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How to better pronounce long words

Pronunciation can be a challenge when learning a new language, especially with longer words. But there is help!
Here is a technique that will enable you to get your tongue around tricky words more easily.
You can also view an infographic of this post.


What can make the pronunciation of a word difficult?

(You can listen to this post here.)

In every language, learners struggle with the pronunciation of some words. Here are some reasons.

  • For example, the word contains sounds which are unfamiliar or do not even exist in our own language.
  • Unusual combinations of sounds can make pronunciation difficult, for example several consonants together.
  • Perhaps the word is stressed in an unfamiliar way; for example, photographer.
  • Particularly in English, by looking at the spelling of a word we can get confused about how to pronounce it.
  • Some words can be quite long or contain several unfamiliar elements together.

Now, listening carefully to a competent speaker of English definitely helps. Online Dictionaries are your friends here, too: they teach you how to pronounce a word. You can play the recording and repeat the pronunciation as often as you need to get your tongue around it.

Even so, getting the pronunciation of long or difficult words right can be a challenge.

For instance, let’s take a look at a word like infrastructure, which can be hard for speakers of Spanish or Italian. What are the potential problem areas here?

  • It consists of four syllables, so it is rather long.
  • It contains several consonant clusters. Especially the str cluster can be hard to pronounce.
  • infra- and –ture both end in a schwa, /ə/, which is an unfamiliar sound in those languages.
  • The four letters forming the last syllable do not reflect the way they are pronounced.

So let’s break it down into syllables, starting at the beginning.

in
in-fra
in-fra-struc
in-fra-struc-ture

As you can see, at the end of the word spelling gets in the way of pronunciation.

Now here is …

… a simple but effective technique

There is a better way to work our way through long or difficult words. The name of this technique is backchaining.

Here is how it works.

  1. Break the word up in chunks, not necessarily syllables.
  2. Get away from how the word is spelled and think about how it is pronounced.
  3. Start from the end of the word rather than from the beginning.

Using the previous example, we can break infrastructure up into three parts:
infra, struck (as in strike, struck, struck), and cha (as in cha-cha-cha). We will substitute the schwa by a short a.

Then start pronouncing these from the end. Speak slowly and clearly and repeat as often as necessary.

cha
struck-cha
infra-struck-cha

Make sure you link the s to the a before it: infras-. Infras-truck-cha. Infrastructure.

Now try the same with Elizabeth. The two consonants z and th can make it a difficult word for speakers of German.

beth
za-beth
li-za-beth
E-li-za-beth

You can go on from here now. Check the pronunciation of a word in a dictionary, then start pronouncing it from the end. You could try words such as encouragingly, enthusiasm, industrialization, phenomenon, variety.

What words are difficult for you to pronounce? Has the backchaining technique made it easier for you?

Here is an infographic of this post for you.

Difficult words made easy in 3 steps

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