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Don’t let pronunciation get in the way of your message

Five reasons why it matters how you speak

Did you know that pronunciation errors can be more disruptive to the flow of a conversation than grammatical errors? That the impact of your words is influenced by the rhythm of your speech? And that how you speak affects what others think of you?


English is spoken by people from different linguistic backgrounds around the globe. A natural consequence of English as a global language is a diversity of accents – a diversity we should embrace. We do not all need to speak with the same accent to understand each other and work together. But we do need to pay attention to pronunciation, so we can be as effective as possible in the global arena.

If you frequently use English in professional situations where the results matter – virtual and live meetings, sales presentations, academic lectures, etc. – you want to make sure that your pronunciation skills are up to the task. How effective you are does not just depend on what you say but on how you say it.

Your pronunciation is also the first thing people hear when you start speaking. Before you’ve even made your point, your counterpart will already have formed an impression. That’s why it is important to sharpen this powerful tool in your communication-skills toolbox.

Is pronunciation the same as accent?

Pronunciation is not the same as accent, but they are connected. Pronunciation is about the entire sound system of a language (I will talk more about what that means below). There are rules and standards for pronunciation. As a result, people can pronounce something incorrectly.

Accent refers to aspects of pronunciation that identify where a speaker is from, regionally or socially. Three people can all pronounce a word or a sentence correctly yet with distinct accents. So, accent is not about correct or incorrect.

Everyone speaks with an accent

Where are you from?

Maybe someone has commented on your accent: You have an accent. Where are you from? Or maybe you have commented on someone else’s accent: She has an accent. I don’t think she’s from around here. Comments about accent are driven by the differences we perceive between our own speaking and that of others - but everyone speaks with an accent.

When we hear accents that are distinct from our own, we tend to evaluate and categorize them: “from the South”, “from Boston”, “not a native speaker”, “foreign”, etc. Comments about accent often go hand in hand with biases in favor of or, sadly, biases against certain groups of people or nationalities.

The powerful features of pronunciation: beyond sounds

Learning how to make the sounds of a language is a core element of pronunciation, but speaking effectively goes well beyond that.

The features of pronunciation that matter for effective speaking and mutual understanding have a lot to do with rhythm. In English, rhythm is created by:

  • Word stress: stressing the right syllables within words.

  • Chunking: grouping words together in meaningful chunks or thought groups (and adding pauses in the right places).

  • Sentence stress: stressing certain words within thought groups and sentences.

  • Linking: linking words so they flow smoothly into each other.

  • Intonation: changing the pitch of your voice to guide meaning.

Pronunciation carries meaning

Native and highly proficient speakers of any language make use of the full range of pronunciation features available to them to convey meaning. Most of the time, they do so without being aware of it. The rhythm created contains a lot of cues for the listener. Just look at the following short sentence and say it out loud, following the bolded stress patterns:

You called the customer?

You called the customer?

You called the customer?

Each sentence has a completely different meaning, depending on which word you stress. The longer a sentence, the more important it becomes to use the features described above for clarity.

Proficient speakers also assume, again without thinking too much about it, that the listener picks up on the cues sent through these pronunciation features. They assume you get the message.

And finally, they expect other speakers to use the features in a similar way they do. If the rhythm they hear is off, they are thrown off – often more so than by other language mistakes. That can easily distract from the message itself.

Why pronunciation matters: 5 reasons

So, pronunciation plays a pretty important role in communication. Pronunciation skills can help you:

1. Maximize your performance.

They help others understand you better. If you want to make sure that your message is heard and has an impact, you need to present it clearly. Mispronunciation can be a distraction that weakens your message. Your listeners should be able to follow you with ease. This will increase your effectiveness as a speaker.

2. Come across as more competent.

In professional situations, you need to speak in a way that projects confidence and competence. Developing your skills will give you confidence. A confident speaker who is easy to understand will have a greater impact.

3. Maximize the amount of what you understand.

In addition to being understood, we need to be able to understand and comprehend what others say, with all its nuances. Pronunciation skills won’t just make you a better and more confident speaker, but also a better listener and interpreter of what you hear. Communication is an exchange and understanding others is just as important as being understood.

4. Avoid awkward situations.

Weak pronunciation can lead to a host of uncomfortable and even embarrassing situations. Here is just one: If you present data in a meeting and keep on mispronouncing a word or phrase, the meeting participants are put in an awkward position: Should they interrupt you? Put you on the spot? Should they ignore it? If you’re a senior person in a position of power, people may be hesitant to ask for clarification. As a result, mispronunciation can lead to misunderstanding.

5. Support the overall flow.

Pronunciation skills support the smooth flow of communication. In a world where English is used as a shared communication tool by people from many different backgrounds, your ability to speak with clarity matters. Interruptions, follow-up clarifications, and misunderstandings are less likely to happen. Flow increases effectiveness.

Do I need to sound like a native speaker?

For some people it may make sense to strive for “native-like” speech. It may be a prerequisite for professional success. Actors, for example, frequently work with accent coaches to acquire regional or social accents. It is quite difficult to achieve that level if you started learning a language later in life.

For most people, though, the goal is not native-like. The goal is higher effectiveness through better speaking and understanding. And that is a reachable target. Contrary to what many people believe, you are never too old to work on your pronunciation. Your speaking can be improved all through your life.

Most people retain an accent in the foreign languages they speak. There is no need to try to eliminate that altogether. You can be proud of your accent and your heritage but speak so others can easily understand you.

American, British, or something else?

For a non-native speaker, the question that may arise in this context is: If I invest time (and possibly money) into this, what variety’s pronunciation should I use as a guide for learning?

Even though the above-explained concepts of chunking, linking, and stressing apply to all varieties, there are differences between the many varieties out there: American English sounds different from British English, which sounds different from Australian, Indian, or Nigerian English. For people who did not grow up with English, it is often between the two large varieties of American or British English.

Waldemar on Unsplash

Which variety you choose as a base for your personal development depends on your own preferences and professional needs and goals. Objectively, there is no variety that is superior. Objectively, there is also no variety that is easier or harder to learn. For you personally, however, there may be clear reasons why you would choose one over the other.

What can you do to become a more effective speaker?

Awareness, exposure, active listening, and practice are crucial when it comes to improving your speaking. If you are an intermediate or advanced speaker looking to fine-tune your skills, then it makes sense to do so with personalized instruction and guidance.

Why does it make sense to work with a coach one-on-one?

  • Frequently people are not aware of their own weaknesses or errors. A coach can help you objectively and constructively identify issues.

  • A coach is not inhibited (like your colleagues or other people in your professional surroundings) to tell you about areas that can or should be improved.

  • A coach can design a customized program that works for you, because it targets your needs and goals.

  • Working with a coach one-on-one also means working without being observed or distracted by other people.

If you are interested in finding out more about how you can improve your speaking, contact me to chat. I look forward to hearing from you.

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