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May 17, 2015

Words To Pronounce More Clearly

What are some commonly mispronounced or misunderstood words said by engineers in India? Based on accent training programs given to more than 500 professionals working on global teams with Americans, the following words often are identified as target words for pronunciation practice and clarity in face-to-face and phone conversations. 

Instead of going through every single word on this list, I will share some general tips to improve pronunciation and articulation that can be used with these and other hard to pronounce words.

The first thing that anyone thinks about when talking about accent is sounds. Sounds or phonetics are the smallest part of the language. While it's important to understand the differences in sounds, say when comparing English and Malayalam or English and Tamil or English and Hindi, the key is not to over focus only on sounds, but also learn the sounds to improve listening comprehension.

Some of the tricky sounds between most Indian languages and English are v/w, t/d, and the r sound, p/b, qu, s/z, j/z
Some tricky sounds between Malayalam and English are combined letters/sounds like mb/mp, nd/nt 

It's not only important to get the sounds right, but when spelling words, names, or using abbreviations, the way we pronounce letters (the alphabets) can cause problems, too. In the list above, there is one abbreviation - IOS. In many south Indian accents, it may be said "eye" "yo" "yes". To reduce this, instead, try saying it as "eye" "oh" "es". 

When spelling something over the phone with double letters, say each letter separately. For instance, when spelling Jennifer, I'd say, jay - e - en - en - eye - ef - e - r - not jay- yee - double yen - eye - yef - ee - rrrr. (Though in South India, I may pronounce my name in the second way for people to understand me better!). 

The next element of pronouncing words properly are syllables. If you find it hard to pronounce a word, break it up into syllables. Even if you can't get all the sounds correctly, breaking the syllables in the right place will help tremendously in listening comprehension with native speakers. 

Combined Sounds in Malayalam - Break into Syllables
Note in Malayalam, there are combined sounds like mp/mb, nt/nd and others. In Malayalam combined sounds will have only one sound, in English, these combined sounds will have a syllable break between them. 

Let's take the word "combined". In Malayalam, it's possible, that the mb would sound like one sound. Instead, we need to break that sound into two to break the syllable - com | bined. Or, the word "number" would be "num | ber.

Note, that when combined sounds come at the end of a word, we do not break the syllable. For instance,  for the words numb, Ccomb and bomb, the b is also silent. For words like and, ant, complaint, want, etc. there is no syllable break between the n and d or n and t. But, for the word complaint, we do break the syllable between m and p - com | plaint. And, if a word ending in the combined sound is made longer, than the combined sound is broken into syllables. The word "want" is not broken between the n and t, but if we say "wanted," then we break it - wan | ted.

Double Consonants
In many [South] Indian languages, double consonants are given more stress, but in English we usually break the syllable between a double consonants. For instance, the words "acceptable" becomes ac | cept | able. An exception to this if there is a suffix at the end, as in the word "enrollment" - en | roll | ment. 

Prefixes and Suffixes
As noted above, prefixes and suffixes always are their own syllable. 

Compound Words
Compound words result from two words being joined. We must split the syllable between the two words. For instance home | work or sun | shine.

Pausing in between words 
While this seems like common sense, sometimes when we talk too fast, we may not pause in between words. While there can be some complexities in this (like blended sounds), I won't get into this here. For now, let's talk about how it's important to stop at the end of sentences, and also pause. Probably the two most commonly misheard words, which aren't on the list above are thank you and New York

These are the main features of pronouncing words properly. There are other techniques used for pronouncing sentences (use of thought groups), that we have discussed in previous posts. Use these tips to improve clarity in communication while speaking to clients or colleagues in face to face or virtual (phone) meetings. And, over time, these tips will also help you to improve your listening comprehension as well. 

Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director of Authentic Journeys helps Indian offshore teams communicate with clarity and confidence with US and foreign clients. More at

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Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.