These tips are aimed at helping non-native speakers (or those whose English is strongly influenced by another language, such as some African, Pakistani or Indian speakers) speak clearer, more neutral British English. This neutral accent we commonly refer to as RP, or Received Pronunciation. However, they can be adapted to help those with regional accents of English that they may want to soften or neutralise.
Look out for further blog posts where I will go into each tip more thoroughly.
There are three major areas that you need to work with to really master the RP English accent and have the clearest possible communication:
- Firstly you need to understand the physical movements necessary to make the sounds and how this differs from the movements you make in your own language. This means understanding the precise make-up of all vowel sounds and all consonant sounds – nearly 50 different sounds in English! You need to understand how to train your facial muscles to easily make the new sounds fluidly and rapidly. I touch on some of the most important of these sounds below.
- Secondly you need to understand how to interpret the spelling of English so that you make the right sound in the right place. Particularly if your language is represented phonetically in writing, the oddities of English spelling can be a surprise. A lot of mis-pronunciation happens because people say what they see (not what they hear).
- Lastly you need to know how the music and emphasis of standard English works, so that the sounds all receive the right amount of emphasis to properly communicate your meaning. And your tune is helping your communication, rather than confusing your listeners.
The following 10 tips cover all three areas.
If you’d like to print the 10 tips out to remind yourself, you can do so in a handy poster form here.
1. Slow down
Slow down to give your mouth time to fully shape the sounds. We are often tempted to rush when we are worried about our speech out of embarrassment, and not wishing to take up too much of our listeners time. However, this is exactly the wrong approach. Having to repeat yourself will take up much more time, so slow down.
2. Open your mouth
Vowel sounds are made with different mouth shapes. Form these shapes strongly, with space between your teeth. The space allows the voice out for greater clarity.
3. Round your lips for most ‘o’ and ‘u’ spelled words
Most ‘o’ and ‘u’ spelled words in English round the lips forwards (your, pot, rude, book, about, go, pure, boy). The exception to this are words like bus/cup etc.
4. Highlight the important words
Really sing out the ‘message’ words (nouns, main verbs, adjectives etc.). Use extra movement, a higher pitch, and a longer and louder sound on the syllables underlined. These are the main words that carry your meaning, and we make them much stronger than the rest in English.
5. Mumble the function words
Mumble (say very quick, low, and with little movement) the ‘function’ words. These are the little words, the pronouns, articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions; his, a, is, to, but etc. Try: “Would you like a cup of tea?”. Mumble the words not in bold.
6. Say the THs
Touch your tongue tip to the underside of your top teeth, hiss or buzz through this contact, allowing no air to escape around the sides. With air (hiss) = thin, breath. With voice (buzz) = then, breathe. The spelling is always ‘th’ for both sounds. Many accents and languages don’t have this sound and replace it with a sound that is either too short (like a t or a d) or in a different place (like an s, z, f or v).
7. Say ‘n’ at the ends of words
We say the ‘n’s solidly at the ends of words, not like a half-vowel. Make a strong contact of your tongue tip to your upper gumridge. Add the tiniest vowel sound as you release this for extra ‘bite’. This also applies to ‘m’ (lips) and ‘ng’ (back of tongue). Try this on: when, can, same, mum, sing, going.
8. Say ‘l’ at the ends of words
Use the same technique as above. Use a strong contact with the tongue tip, and a tiny extra vowel as you release this to make the ‘l’ clear: all, goal, sale, hotel.
9. Only say ‘r’ in front of a vowel
In standard English, we only pronounce ‘r’s in the spelling in front of a vowel (this could be in the next word). So we say the ‘r’ in therapy and there is. But not in far or there was. Say the bold ‘r’s only: where are your spare red razors.
10. Link between words when you can
Try to link words together as much as possible. Most words in English run together to form mini streams of sound. E.g.: I’ve had a little chat about it.