How to Use Apps to Practise Pronunciation, Check Your Presentations
(and make sure you don’t make any silly mistakes)
By Jacqueline Schaalje
Did you know there are a lot of apps now that let you listen to an English text? This can be useful when you need to give a presentation, or when you want to practise your pronunciation.
First I’ll recommend some apps, and then I’ll give you some ideas of what you can do with them, and what I think is the best way to use them. Finally, I will warn you about a few things that you won’t be able to do with the apps.
Recommended Apps and Websites for Text to Speech
You will probably know this app and website already (https://translate.google.com/) as it is on everybody’s lips. I think Google translate is awesome. It’s very easy to use and for individual words in many languages it’s accurate. Of course there are many mistakes in it as well, but what can you expect? This app was made by users and not by a professional team of linguists. What isn’t such a good idea is to use Google Translate for complete sentences, as there are many grammar mistakes that you will get in the translation. You can use Google Translate to get a broad idea of what a text is about or you could use it as an aid in translating work as long as you remember that your translation will have mistakes.
Anyway, I said I was going to talk about Text to Speech. Well, Google Translate also has a Speak function. If you write or copy a text into the left-hand box, you will see a speech icon appear (the little megaphone) and when you press it, you will hear a female voice read your text. Make sure that the language at the top is English, otherwise you’ll get some surprises! For instance when I press Danish, I hear a woman say my text in a cute Danish accent. The Arabic speaker doesn’t bother with the English at all: he just spells the complete text (= he says the letters!). Some languages don’t have a speech function. For instance, there isn’t a Hebrew speaker for English. Perhaps their accent was simply too awful. Just kidding.
Anyway, with Google Translate we don’t get a choice of speaker or other features. There’s only this American woman voice who speaks slowly. So in case you’re interested in listening to your text, you’re better off with other apps that do a better job with Text to Speech.
The best ones I’ve found are here:
For the Web: NaturalReader
There’s a fair choice of speakers. You can listen to your text in British English or American English, and read by a man or a woman. There are also different speeds, including some that are slower than normal, which is ideal for learners. Although speeds of level 2 are still quite natural, I didn’t understand the point of speed levels 4 or 5 as they are way too fast! Nobody who isn’t on drugs speaks like that.
A disadvantage of this website is that it takes a few seconds for your text to load. But I’m sure they will fix that in the future.
NaturalReader also has an Apple and an Android app.
Let’s see what other telephone apps there are:
If you have some kind of Apple Device, there are several apps that let you convert text to speech. You can read a Wikihow to activate them, or browse apps in the Apple store.
There are different kinds of voices, and a choice of male or female. I don’t have an Apple device myself, so I don’t want to recommend you anything, but I know some of my students use some kind of Apple app and they’re happy.
The best one, which you can download from the Play Store, is Easy Text to Speech. It only has a female British voice, but it speaks in a beautiful accent and the sound quality is superior to the other apps’.
You could also download Ivona. It has a chcoice of English speakers (even a Welsh-English one! – don’t use that one, it’s terrible). Especially the American voice (of “Kendra”) sounds quite natural. The app claims that you won’t believe that this is a computer voice, but (haha!) of course we aren’t fooled. The British voice of “Amy” has a pleasant accent, but sounds computery.
So now we are armed with our app or internet site. Let’s move to the next step:
What Can You Do with Your Shiny Text to Speech App?
1 Check pronunciation of words
This one is obvious, but you’d be surprised how many foreign people go on stage, make a YouTube video or do a professional presentation without checking how you say a particular word. Here’s an example: the health club that I go to plays instruction videos that show you the moves of certain exercise classes. Most instructors in the videos are from the UK, Canada and New Zealand, but there are also a few from other countries. In one of the spinning videos, the foreign instructor who is otherwise excellent, says: “Feel the pressure on your muscles!” He says prezjer instead of presher, okay, this I can understand although I first thought he was saying another word: treasure. But the way he pronounced muscles had me in stitches (= I laughed!), as he said: muskels. But the c in muscles is not pronounced. So you actually should say: mussels. (There is a word spelt mussel in English; it’s a kind of shellfish.) If this instructor would have checked his sentences and words in a Text to Speech app, this blooper wouldn’t have happened!
2 Read or study a difficult text in English.
It can help to listen to a text while you’re reading it. Research has shown that people understand and remember better when more senses are activated (seeing + hearing is better than only seeing). You might also be one of those people who are better at listening than at reading. In that case, listening to a text might work well for you. If you are interested in learning words, paste them in a speech app, lie in your bed, close your eyes and just listen.
3 Practise your pronunciation.
This will be best for individual words, and not for complete sentences (see a Word of Caution). If you use NaturalReader, you can slow down the word so you can practise saying it slowly, and then speed up. If you’d like to practise saying sentences, it’s better to use an audio file spoken by a real speaker. Click here for some tips on that.
4 Prepare or time your presentation
You can have a quick idea of what your presentation will sound like if you copy your presentation into the Speech app. You’d make sure you said all the words in your presentation in the correct way. Another useful tool would be that you can time how long your presentation will take. If you have only ten minutes to speak, you can make your presentation exactly the right length.
A Word of Caution:
What Can You Not Do with Text to Speech?
For now, programmers can’t program correct (native) intonation of sentences. Intonation is the pitch of the voice: is the voice going up or down during the saying of a sentence. You might know that English questions go up, but there are many more subtle differentiations that express feelings, whether a sentence is serious or ironic, or whether the speaker is telling a fact or a command, or would like to ask you a favour, or ask you something sensitive. The intonation can also change according to the grammatical structure of the sentence.
Another problem is with word stress. Stress is which part of the word is heavier. Can you answer this question: Where is the stress in “speaker?”
Do you say SPEA-ker or spea-KER?
Of course you say: SPEA-ker with the stress on the first part of the word.
The speech apps won’t make any mistakes with a word like speaker, as there is only one way to say that word.
However, there are a number of English words that can be said with the stress on the first part of the word and also on the second word, and then the meaning will be different.
If we take record, this can be a verb which means to collect a voice on audio or to write down some detail. You pronounce it re-CORD with the stress on the second part of the word.
But record, the noun, can mean a fact written down, a best achievement, or the music disk that was used before the CD. This word is pronounced RE-cord, with the stress on the first part.
These are just two reasons why speech apps don’t sound like natural speech. That’s why if you need to give a presentation in English and you’d like to check your speech before you give it, it’s better to practise with an English speaker or a teacher. You don’t want a computer voice or put the stress in the wrong places, do you?
Further reading about stress and pronunciation, click here.