tam’, and ‘picnic’ sounds more like ‘peekneek’.
Secondly, Tina makes frequent errors with the pronunciation of consonant sounds: ‘interest’ sounds like ‘idrisde’; ‘shopping’ is pronounced ‘sopping’; ‘stressed’ sounds like ‘stret’. Also, like many Vietnamese speakers, she often misses the consonant sounds at the end of words: ‘clothes’ is pronounced ‘clo’; ‘think’ is pronounced ‘thing’; ‘friends’ is pronounced ‘fren’. The examiner calls this ‘systematic omission of word endings’.
In contrast, Xin’s pronunciation is generally accurate and clear. He does mispronounce some sounds – for example, ‘rich’ sounds like ‘reesh’ - but these mistakes are only occasional, and the majority of sounds are accurate.
But there is another important difference between Xin’s and Tina’s pronunciation: Xin’s stress is much clearer in words with more than one syllable. For example, the first syllable is clearly stressed in the words ‘actors’ and ‘famous’, and the second syllable is clearly stressed in ‘because’.
On the other hand, Tina’s stress in words with more than one syllable is not as clear: in the words ‘hobby’, ‘shopping’ and ‘relax’, the syllables are evenly stressed. This is a problem because we recognise words partly because of their sounds (phonemes), but also because of their stress patterns (syllable stress). If the stress patterns of words are not clear, we have to concentrate much harder to understand what someone is saying.
Based on this performance, an IELTS examiner would say that Tina frequently mispronounces words and sounds, and this ‘cause[s] some difficulty for the listener’ (Band 4.0). Meanwhile, Xin ‘can generally be understood throughout, though mispronunciation of words or sounds reduces clarity at times’ (Band 6.0).
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Your pronunciation of individual sounds. If you make occasional errors with the pronunciation of vowels and consonants – like Xin – they will not have a significant effect on the clarity of your speech. However, if these errors are frequent – like Tina – the examiner is likely to find you difficult to understand.
Your syllable stress. If your syllable stress is not clear, like in Tina’s speech, the listener has to work much harder to understand what you are saying. This makes your speech unclear, even if individual sounds are accurate.
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To improve the clarity of your pronunciation, take the following steps:
1. Learn English phonemic script – the characters that represent the sounds of English. There are several apps available that will help you to do this.
Learning the phonemic script has two benefits:
You will be able to identify important differences between the 44 English phonemes and those in your first language. This will help you to identify the sounds you are likely to mispronounce if you are not careful. For example, the difference between ‘I’ as in ‘rich’ and ‘i:’ as in ‘reach’ does not exist in Chinese, and this may be the reason why Xin says ‘reesh’ and not ‘rich’.
You will be able to ‘read’ the correct pronunciation when you look up a word in the dictionary. Unlike many other languages, the pronunciation of English words does not follow how they are spelt. For example, the spelling of the word ‘knowledge’ – which we heard Tina pronounce correctly – tells us very little about how it is pronounced.
2. Make a note of the pronunciation – phonemes and syllable stress – when you record new vocabulary. For example, if you are recording the word ‘knowledge’, make sure you make a note of the phonemic script /ˈnɒlɪdʒ/. The ˈ symbol tells us that the first syllable /nɒ/ is stressed. You can mark the stress in the same way. Unlike many other languages, syllable stress does not follow regular patterns in English, so you have to learn it for every word.
If you are using an online or electronic dictionary, there is usually an audio recording modelling how the word is pronounced. In the example below, there are examples of both American and British pronunciation. Listen carefully and copy the variety of English you want to learn.
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3. Learn how to stress syllables. If we listen to the word ‘knowledge’ in the Cambridge Learners’ Dictionary, the first syllable is stressed. But how do we know it is stressed? What does the speaker’s voice do in order to create stress? If you can’t tell, try clapping the rhythm of the word. What do you notice?
You probably noticed that your first clap was loud and slow, and the second was quieter and faster. This tells us that stressed syllables are louder and longer than unstressed syllables.
However, there is one further way in which syllables are stressed: a higher tone. If you listen to the two recordings for the word ‘knowledge’, you will notice that the unstressed syllable - /lɪdʒ/ - is said with a low and flat tone. In contrast, the stressed syllable - /nɒ/ - has a higher tone. So, stressed syllables are louder and longer with a higher pitch.
As we saw in Blog 1 in this series, the clear pronunciation of words and sounds is only one of two scales used to assess your pronunciation in the IELTS Speaking test. In the next three blogs in this series, we will focus on the second scale – effective use of a range of pronunciation features - starting with word stress.