Do people often ask you to repeat yourself? Do you sometimes notice a look of confusion on your listener's face, but they don't tell you that they haven't understood you? These can be frustrating situations as a speaker. One of the biggest advantages of the S.M.A.R.T. method of American Accent training is giving you the knowledge you need to understand why the communication breakdown happened. Not only does the training help reduced these embarrassing and frustrating encounters, but also when they do happen, you'll know what went wrong and how to clarify what you've said.
Our new video series is all about the words that are frequently misunderstood or mispronounced, and how to correct them. You can check it out here.
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Check out our "Real Talk" series: compare spoken and written English to improve your natural, fluent American Accent. Check out the full playlist here: Real Talk Series
Do you have a goal you are currently working on? My current personal goal is to sing a solo with my choir. Working as an American Accent coach, I've learned a lot about setting goals and what makes people achieve them or abandon them. It often comes down to a few simple things.
1) Set a small, achievable goal. Maybe you want to be the CEO of a major corporation. Maybe you want to be indistinguishable from a native English speaker. Maybe you want to be as thin as a model. These are fine goals, but they require a great deal of time and and effort. Focus first on the steps you need to reach this end goal - getting a promotion to team leader, changing one accent pattern in your speech, or losing 2 pounds.
By setting a small goal, you greatly increase your chances of achieving it, and staying on the path to your bigger goal.
My first step to singing a solo is to audition for one. I may not get it this time, but I will be happy if I have the courage to try out.
2) Make it a habit. We humans are creatures of habit, and sometimes we have a hard time changing. Instead of fighting this about yourself, use it to your advantage. Take your small goal and develop a new habit that will help you progress towards the goal. Find a way to fold it into your routine and you will be much more likely to do it. For working on your accent, this could be something as simple as listening to your practice words for the first five minutes of your daily commute, or reading aloud for the first page of your usual reading in bed routine.
To reach my goal of auditioning for a solo with my choir, I am listening to recordings of my rehearsals when I go out for a walk. If I don't have time to practice, I can listen and work on the music as part of my already-established routine.
3) Take advantage of low-tech and high-tech tools. Keeping your goal fresh in your mind is essential to achieving it. It's easy to let time go by without working towards our goal. Use a variety of reminders to stay on track. Put your practice time in your calendar. Even if you don't do it at that exact time, you'll be reminded that you want to work on it. Set an alert or an alarm on your phone. Put a sticky note on your computer, or phone, or tv that has your goal on it. Be creative, the important thing is to use what works for you.
I put my choir folder near the entrance to my office so I see it as I walk into work. This reminds me to look at my schedule and find a time to practice. I also set a reminder on my phone and I leave it on my pop-up screen until I have completed it.
4) Tell people your goal. If you know that other people know what you hope to achieve, you may feel more pressure to actually do it. Post your goal and your progress on your social media. Tell your friends or colleagues what you are trying to do, and enlist them for reminders and feedback. A little bit of social pressure can be motivating, and having support for your successes can inspire you to continue to work hard.
I will tell my friends in my choir about my goal so when it comes time to audition, I will know that they are expecting me to take part. I will tell me daughter that I have this goal and she will encourage me, and ask me if I have done it yet.
These are all small things, but put together they will be effective in helping you to make real progress towards achieving your goal.
You're talking to your colleague, boss, or team member at work, and you notice that they don't seem to get what you're saying. It might be your accent, but more times than not it is the way you are communicating. Navigating the maze of professional and social communication interactions can be confusing for the non-native English speaker, and even just for those whose strengths lie more in their technical expertise than their people skills. Here are five common mistakes you can fix to improve your success in communication.
NUMBER ONE: EASE IN
For most interactions, it's not best practice to start the interaction with the main purpose. Rather than telling someone to do something directly, for example, make sure you start with a greeting, compliment, or social question. Your colleague or team member will be more willing and ready to complete the task you are asking them to do if you've had a social exchange first. Even a short hello will smooth the way for your listener to engage with you.
Example: You need your team member to give you some completed work.
The Error: "Get me the numbers for last quarter."
The Fix: "Hi Jim, do you have last quarter's numbers ready for me?"
NUMBER TWO: GET TO THE POINT
While it’s good to ease in, you also need to be cautious to not take up too much time. If your communication partner wants to have a longer conversation, great, but if you are the only one talking and you could share the same information in one sentence rather than 5, keep it simple. People are busy and don’t want to feel trapped having to politely listen while you lecture. Watch for body language cues (lack of eye contact, crossing arms or turning away) that show your listener would rather move on.
Example: You want to tell someone about something you learned.
The Error: "Susan, I found a great website. I was looking for an analysis tool for our analytics team to use in conjunction with the current tools and so first I . . . " (ten minutes later, still talking about details of this topic)
The Fix: "Hi Susan, how are you? Can I tell you about a website I found that I think you'll find useful? It's an analysis tool - I can send you the link and if you'd like to talk about it more, we could meet for coffee and look at it together."
NUMBER THREE: WATCH YOUR RATE
In some cultures (including some American subcultures), a fast speaking rate is associated with intelligence. People will speak very quickly and with very few pauses in order to seem knowledgeable or show their expertise on a topic. While a fast rate is not necessarily a problem, if you have speech that is more difficult to understand due to your accent, your word choice or another reason, speaking too quickly can compound the issue. In addition, a lack of pauses can make it difficult for your listener to process all of the information, ask questions or comment and participate in the conversation.
Example: You want to teach your team member a better way to do something.
The Error: "You need to use a different browser because the one you're using doesn't load as quickly and tends to crash for websites that use Flash, which is a headache by the way because it always needs to update and most people don't keep their updates current for their PC's . . . (continues without pausing)"
The Fix: "Hey Amir, I see you're using Safari. Is that your default browser?" pause and wait for response, continue. "Can I show you a better option?"
NUMBER FOUR: WHAT IS YOUR BODY LANGUAGE SAYING?
Different cultures use different body language to show interest, respect, or give feedback cues. You may be sending a different message than you intend to depending on your body language, or you may be revealing your true attitude when you'd rather keep it to yourself. Understanding body language is key to appropriate interactions, both as the speaker and the listener.
Read More About Body Language Here
NUMBER FIVE: USE REPAIR STRATEGIES
Even the best communicators can have misunderstandings occur. Sometimes, your listener simply wasn't paying attention and missed what you said. Maybe you used a word or expression they didn't know, or maybe they didn't know what topic you were on and the missed some key information. Whatever the reason, knowing how to identify and repair communication breakdowns is an important skill for any good communicator. Watch for cues that your listener didn't get it (facial expression, body language, off-topic or incorrect response). Don't simply repeat yourself, try re-phrasing, asking a clarifying question, or asking your listener to tell you paraphrase what you've said to make sure the message was clear.
Example: You want someone to call you back on your mobile phone.
The Error: "Call me back on my mobile, you have that number right?" (no response, or confused response)
The Fix: "Oh, I think I wasn't clear. Can I give you my cell phone number to call me back? Can you tell me the number to make sure we have the correct information?"
Being proactive as a communicator and looking for ways to be culturally and socially appropriate in your business and social interactions will make you more successful in getting what you need with your colleagues, team member and employers. Good communication opens doors in your career and improves your professional social life. Rather than feeling frustrated by your interactions, take a look at what you can do on your end to improve your communication skills.
Happy New Year! Here's a quick practice idea to work on present and past tense verbs. Notice the ng sound at the ends of the present tense verbs (be sure to use ng, not n or ngk). Noticed the final t and final d consonant clusters on the past tense verbs. Try these phrases, using the recording to listen for the patterns:
This year, I plan on walking a lot. Last year, I walked a lot.
This year, I plan on cooking at home. Last year, I cooked at home.
This year, I plan on working more efficiently. Last year, I worked too much.
This year, I plan on traveling. Last year, I traveled a little bit.
This year, I plan on exercising regularly. Last year, I exercised a lot.
This year, I plan on talking to my family. Last year, I talked to them often.
Now make up your own phrases with present and past tense.
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You've been practicing your American accent, working on words, patterns, and changing pronunciation. You are able to change how you say words when you practice, but when you go to speak with colleagues, friends and strangers, you still have an accent.
Sound familiar? Changing your speech patterns can be challenging because in order to have conversations, we have to think about what we are saying, rather than how we are pronouncing words. Here's a practice tip to help you get those new patterns into your everyday speech.
Think of something you say on a regular basis. For example, do you order the same coffee drink at the drive-through, or greet the same person as you arrive at work each day? Think about the words you use. Do any of them have your target sounds? For example, if you usually order a vanilla latte, are you using a good intial V sound on the word vanilla? If you typically say "good morning" to the receptionist, are you able to used a voiced "d" at the end of the word good? Select one small target to keep in mind, and try to use it each time you are in the setting. Soon you will find you don't have to think so hard to use your correct pronunciation pattern, because it has become a habit. Then you are ready to add a new target or a new setting. It may seem like an insignificant step, but small changes are the way to get real results in in your real communication interactions.
Leave your ideas and successes in the comments below.
Hearing and pronouncing the difference between can and can't is more than just having the "t" at the end. Listen for these clues:
We reduce can when it is used with another verb. It sounds like "ken" or "kn." For example, we say "I ken do that, I kn see it." We don't reduce can't, so it will have a clear vowel /æ/.
When there is not another verb (e.g., "yes, I can" or "no, I can't."), can is usually longer in duration, while can't is more abrupt. "Yes, I caaaan." "No, I can't."
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Americans use small talk to make new connections, interact with strangers, and begin interactions with friends and co-workers. Being able to use small talk comfortably is an important skill when communicating in all types of situations with Americans. Here are some basic considerations to help you be a more effective communicator:
Americans use small talk with anyone, regardless of social standing or circumstances. It’s appropriate to engage in small talk with strangers, co-workers and higher-ups at work and in business. It may seem too casual to engage in light chatting with someone to whom you want to show respect, like a boss, an executive from another company, or someone who is interviewing you for a job, but it is actually a necessary step in showing you are a confident communicator.
Small talk is positive, light, restricted to certain “safe” topics, and balanced between talking about oneself and directing the topic to the other person. Usual small talk topics include the weather, entertainment (movies, books, television), travel, food and sports. Topics to be avoided are politics, religion, money, sex, family problems, or anything potentially controversial.
When and Where:
Use small talk when first meeting someone, or beginning an interaction with someone you already know. Respond if someone starts a small talk conversation with you, and start a conversation yourself when waiting for something to begin, when you are introduced to someone new, or when you would like to speak with someone about something else. Opening with small talk will put the other person at ease and allow you to make a connection in order to have the conversation you need afterwards.
Using small talk demonstrates that you have good communication skills and cultural understanding. It enables you to make connections for more important communication. It allows you to get to know someone and have them learn about you. It puts others at ease and gives you a starting point for interactions.
Practice and have a plan. If you have a few comments and questions ready, you will feel more confident when it is time to engage in some small talk. Start with “how are you?” or an equivalent (how’s it going; how have you been?). Be ready with your answer (I’m fine; I’m doing well, thank you; things are going well, thanks). Comment on the weather, ask a question about the other person, or introduce a topic you enjoy talking about. Have a short list of possible complements to give the other person based on what you know about them. Have a few comments about your surroundings or neutral topics ready.
Small talk may not be your favorite thing to do, but it should be a skill you feel comfortable with. Knowing how to use it effectively will increase your confidence and have a positive effect on your communication in social and business interactions. For recordings and practice conversations, consider a subscription to our online practice site.
Americans use contractions frequently in everyday speech, conversation, formal written language, and all types of communication. Contractions aren’t slang or for informal use, they’re standard American English. Using contractions rather than the other language forms is one way to make your speech sound more American. But sometimes the combinations of sounds in contractions can be difficult to pronounce if you have certain accent patterns, such as consonant cluster deletion or final consonant deletion. Practice contractions by themselves and in short phrases to get used to using them in your speech, and to pronounce them correctly.
instead of I am, he is, etc.
say I’m, you’re, he’s, she’s, we’re, they’re
instead of I would, he would, etc.
say I’d, you’d, he’d she’d we’d they’d
Instead of I have got, he has got, etc.
say I’ve got, you’ve got, he’s got, she’s got, we’ve got, they’ve got
instead of can not, do not, etc.
say can’t, don’t, won’t, shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t
instead of I have not, he has not, etc.
say I haven’t, you haven’t, he hasn’t, she hasn’t, we haven’t, they haven’t
instead of I am not, he is not, etc
say I’m not, you aren’t, he isn’t, she isn’t, we aren’t, they aren’t
instead of I will, he will, etc,
say I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, we’ll, they’ll
Interested in hearing how these contractions sound in the standard American accent? Try our SMART online practice.
Having trouble with American v and b? Check out the difference in this video. Then, practice some b and v words here.
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Interested in using the free online practice tools, but not sure what to do first? Watch this short tutorial video on how to get started using our free online practice page.
In some cases, the same word can be a noun or a verb. We pronounce it differently depending on which way we are using it. A rule that applies to some of these words is that the stress falls on the first syllable when it is a noun, such as in the word produce: The produce is fresh at that store. The stress falls on the second syllable with the word is used as a verb: They produce microchips in Silicon Valley. Because the stress pattern is different, the vowel will also sometimes change. We use a vowel schwa (sounds like "uh" as in "cup") to mark an unstressed syllable. Listen to the example below:
Notice how in the first sentence, produce sounds like pro-dooce, but in the second sentence, it sounds like pruh-dooce. We call this vowel clarity - the stressed syllable retains its vowel, whereas the unstressed syllable is reduced to a schwa vowel. In addition, notice how the first syllable in the noun is much longer than in the verb. We use a longer vowel on a stressed syllable than an unstressed syllable. Try some of these phrases, making sure to use a long, clear vowel on the stressed syllable.
When in doubt, it's a good idea to check the pronunciation using an online dictionary.
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When working on speaking English correctly, we often focus on correctly pronouncing all of the sounds in words. Mispronounced sounds can make your speech difficult to understand. It's important to understand which sounds in your speech contribute to your accent. (To learn more, try a free screening or sign up for an assessment of your speech.) When you want to sound more natural when speaking English, however, it is helpful to know that in flowing speech, native speakers leave out or reduce some of the sounds. Pronouncing everything can make you sound unnatural. Just like linking, where sounds run together, reducing is a way that speech flows more easily. Here are some examples:
to becomes t': today = t'day, tomorrow = t'morrow, to go = t'go
We run the word "to" into the following word or syllable, dropping the vowel oo. Listen to the examples below.
the jumps on to the next word: the store = th'store, the matter = th'matter, the weather - th'weather
We shorten the word the and run it onto the following word when the word after "the" is stressed. We use vowel schwa on this word in most contexts, not vowel ee (the = thuh, not thee). You can hear this in the recording below.
are loses its vowel sound, or sounds more like er: what are = what'r, who are = who'er, those are = those'r
We reduce the word are and tack it on to the previous word in some cases. It sounds more like a short vowel er. Listen to the recording below.
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When L is at the end of the word, we add an extra sound before the l, and hold this sound into the L sound. This extra sound is the vowel schwa, which sounds like "uh." To get this sound, try slowing down and sliding from one vowel to the next. For example, try the following words using the recording below:
tool (too-w-uh-l) tail (tay-y-uh-l) feel (fee-y-uh-l) fuel (fyoo-w-uh-l)
Changing your speech patterns takes a lot of practice, but you can have fun while you are doing it. Many people use American movies and TV shows to listen to the American accent. Repeating and imitating what you hear on TV can be a good way to develop your ear and try on the American style. Even non-American actors who use their American accent professionally use this technique. In a recent interview with Conan O'Brien, Australian actor Rebel Wilson talks about using reality TV shows to perfect her American accent. You can hear her in action in the video below.
If you learned to speak English in India, your pronunciation of American English will be affected by both your native language(s) and the Indian English Dialect. Whether you first spoke Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali or another language, it is likely that you have some of the following pronunciation patterns that contribute to your accent when speaking English.
You can use this chart to identify which pronunciation targets you can work on to improve your American Accent. Many sounds link to practice materials or further information.
Want to learn more about the American Accent? Subscribe to our special online practice site for speakers of Indian English. Videos, audio recordings and more, all designed for native speakers of Indian Languages. Subscribe today!
Pronunciation errors on the "w" and "v" sounds are common for those with a variety of language backgrounds. For most, learning how to clearly differentiate the two sounds is an important step in pronouncing them correctly. These sounds can be distinctly identified and produced by how they are formed with the mouth.
Next, try these minimal pair words with w and v. Make a clear distinction between rounded lips w, and lip on teeth v. Practice with the recording below.
Not only does signing your favorite American song help you make subtle changes in your American Accent (see this post for details), but you might do well with remembering new words by singing them. We all have pop songs, advertising jingles and tv theme songs from our childhood taking up valuable memory space in our brains, but perhaps we can harness our ability to remember words set to music to our own advantage. Researchers in Scotland set up an experiment which involved teaching groups of people words in Hungarian. Those who were taught using a method of signing the words had the best results when asked to remember them later. You can read more details here.
When you come across a new word you'd like to remember or a word for which you need to change your pronunciation, if you can find a song with the correct rhythm, you can sing the word to store it for later. For example, let's say you need to learn the stress pattern for the word technology. This word has the stress on the second syllable, technology. Take the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and change the words to "Now I sing technology, now I sing technology." Tying the correct word stress and pronunciation to a tune might help build pathways in your brain to correctly pronouncing this word in running speech. And it might also be fun.
Vowel sounds are always voiced (the vocal folds buzz when saying these sounds). Consonant sounds can be either voiced or voiceless, and they come in pairs called cognates. Why is it helpful to know about voiced and voiceless cognate sounds? A frequent error in accented speech is the de-voicing of final consonants. What this means is that the speaker does not use any or enough voicing (buzzing of the vocal folds) on the last sound of the word, so it sounds like the voiceless cognate. This occurs for various reasons. The speaker's native language may not have words that end with voiced sounds. The speaker may be listening to American English speech, and not really hear or notice the voicing on the ends of words when listening to Americans. Or the voiced sounds might be part of a group of consonants at the end of the word, and the challenge of producing this consonant cluster makes using correct voicing difficult.
Whatever the reason, attention to this error is important because you may sound like you are saying a different word than you are. Your listener will likely understand based on the context, but having to interpret what you are saying puts an increased cognitive load on the listener, and they may struggle to follow what you are saying as a result.
The pairs of consonant sounds are as follows:
voiceless: t voiced: d Examples: to, do
voiceless: p voiced: b Examples: poor, boor
voiceless: k voiced: g Examples: came, game
voiceless: f voiced: v Examples: fan, van
voiceless: s voiced: z Examples: sip, zip
voiceless: sh voiced: zh Examples: mesh, measure
voiceless: ch voiced: j Examples: choke, joke
voiceless: th (IPA /θ/) voiced th (IPA /ð/) Examples: thigh, thy
One helpful way to ensure you are pronouncing the final consonant with the correct voicing is to lengthen the vowel sound before the voiced consonant. For example, when we say the word "bead," we hold the vowel ee for a little step down because the "d" is voiced. When we say the word "beat" we don't hold the vowel ee for any additional length. Listen to the pairs below and try making a longer vowel and voiced sound to end the word. Then try some of the words in the list on your own.
Do you have some words which you find difficult to say? Do you know which sounds are different in your accent? Whatever your pronunciation difficulties, understanding the approaches to changing pronunciation can help you address your goals.
While accented speech is comprised of several elements, pronunciation is one aspect which many speakers and listener can identify as sounding different. Some sounds in American English are infrequent or nonexistant in other languages and must be learned and practiced in a hierarchy to develop the sound. Others are easier to say, but hard to use in running speech. Understanding the levels of practice is an important step to changing your speech.
1. Sound level (phonemes): This level is single sounds. Practicing at this level is usually only necessary when the sound is new to you, but knowing how to say a sound by itself correctly is helpful and can be used as a tool when working at more challenging levels. Use the recordings below to try some of the American English phonemes which are most frequently mispronounced in accented speech.
2. Syllable level: This level is target sound plus an additional sound. If the target is a consonant, the additional sound is a vowel, and vice versa. While two sounds together can make a word, syllables can also be part of a word or just a nonsense word. Practice at this level is useful when breaking down difficult words, integrating a difficult target into words, or changing a habitual pattern with the target sound. The recording below demonstrates how to add various vowels to the challenging target voiceless th (IPA symbol: /θ/).
3. Word level: This level is the target sound in real words. The target could be in the beginning, middle or end of the word (initial, medial or final position). Depending on your native language, you may only need to practice one word position. Sometimes speakers have an accurate phoneme in the initial position, but make errors when the target sound is in word-final position. For example, you may be able to use your voiceless th sound correctly in the word "think," but have an error pattern on the word "teeth."
You can try some words with initial, medial and final voiceless th sounds using the recordings below.
4. Phrase or Sentence level: The next step to changing a pronunciation pattern is to use the target sounds at the phrase or sentence level. Once you have achieved accurate productions at the word level, you can imitate or create sentences using the same words you practiced at the word level. This is more challenging because you are having to hold the new target in your mind as you say the sentence. If needed, you can practice at different levels within this step. Easiest, imitate a sentence with the target word at the beginning of the sentence. Next easiest, imitate a sentence with the target word in the middle or end of the sentence. Next, create your own sentence with the target word at the beginning of the sentence, and last, create a sentence with the target word in the middle or the end of the sentence. Use the recordings below to try the target voiceless th in imitated sentences. Then make your own sentences with voiceless th words.
5. Conversational level: This is the goal and the final step in changing pronunciation. Sometimes transitions between steps 4 and 5 are necessary, such as practice while reading aloud. There are many techniques to moving from the sentence to the conversational level, including raising awareness of where your targets occur and repeat motor practice to gain automaticity.
One of the most common errors for those learning the American accent is the vowel in the words it and him, referred to on this site as “Vowel I" or /ɪ/. This sound is frequently confused with the vowel in the words eat and seem, “Vowel ee or /i/.”
These two sounds are similar, but Vowel ee /i/ has a more exaggerated smile posture for the lips, and the front of the tongue is slightly higher in the mouth. Vowel ee /i/ is a tense vowel, meaning that the muscles in the face are engaged. Vowel I /ɪ/ is a lax vowel, meaning the lips and face need to be relaxed. Practice going from one sound to the next to feel the different postures for your lips and tongue. Use the video to help you.
One way to solidify the distinction is to practice with minimal pairs, or words that differ only by this vowel sound. Listen to the following sets of words, and practice making a clear contrast between vowel ee /i/ and vowel ɪ.
For even more practice, use these short phrases which contrast the ee and I vowel sounds.
Some English speakers leave off the “h” sound at the beginnings of words. This is typical of some British English accents, Nigerian English, speakers in Australia and New Zealand, Caribbean English and some Indian English accents. The American accent almost always pronounces the “h” sound, with a puff of air. You can hold your hand in front of your mouth to feel whether the air is flowing if you’re not sure whether you’re making this sound or not.
One way to practice adding this sound to your words if your accent tends to leave it off is to say pairs of words with and without initial h. Listen to the words below. Say each pair, making a clear distinction between the word with the “h” and the word without. Then try the rest of the list for extra practice.
When the letters “ng” are together at the ends of words, they sound different than when they are in the middle of the word. In the middle of the word, they are usually pronouncing with the “ng” sound, plus a hard “g” to start the next syllable. For example, the words hunger and finger can be broken into two syllables: hung+ger and fing+ger. At the ends of words, however, the “ng” combination only makes the single sound “ng.”
A common accent error in American English is to add an extra sound to the end of ng, similar to ng in the middle of words. This makes words sound like thingk or doingg, and is a noticeable error. To change this accent pattern, try listening to the following pairs of words. Notice how the ng words do not have a stopped k or g sound at the end. Next, try saying the words, making a distinct difference between the nk word and the ng word.
Many words in English begin with an “s-blend,” which is when the letter s is followed by another consonant. For example, the words state, space, school, and special all begin with s-blends.
Some non-native speakers of English have difficulty with combining consonants because they don’t use this construction in their native language. In Spanish, words with these sounds begin with an “e,” such as especial, escuela, and estado. Consequently, a common accent pattern in English is to add an additional “e” sound before s-blend words.
Listen to the following pairs of words. Note that the words are similar, but the Spanish word has and "es" and the English word has only "s."
To avoid this problem, start by practicing s-blend words alone. Then slowly add words before your s-blend word, being careful to start your target word with an “s,” not an “es.” It might help you to draw out the “s” sound a little longer.
After saying s-blend words by themselves, slowly add more words to your phrase until you are able to say the s-blend word correctly in a sentences. For example, use the recording below to try this exercise:
provide special service
we will provide special service
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