Practicing pronunciation, germ-free

During this morning’s Skype lesson with Elena Kostyuchenko, now back in Moscow after spending 2018 as the J-school’s international journalist in residence, I noticed tiny droplets hitting my laptop screen when I demonstrated how to move her mouth to say the difficult thw combination in thwart. Luckily for Elena, that screen and nearly 5,000 miles separated us. Clearly this is not a good time for in-person pronunciation lessons.

Most people around school think of me, along with Deb Stead and Tim Harper, as a writing coach, since so much of the work we do here is based on writing. (These days, students are looking at my edits from way over my shoulder.) But any language also has three other basic skills: listening, speaking and reading, all crucial to good journalism.

In journalism, speaking English well means being able to think on your feet to phrase interview questions correctly. It means quickly finding the right words to say what you mean. And it means good, clear pronunciation, so that your sources, and often your audience, can understand you. (Understanding what they say is listening comprehension, which is also coachable.)

Coaching in pronunciation or accent reduction usually consists of sitting down face to face and opening the mouth to make sounds. In this plague year, it is probably not a good idea. But if you want to keep working on your pronunciation on your own, here are some resources.

Online dictionaries give the same definitions, derivations and other information about words as old-fashioned paper dictionaries. (Does anyone still use those?) And they have one major enhancement: audio. When you look up a word, just click on the sound icon, and you’ll hear the pronunciation, as many times as you need. That doesn’t mean you’ll immediately be able to say the word flawlessly; it may contain sounds that don’t exist in your language, which means your mouth will need to learn how to form them. But hearing those sounds, and the word, is a start. The many good online dictionaries include, and a classic learner’s dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online.

If you can hear sounds clearly but have trouble saying them, Tools To-Go, from Baruch College’s Tools for Clear Speech program, can help. Its exploration of English sounds — consonants, vowels, clusters, word endings, and voiced versus voiceless — comes with animations showing how lips, teeth, palate and vocal cords work together to produce individual sounds, then lets you record your own voice and compare. Other practice modules focus on rhythm, intonation and linking sounds for smooth speech. For journalists, a bonus is the section on appropriate communication, including language for making requests and asking for clarification — something that we do constantly (and that first-semester students are often too shy to do). Tools for Clear Speech also offers a series of three podcasts called Just to Be Clear, available on iTunes.

It’s not easy learning pronunciation from books, but a major exception is American Accent Training, by Ann Cook (fourth edition, Barron’s, 2017). This workbook-style guide focuses on helping non-native English-speakers sound more like us, with chapters on difficult sounds, rhythm and phrasing. It also includes nationality guides addressing the most common problems among speakers of 10 specific languages. The purchase price includes hundreds of downloadable audio tracks covering nearly every lesson. Having had problems downloading the audio from the instructions in the print edition ($14.79 on Amazon), I recommend the e-book, in which the audio is integrated as you go along. It costs more ($21.99), but the coordination of text and sound is worth it.

If you still want personal coaching, see you online! For an appointment, e-mail me at

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