Once I’d given up my day job training teachers of English, teaching in classrooms and managing IELTS tests, I was able to spend more time overseas working online with organisations like E2Language. For several years now I’ve been working in central Viet Nam. I work closely with Vietnamese staff from an NGO I assist my wife to run, and one of my jobs has been to help them to become better users of English.

We cover all the four skills, reading, listening, writing and speaking. The last two are the ones we focus on most. For many Vietnamese students, English pronunciation is usually their number one target for improvement. For the staff at the NGO, this is because the part of their work they find most challenging is to speak and make presentations to the NGO’s clients. Most of their audience are from English speaking countries. They are also now doing more talks in public and are keen to be able to speak naturally with pronunciation which will be easily understood by their largely foreign audience.

Why is English pronunciation so difficult for Vietnamese students?

Many if not most of the individual sounds in English are pronounced differently from those in Vietnamese. These sounds are mostly represented by single letters and also by combinations of two or more letters. You can practise getting these individual sounds correct but the reality is that many of the Vietnamese speakers I work with find there’s just too much going on when they’re speaking to give attention to how they are producing small parts of what they are saying. Why? Because speaking a foreign language is hard! When we’re talking our brain is used to think of what we’re saying and how to say it. There’s little RAM left to correct pronunciation!

So what to do to improve your English pronunciation?

Work on your sentence stress first.

English has so many differences from Vietnamese. There’s one worth paying attention to more than all the others. If you can focus on this one aspect of pronunciation, you’ll be on your way to speaking more naturally. This is sentence stress.

Vietnamese words are all given more or less the same stress in a sentence. Even if you’re not a Vietnamese speaker this may apply to you. This means you give more or less the same emphasis to each word, which also means the same amount of time. This is not so in English. Take this sentence as an example:

‘What do you think you’ll be doing tomorrow?’

When we ask this question there are four words or parts of words (syllables) that we give greater stress to. They are ‘What’, ‘think’, ‘doing’ and ‘tomorrow’. If we just say these four words to our friend there’s a good chance she’ll understand the question. ‘What think doing tomorrow?’ ‘Oh I’m just going to chill out at home’.

So what happens to the other words that carry less meaning and are therefore given less stress? We give them less time, and often the sound of the vowel in these words changes and words get joined together in something called elision – I’ve marked this with a ‘_’. Take ‘do you’ for example. This ends up as ‘dyou’ because we’re moving on fast to the next word ‘think’ which is more important (carries more meaning). The listener knows you are talking to her so the ‘you’ is understood even though you can hardly hear it. So the sentence goes like this:

‘What_dyou think_you’ll be doing tomorrow?’

Note that the first syllable of tomorrow ‘to’ loses it’s ‘o’ sound and becomes /ə/ because it’s not stressed. This doesn’t happen in Vietnamese – vowel sounds don’t change. (though the way you say them varies depending on where you are in Viet Nam!)

Try it yourself…

Now when I first got our staff to do this by parroting – copying – me their reaction was fascinating. When I asked how did it feel talking like that they all said something like ‘strange’. To me it sounded so much more natural but to them it sounded kind of weird. They were happy but at the same time, because the rhythm of what they said had moved away from the rhythm of Vietnamese towards that of English, it sounded foreign – a good thing I thought but it didn’t ‘feel’ right to them.

There are of course plenty of other elements of English which are different from Vietnamese but try getting the sentence stress or rhythm flowing more naturally and those other bits will start to follow on and not get in the way of understanding so much.

If you find this helps then I’ll cover things like intonation, individual letters, end of word consonants and clusters in another post. Let me know how you go.

Here are a few more sentences to have a go at. Hope you find them useful. Try making up your own and marking the words or syllables you’re going to give more stress and time to. Once you think you’re sounding more natural, which probably means it’s feeling a bit strange, record yourself on your mobile and listen. It’ll take a while to change, but remember you’re reprogramming your brain.

1. I’ll pick_you up_at seven. That’d be great.

2.What_do_you miss about life in your country?

3. We’re going t/ə/ the beach. D’you want_t/ə/ come?

If you want more help with your speaking, or any another aspect of your English, my colleagues at E2language are here for you. That is here online around the globe from Indonesia to Brazil, from Korea to France. Hope to see you soon.

Graeme Burn
IELTS Expert
Dip TEFLA, M Ed

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