Hello professional ladies & gents!
Welcome again to my series about ‘How to sound natural (or native) in English’ – the Definitive Guide that helps you improve your speech and speak English naturally.
In part 1, we talked about the two factors that help you sound natural in English: the Sound of English and the Sound of You (Your Voice). If you haven’t read it, definitely check it out so you have an overall understanding of what they mean and why they are the non-negotiable components if you want to take control of how you sound when you speak English.
Today I will share with you the road map in how to take control of (and master) the first factor – the Sound of English. It includes the steps and their order, the traps that non-native learners usually fall into and my advice to help you from falling into these traps.
You can learn about Mastering the Sound of You in Part 3 coming up soon!
Are you ready? Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of it.
- How to Sound Natural in English: Mastering the Sound of English
Non-native speakers usually come to me with questions including the sound, pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, etc.
These all fall under an overall category: the Sound of the English language. In part 1 I’ve already explained the three essentials we need to pay attention to when we work on the sound of English:
- The foundational sound system it uses
- The rules of when these sounds are put together
- The musicality of the language (more advanced)
What we want to learn from these categories is the rules that speakers (native and non-native alike) abide by when speaking the language. Of course, native speakers comply with these rules without even knowing about them!
Guess what you tackle first in mastering the Sound of English?
Without further ado… *drum roll*
The most important & first step is to master the Foundational Sound System.
While we won’t be getting too detailed into linguistic jargons, the foundational sound system in English consists of 44 sounds (also known technically as phonemes).
You might have seen them: /ɑ:/ /u:/ /b/ /s/, etc. These are symbols that tell you how to pronounce a fundamental sound. The English language has 26 letters but 44 sounds!
Why mastering the foundation of all the English sounds is crucial?
– You have a solid foundation built on fundamental sounds. Imagine when you build a house, you need firm bricks. Similarly, if you don’t have reliable ways to pronounce each sound, when you get to high levels, which we’ll get onto in the next part, it’s very hard to manipulate these sounds to create the intonation & rhythm we want.
– Practicing with each basic sound also gives you the time for your speaking muscles to get used to speaking a new language. For example, in English there are plosive or voiceless sounds which reply on the strength in the air you force out to make sound.
In my native tongue Vietnamese we don’t have this so before I was aware of this nature in those English sounds, I spoke them with the same force I spoke similar Vietnamese sounds, which results in people not hearing them accurately. Imagine if your ‘had’ and ‘hat’ sound the same, how can people understand what you’re talking about?
When you speak not just a single word but a sentence or in a conversation, you don’t have the time to correct each sound, so the difficulties of people understanding you increase.
Knowing which sounds you need more energy for your air stream, which sound you need to curb the energy (because you’re using it too much), which sounds your tongue position is not quite right although it sounds really similar, and practicing to take control of your energy and airflow in each case will give you a surefire way to speak confidently.
It’s the confidence that stems from you knowing you’re pronouncing it right, and sounding so natural!
So far you might have been convinced it’s an art behind it. But art is hard to master!
No worries, it’s also science, very scientific indeed.
Kids don’t learn this way because they learn very fast, and they haven’t been tainted with other languages yet, so they can just pick up the sounds exactly and effortlessly.
Native speakers are not really aware of all this behind their speaking unless they are trained for it. My (native) boyfriend once exclaimed: “There are lots of unspoken rules I learnt when growing up without even knowing I was learning them” when he was trained of the phonemes.
For us adult non-native speakers, we have to deconstruct the myth of ‘natural speech’ and see what’s the mechanism behind it so we have the methodology to improve effectively and achieve fluency sooner.
You see, there’s lot of foundational work here, but it pays off because once you’ve got through the foundational sounds, you improve quite fast, if not skyrocketing!
Speaking of which, now we turn to the next stage…
The next stage after you’ve strengthened your Foundational Sound System is to learn how to put these sounds together.
This step refers when you run the sounds together to make words, sentences, and eventually speeches. You might have heard of “Connected speech” before – it’s part of what we’re talking about next.
So, what’s all that fuss about combining sounds together? Isn’t it like “One plus One equals Two??”
Not really though, because in the English language, when you put two sounds together, it’s sometimes three or less than two!
Kidding, but you see what I mean here. My joke refers to a phenomenon in speaking English that is both troubles and myths that prevent non-native speakers from speaking naturally.
For example, how do you say ‘You’d’ in normal speech? Not ‘you-d’ with equal energy though. There is modification here where /d/ becomes light and a bit swallowed, as opposed to when you use the tongue to make a hard /d/.
GOOD NEWS is it means if you’re aware and follow these rules, you will sound way more natural (like a pro!)
So what in the world are these rules?
No sweat! The most significant rules that will make a difference to your fluency all fall into the Laws of Connected Speech.
These laws include:
- Linking: When the sounds link together
- Merging: When the sounds merge
- Elision: When the sounds disappear
- Intrusion: When new sounds are added
- Assimilation: When the sounds are modified (advanced level)
A few notes as you go through this stage:
– Tackling it from easy to hard, simple to complex. There are less rules, and they are simpler as well as easier to practice with if your speech is shorter (the shortest is a word).
Non-native learners, because of frustration and wanting to see results, usually rush through this stage.
However, language is like wine – you need time for it to get ripe. Going from connecting the sounds to make a word, then a sentence, then paragraph will make it easier and give you enough time to make solid, sustainable transformation.
Practicing in this order, it should be fun and it should give you enough time for your speaking muscles to absorb it so it becomes your second nature. This will help you pronounce right even when you’re tired or don’t pay attention to pronunciation when speaking.
– Also this is where you have more room to play with your intonation & rhythm. When you pronounce each sound & each word with the right amount of energy PLUS you know where to cancel or modify the sounds, it creates the intonation & rhythm already. There is already MUSIC in your speaking!
– The more solid your pronunciation of each sound is, the easier for you to master this level. If your speaking muscles are not used to speaking a single sound, how can it be able to maneuver a complex group of sounds together?
– When you get to speaking a paragraph, which is a higher level, you have more room for your expression. You can inject your emotions into how you speak, emphasize key words with certain emotions. As you’ve had everything in place – your speaking muscles, the strength in your breathing, and an ability to speak complex groups of sound – things become effortless.
Let’s recap: The two main stages in mastering the Sound of English:
- Acquiring a solid Foundation Sound System
- Learning how to put the sounds together – mostly the Laws of Connected Speech
The first stage is of utmost importance if you want to achieve and stay fluent! I can’t stress enough the important of mastering the foundational sound system.
These stages the two most significant in helping you sound natural. Until that time, you don’t really have to worry about the musicality of the language (the third factor in the Sound of English.
I’d like to hear about you.
We’d love to hear about your experience with speaking a sentence or making a speech.
Do you feel like it’s hard to pronounce all the sounds when you speak?
Do you struggle to make your speech flow?
Do you feel tired when speaking extensively?
Put a comment below!