January 02, 2008

Extension Pronunciation #1: The Basics

by Weijen

Pronunciation is crucial to other language skills: word memorizing, listening, grammar, writing, reading…its importance cannot be over-emphasized. There are only 26 letters and 40 something phonemes, so why don’t so many people just take some time to master those few sounds?

Thus comes the pronunciation course.

The course does not pretend to change your life, but that doesn’t sound too far-fetched if you would use English to mold your lips, tongues, teeth, throats to move swiftly in a new way – after all, it’s not about new knowledge, but about new “movements” you have to adjust your lips to. It does not take intelligence; it takes practice. The course might be tedious, but boy, be patient.


When you want to say something but you can’t, it is a situation of “implosion.” That means you might know grammar and words well, but might have ignored practicing the movements of your lips, teeth, tongue, and even throat in an English way. It might be difficult for some, but not that difficult.

The difference between written and spoken words

A written word has meaning(s) and connotation(s), but a spoken word carries much more than that, such as authority, personality, awkwardness, anger, tenderness, delightedness, confidence, cultivation, nationality, mood…you name it. Showing those emotions is a very trait of being human.

However, sounds are fleeting, and they make non-native speakers uncomfortable.

East vs West

We pronounce Chinese words one by one, but it seems westerners pronounce English words by stringing them together. In other words, the way they process words is like eating the whole beef kabob, rather than consuming the meat balls one by one.

How good should our English pronunciation be?

You don’t need to sound like an ABC (American born Chinese); maybe you should even love your indigenous accent, considering that many non-English speaking peoples will forever keep their native accents. In the global village, there are all kinds of accents. Therefore, I think, in the new world game, a certain compromise needs to be set – we need to learn English and those
foreigners need to get used to our accents. It’s not too much an ask.

The goal of a language is simply to help us carry information and emotions. It’s not too difficult and it’s wonderful if you can do just that. Do not get tied up by correct use of grammar, great pronunciation, intelligent use of words…give yourself a break.

Try not to stutter though.
English has never been a phonetic language
English is the formation out of more than 100 languages (mainly, Greek, Latin, French), and it
explains the unpredictability of its pronunciation when looking at the letters of a word.

Therefore, one can say that there are no regularities in English pronunciation. On the other hand, I also noticed that American kids could pronounce some difficult words the first time they read them. It suggests that there is an underlying structure within this complicated sound system, and the only way to acquire the underlying, or hidden, structure is through extensive use of the language.

Yet, it’s too slow to learn pronunciation through a dictionary, and it is way too ineffective to learn it from an electronic dictionary.
The best (fastest) way to improve pronunciation, in my view, is through imitation – from TV, movies, CD, whatever, where contexts of English use are provided.


  • Vowels / consonants
  • Syllables (each syllable contains one vowel)
    Ex: entrepreneur / comprehension / sophisticated
    A vowel (V): I, ooh.
    Open syllables (CV): me, so, play…
    Closed syllables (VC): am, ants, eel
    Onset and coda (CVC): cat, sat, jump, clump (not a t all / did you)
    Syllable boundaries: e-xtra or extr-a or ex-tra? stan-ding or stand-ing?
  • Connected speech:
    Assimilation: ten balloons, good night (g’night), bridge score, church street, won’t she…
    Elision: p’lice, t’mato, c’rrect, acts of parliament, next day, government, mashed potatoes.
    Strong and weak forms: determiners, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions…(and, that, his, from, of, to, some, there, have, were, do, must..)

How will we proceed?

Before each class, I will upload the word and sound files on the Extension Website: (on Tuesdays) and you will need to download those files to practice pronunciation. (you need to sign up to the website) Please practice the same thing every day for at least 10 minutes. (7 days a week)
We will read the KK phonetics and related words together, and you will read some poems for us. I will do my best to correct each person’s pronunciation and we shall learn from each other. I hope you have fun. Be free to make all mistakes imaginable. Love them, cherish them, and let them catapult you into excellency.

Last time I did not care much about attendance, but this time I care a hell lot of if because, first, so many people could not get in this course and you are in now, so be serious. Second, it is simply very important.