There are several major varieties of English (e.g. British, American, Australian, Canadian, Scottish, Irish), and within each one, there are numerous regional varieties or dialects. This program focuses on the two main varieties, i.e. Standard British English and General American English, though the term “standard” is used conventionally as it cannot be defined precisely without sounding controversial. You can be certain, however, that if you master such a “standard” British or American pronunciation by practicing with our program, you will not have any trouble communicating with native speakers of English.
Which variety to learn is, of course, an individual decision. We assert that neither one is easier to master, even though such conventional wisdom may be commonplace. The differences in pronunciation between the two varieties can be considerable, but they are always equally different from (or similar to) their equivalents in one’s native language.
In colonial times, British English was dominant, but today the political and economic status of the USA, and the expansion of American pop culture have caused American English to become prevailing, at least when we consider the number of users (including learners), as well as the number of Americanisms that have entered British English. It also concerns pronunciation – some British words are commonly pronounced following the rules of American English (e.g. schedule).
Before you move on to the repetition exercises, spend a few minutes carefully reading the description of a sound you are about to practice. Learning a foreign language requires understanding how the articulators move during the production of a given sound – especially in relation to the sounds that immediately precede or follow it. Before you turn to the repetition exercises, you should know how to pronounce a sound correctly – not just “approximately” (which in practice means following the rules of your native language, which is the most common source of mistakes). Pay special attention to the information about the sound’s most common spellings, found towards the end of each description. Unlike in most other languages, almost all sounds in English can be spelled in several different ways (e.g. the vowel schwa (/ә/) has as many as 43 spellings!). Learning at least the most frequent spellings of a given sound will help you avoid errors that often result from intuition based on false reasoning (e.g. Since good and blood have almost identical spellings then they must be pronounced with the same vowel, right? No, they are not!).
When we start learning English, it might seem that the sounds which are not present in our own language are the hardest to master – e.g. the “infamous” TH sound (/θ/ /ð/), which is commonly replaced by non-native speakers with one of these six sounds: /s/, /z/, /f/ /v/, /t/, /d/. However, when we get down to working on the English sounds, it turns out that the TH is in fact one of the easiest sounds to master, whereas one of the most difficult consonants is, paradoxically, the /t/ sound. If you want your English to be not only “fairly correct” but also “pleasant”, you have to cover all the English sounds, because each one – at least in some contexts – is different from its apparent equivalent in your native language. You can hear those differences in the exercise called PHONETIC FALSE FRIENDS (ex. #2), where English words are contrasted with foreign words that have seemingly similar pronunciations.
The application has been designed so that the user can complete any exercise at a given moment. The program’s structure, however, reflects the recommended order of tasks. Thus, you start from the description a sound (tab #1) accompanied by an animation, which conventionally shows what we cannot see most of the time – how to move the tongue and other articulators when producing a given sound. After listening to PHONETIC FALSE FRIENDS, you should go on to the first exercise, which usually comprises 100-150 most characteristic words containing a given sound in various contexts. Before you start practicing individual words, it is good to press the PLAY ALL button first and focus on a practiced sound (marked in color). The benefit will be twofold: you get a feel for a given sound, and you also familiarize yourself with its various (often confusing) spellings. Then you should play each word separately and repeat after the speaker, doing your best to pronounce it as well as you can. This exercise is worth repeating in a different way in order to test yourself on different spellings of a given sound. First, turn off the graphemes using the OPTIONS button. Then, pronounce the words one by one, checking their correct pronunciations by playing the recordings. You can use this option in every exercise, as this will give you confidence that you are not only able to repeat a given word/phrase/sentence, but also use it on your own. Similarly, you can use the OPTIONS button to switch off the translations in order to test yourself and see whether you really know the word’s/phrase’s/sentence’s meaning.
Other exercises include: lists of words, in which a given sound appears in particularly difficult or uncommon contexts; names and surnames; geographical names, and various proper names (commonly mispronounced company/brand names, car makes, product names, etc); phrases (idioms, set phrases and collocations); sentences, as well as original texts with a dense saturation of the target sound. Most chapters also contain extra exercises showing the sound in opposition to other sound(s) it is commonly confused with by non-native speakers. The same format is used in testing exercises at the end of each chapter, where the speaker reads a word/phrase/sentence from a given pair, and your task is to check the word/phrase/sentence that you have heard. Such exercises help you develop the skill of understanding spoken English, where often a change of one sound (or its sloppy pronunciation) changes the meaning of the entire statement (e.g. sentences What a beautiful crab! and What a beautiful crap! express one’s delight over two drastically different things!).
All the recordings reflect the standard American and British pronunciation. The speakers read the words, phrases, and sentences at a natural pace. Remember, that when practicing pronunciation you should not focus on speed, but rather try and repeat the words/phrases/sentences quite slowly, concentrating on pronouncing a given sound clearly and correctly. Each of has their own way of speaking and there is no “ideal” speed, but bear in mind that the faster we try to speak, the more sloppy our speech usually becomes. Speaking slowly – provided that we do not drawl the words but link them – is not a mistake, and taking into account ELT methodology, it is even a recommended technique.