A lot of people worry that their accents will affect their scores on the TOEFL, but these fears are usually unfounded. As long as it’s not hard to understand you, you don’t have much to worry about. It can be hard to know whether your accent does interfere with understanding, especially because any native English-speakers that you talk to regularly probably have gotten accustomed to your accent and don’t notice it anymore. Here are some tips to help you improve your pronunciation, whether you need help with reducing your accent in general or just with correcting a few errors.
Learn about common errors
The pronunciation mistakes you make are probably typical of speakers of your language. That is, many German-speakers have trouble pronouncing “th” correctly, Russians have trouble with the vowel sound in “mutt” or “butter”, and Spanish speakers have trouble with words beginning with “st” and “sp.” If your English teacher speaks the same native language that you do, you may be making typical mistakes without you or your teacher even realizing it. Learn about the errors that speakers of your native language frequently make, and start working on your pronunciation by eliminating those errors from your speech.
The IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet, is a great tool for breaking down words into individual sounds. Although learning the whole IPA would take way more time than it’s worth, you may find it useful to at least get familiar with the sounds of American English. Even if you never write or read using the IPA, it’s definitely a good idea to get a handle on how many different sounds there are in English and how they are produced.
Next time you’re listening to a TOEFL practice dialogue, pick out a sentence or two that you can understand easily, and listen to it several times. Now say the sentence yourself, copying the speaker’s pronunciation as closely as possible. Notice how your natural pronunciation is different from that of the speaker’s. Now go through word by word, trying to say each exactly like the speaker does. Paying such close attention and imitating native speakers is difficult and tedious if you’re doing it properly, but it’s also pretty much the only way for an adult English learner to get better at pronunciation. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it using TOEFL resources (which are slower, use standard pronunciation, and lack background noise), you can extend this practice to TV shows, the radio, and songs.
Get feedback from natives
Most people have trouble hearing language exactly as it is—our brains learn to pay attention to some sounds and to ignore others, which is part of why it’s so hard to get rid of an accent. So any time you can, ask a native speaker to critique your accent. You’ll need to ask for more information that s/he wants to give at first—rather than “You have a good accent” or “I understand everything you say,” you need them to say things like “Your ‘th’ sounds a little funny.” A lot of people won’t know exactly how to explain what’s strange to them about your accent, but at least then you’ll know what sounds to look out for.