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Improving your English pronunciation using screen readers

  1. Jan 17, 2015 #1
    English isn't my first language (and not of my friend's too :) ), but I have been reading and writing English text for a long time now. This has greatly improved my vocabulary and comprehension, but I recently realized that it wasn't doing any help to my pronunciation skills. Not having heard the words said out aloud, I would just guess/figure the pronunciations myself from the spellings (and pronounce it in my head), but as you know the English language, this doesn't always work.
    Yes, you could look-up the pronunciation in a dictionary, but its too cumbersome to look-up and check every words; you don't know what you don't know.

    Today, I decided to use a screen reader (developed for visually impaired), to read-aloud the texts for me, so while I read the texts I can hear them get pronounced correctly. I hope this technique will eventually improve my pronunciations. My worry is that the narrator might not properly join words while speaking, like a native speaker would do.

    I understand a better method would be to talk with native speakers; but unfortunately that's not always possible.

    Suggestions and comments are welcome.

    I am using this software currently: http://www.nvaccess.org/
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 17, 2015 #2


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    This is only a comment. Voice synthesizers can be comically inaccurate. Usually it's just with human surnames, but I've never heard one attempt words such as "isentropic," or other arcane technical language --- I would suspect some of the results could be hysterical. At the same time, there are quite a few people who make a living as narrators on edutainment channels and various documentaries who've absolutely baffled me with their interpretations of very common words and/or placenames. Maintain an open mind, and try for as many different "sources" as possible for unusual or exotic words.
  4. Jan 17, 2015 #3
    Thanks for your inputs.
    Yes, it almost never works for people's name (and also proper nouns, at least not for the names in my country), but I can live with that.

    But other than those things, most of the words are pronounced correctly by the synthesizer. But, the pronunciation is sometimes as if the words are being pronounced individually and not as part of the sentence.

    I realize that we have a tendency to use a closely matching phoneme from our own native language when trying to pronounce a word from a new language. I guess, this is what gives rise to accents.

    A child learns to speak only by listening; is it also possible for me to learn all the phonemes, stresses, and all those finer details of pronunciations, simply by exposing myself to hearing them being pronounced correctly?
    The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no:

    What is the difference between accent and mispronunciation?
    I think if you have a systematic mispronunciation (like using a slightly different phoneme), then it gets labelled as having an accent.

    I hope listening alone can at-least make me able to pronounce the words correctly, albeit with accents. My aim is not to be able to speak like a native (which would be nice but seems impossible), but to be at-least fluent and comfortably understandable.
  5. Jan 18, 2015 #4


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    "... native-like accent ... near impossible." Depends upon the learner's "ear" and upon the language. Tonal languages for westerners can yield more comic results than synthesizers furnish. People who speak tonal languages usually have better ears for accents and stresses upon syllables within words --- the tongue and palate may not do what the ear tells them to do, but they at least know they missed, and have the ear to help them practice. The big problem is finding a western language speaker to use as a source --- the percentage of westerners who can speak their native languages correctly is much smaller than the percentage of westerners who think they can speak their native languages correctly. (That's not just GB, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Yanks joking about each others' accents and aluminum versus "aluminium").
  6. Jan 18, 2015 #5


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    If you want to learn how to sound like a native speaker, I think you should look for videos of native speakers, that include good captions or subtitles. Using a screen-reader would probably work OK for basic pronunciation of words, but you probably want to eventually sound like a live human instead of a robot. Joining words together into a phrase or sentence is one aspect of this, as you noted. Another aspect is intonation patterns for entire sentences, including variations between different kinds of sentences (e.g. statements versus questions).

    There's a difference between a native speaker who makes grammatical mistakes or mispronounces a word occasionally, and a non-native speaker with a basic competence in the language (i.e. has learned most of the necessary vocabulary, grammar and basic pronunciation).

    As a native English speaker, I found it very helpful when studying foreign languages (German and Finnish, in my case), to use textbooks that specifically address these issues. They discussed some of the general theory of phonology, introduced the student to the International Phonetic Alphabet, gave specific instructions for tongue and lip placement in making various sounds, discussed intonation patterns, etc.

    (This was in my university days, when I took classes in those languages, so I also had native speakers as instructors. They were aware of these issues themselves, and could point out specific problems in my speech.)
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2015
  7. Jan 18, 2015 #6
    In college I studied French, German, Russian, and Spanish. We had a certain amount of required Language Lab time with each class. That was essentially accent/pronounciation practice. You sat in a booth and listened to recordings of Native speakers and did your best to match them out loud. It ranged from individual words to whole sentences. You wore headphones and a mike, and you'd hear your own attempts through the headphones, which made the errors more clear so you could correct them. It was an excellent system and we all ended up with good accents in these languages. IIRC it was something like 3 hours drill per week (per language).

    I have found that most self teaching tapes are set up the same way. After college I dabbled in Japanese and Italian, and the tapes were very much like our Language Lab tapes in college.

    My best friend growing up moved to France after college. One job he had for a while was as an American English accent coach for French people who had a lot of book learning but no practical experience with the real accent. There may be such a service where you live.
  8. Jan 18, 2015 #7
    Watching a movie with its English subtitle on is more useful than listening to the voices produced by that stupid :oldtongue: software.
  9. Jan 18, 2015 #8
    You are right, my screen reader cannot distinguish between statements and questions. But at-least I got to know whether its "kwɛstʃən" or "kwɛsʃən". Yes, I should probably also look at those videos. The reason I am using screen reader is that I am doing most of my reading on computer anyway, so trying to kill two birds with one stone.

    Thanks for those pointers.
    I should probably study the basics first, know how I should place my tongues and cheeks, to pronounce all those phonemes, and then practice correctly for years.
    I am currently having problem pronouncing the three z sounds: z(zoom), ʒ(confusion) and ʤ (jump). To me all of the 'z' sounds the same. It baffles me that they are actually distinguishable. So, even when I listen to them being pronounced correctly, I tend to use only one 'z' sound for all of them. I don't know how I could ever distinguish them; maybe listening for years can help, or maybe after I learn to pronounce them differently, I can start to listen differently!
  10. Jan 18, 2015 #9
    yes of course, and I do that often, but I can't watch movies all day long; but I can read (and listen) my texts and forums and news. :D
  11. Jan 18, 2015 #10
    Texts <<<< this is probably only correctly pronounced by the native speakers. /te-k-s-t-s/ :DD
  12. Jan 18, 2015 #11


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    In my early twenties I spent a few years in the UK, where I discovered I can't speak much English despite having obtained the FCE (a language certificate) prior to my arrival. While the immersion in the native language-environment certainly helped, I was still pretty horrible at pronouncing words correctly after those three years. Only when I went to university where we learned English phonetics as part of the TEFL course I have finally (and suddenly) started to improve and really make use of all those hours spent listening to native speakers. Judging by other students' progress, the formal treatment was very successful even if the person has never been exposed to native English environment.

    The thing is, without a formal framework on which to hang all the auditory experience, the learners are left to guess all the rules and how to properly twist their tongues and mouths by themselves. While conceivably doable for a sufficiently determined and creative individual, I found it to be an inadequate approach in my case.

    That is to say, I'm basically telling you to do the same thing @jtbell suggested - get a phonetics book and use it as the basis for your learning. I recommend "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?" by Mańkowska, Nowacka, Kłoczowska and "How now, brown cow" by Mimi Ponsonby. The first one is aimed at native Polish students specifically, but it's only expressed in a short glossary and a bit more focus on language areas most often mispronounced by a typical Polish person (i.e., the Polish "accent" - I'm inclined to agree that foreign accents are just a systematic lack of language skill leading to copying patterns from the native language). The second one has a similar, if less pronounced, slant towards Spanish native speakers - but you'll need some skill to notice those nuances. Both are perfectly adequate for learners of any language background.

    Ponsonby's book contains some much-needed instruction on where to place what parts of your vocal instruments to produce the proper sound. Still, you will need to watch and listen to the relevant instruction and sounds. Try typing "English pronunciation" or "English phonetics" in youtube and you shall find plenty of such material.
  13. Jan 20, 2015 #12
    Thank you everybody for your valuable inputs.
    So, the best course of action seems to be to
    1. First learn and understand the basic phonetic theories and learn to properly twist the tongue to produce all the English phonemes. I will definitely get the "How now, brown cow?"
    2. Practice a lot, the correct way.

    For 2, I now feel at an even better way is to have your everyday English translated to phonetic script. Having the text completely translated to IPA phonetic symbols would make it very hard to follow because you will loose the spelling. I found this nice thing, that seem to be of immense help.
    Edit: the unicode phonetic symbols doesn't get rendered properly after posting but works in edit window, for some reason.

    I still need to learn all those crazy diacritics, but I think its worth it.
    But before that I need to learn to twist my mouth to produce five different ʌ sound that sound the same to me.
    Thanks again.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2015
  14. Jan 21, 2015 #13


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    The great thing about formally learning the phonetics and how the IPA chart works for one language is that you can then read the charts for all languages and immediately begin to produce more-or-less correct sounds. The rest is just a matter of practice.
    All the different English dialects begin to make sense, and the rich history of the language stands open to explore.

    Give us a shout if you ever need help with a sound or a concept from the book or otherwise. I'm a language teacher by education, and teaching phonetics was always my favourite activity.

    In the meantime, check this video:

    It's an instructional video for teachers regarding phonology, but apart from a short introduction it's all just an example lesson. The approach is to move the learning of sounds from purely intellectual activity to kinaesthetics and muscular awareness - similar to how you rarely learn to play a game or a sport just by learning the rules.
    It should provide the much needed instruction to supplement the book. You can also practice the activities with any other learner, regardless of level.

    Look up other videos featuring the speaker in the above. He's great. Don't be deterred by the target audience (teachers) of some of these - you'll learn plenty not despite, but thanks to it.
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2015
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