Although having an accent doesn’t mean you will get a low speaking score—even perfect scorers usually have accents—pronunciation problems really can affect your TOEFL speaking score.
Granted, the content of your answer is important, too. In fact, improving the structure and content of your answers is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to improve on TOEFL speaking. But in the speaking section especially, the way you say things is extremely important. For example, I gave a set of poor answers on a TOEFL speaking test once, but I did it with perfect pronunciation, native grammar, and idiomatic vocabulary; I scored a 29. Sounding as similar to a native as possible will get you the highest TOEFL speaking scores.
But if the listener doesn’t understand you sometimes, then you cannot get points for the other aspects of your answer that are good. If your grammar is perfect, and your vocabulary is very advanced, that means nothing with poor pronunciation, because the grader won’t even know what words you said.
But pronunciation is one of the hardest places to make improvement. It is hard or impossible to change it within just a few weeks. So this is not a good focus for you if you will take your TOEFL sometime soon. But if you are studying for the more distant future, after a few months, then you will definitely want to work on your pronunciation a bit. Here are some tips on how to do that.
Clarity, not Speed
Focus on speaking clearly, not quickly. During the TOEFL, you will have a clock that can be very stressful. Often, students react to the clock by speeding up. But the faster you speak, the harder you will be to understand. Speak at a natural, conversational pace. Focus on saying each word clearly (like me in the video!)
You don’t want to be a robot, of course, but just don’t speed up past your natural speaking speed.
Imitate Native Speakers
It may feel strange to do this, but that’s okay. Your mouth is in the habit of making sounds from your native language, and the way English speakers create sounds can feel wrong or awkward. But in order to improve pronunciation, you have to make awkward sounds at first. They feel more natural after more and more practice.
After you listen to them speak, find a specific phrase or sentence that you want to repeat. Then listen again, and try to imitate the exact way the speaker says it. You want to sound exactly like them. Pretend you are an actor, and you will play the role of that person in a movie.
Record Yourself Speaking
While you imitate that native speaker, you should record yourself. There are a couple reasons why you should record yourself often:
- You will be recorded on the actual TOEFL. Speaking into a microphone should be comfortable for you before then, and the best way to become comfortable is by experience.
- You can listen again and compare yourself to the native speaker.
Try to identify what exactly is different between the sounds you make and those the native speaker makes. Ideally, you will have somebody else listen, too, and give some more advice, because it can be very hard to hear what’s different when listening to your own voice. But if you do this often, and listen carefully to the two recordings (the original and your imitation), you will start to identify aspects of your pronunciation that can be improved, and that helps you to focus your practice.