Google’s new pronunciation feature allows you to hear words out loud, slow them down and even practice your own pronunciation. It can provide feedback on how you sound, letting you perfect tricky words like anemone, colonel and drought. But how well can Google pronounce words?
It depends on what you ask it.
A Common Tongue
Roughly 1.5 billion people worldwide speak English, but only around 360 million are native speakers. This means that if you’re learning English, you’re in good company. As English spreads around the globe, students often learn it at school alongside their native language.
Sixty percent of the entire Internet is written in English. To say that it’s a useful language to learn is an understatement, as it has become the lingua franca — common tongue — of scientific publications, music, movies, business and more.
Google Begins Pronouncing Words
In 2019, Google rolled out its pronunciation tool. Simply search, “How to pronounce” followed by a word, and the tool will be featured at the top of the page. You can also look up a word’s definition and then click on the speaker icon to have Google read it out loud.
This feature currently just supports English searches, with Spanish in the works. Next to certain words, you’ll see an option to hear the pronunciation in British or American English. Whether the words are pronounced correctly depends on who you ask.
Because English speakers have such a variety of accents, even blanket terms like “American” don’t quite account for the vast number of different pronunciations, which often differ state by state. Ask Google to read the word “pajamas” or “aunt” out loud, and you’ll start an argument.
However, native speakers can still understand regional differences like the cot-caught merger, a classic example of how Americans pronounce things differently. If you’re using Google to help you learn English, you’re mostly going to hear words pronounced correctly, at least according to certain populations.
It would be helpful if Google included Australian, New Zealand, Scottish and Irish accents, to name a few. These accents are so different from one another that they can almost sound like different languages to an untrained ear. A non-native English speaker vacationing in Scotland, for example, might have trouble understanding the local pronunciation. Google could help with that.
Reading Blocks of Text
Google can pronounce words written in paragraph form, too. In your device’s accessibility settings, you can turn on voice-to-text capabilities, allowing your Google Assistant to read pages out loud. On Chromebooks, you can also use the accessibility tools to highlight text and press Control+Search to read it out loud.
This is probably more useful if you simply want to hear something read aloud to you, rather than working on your pronunciation. The voice tends to be robotic and sometimes stumbles unnaturally over sentences. The pronunciation feature on Google’s search page is a better choice for practicing pronunciation, although it only reads individual words.
How to Use the Pronunciation Feature
- Look Up a Word
Search for a word you have trouble pronouncing. Ensure that Google has access to your microphone, then listen to the word out loud by clicking the speaker icon or the face. If the default speed is too fast, slow it down by switching on the slow toggle. Then, listen to it again.
Don’t rely too heavily on the animated face on the right. It gets the basic mouth shapes correct, but doesn’t always show how your tongue would look when speaking.
When pronouncing “lollipop,” for example, a red tongue is clearly animated as it touches the roof of the speaker’s mouth. But search for anything containing the letter N, like “enormous,” and the tongue disappears, even though it should be touching the roof of the mouth as well. If you need guidance on how to form specific shapes with your lips or how not to roll an R, it’s best to watch videos of actual people pronouncing words.
- Practice it Yourself
After you’ve heard Google speak the word out loud, click on the microphone button that’s captioned “Practice.” You’ll get a chance to speak out loud. Then, Google can give you pointers about how to say the word more accurately, or let you know that you said it just right.
This doesn’t work for offensive or derogatory words. You can still hear their pronunciation, but Google won’t let you practice saying them aloud. Oddly, searching for people’s names doesn’t trigger the pronunciation tool to appear at all. You’re on your own when trying to pronounce “Seamus” or “Deirdre.”
- Read the Word
The pronunciations are written out in syllabicated form, not following the rules of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Instead of “/əˈnɛməniː/,” which most people won’t know how to read, Google writes the word “anemone” in the way people would actually say it out loud. Google spells it out as “uh · neh · muh · nee.”
A helpful tip: Stressed syllables are bolded. If you look up “How to pronounce giraffe,” you’ll see that the second half of the word is darker, indicating that you should emphasize it.
Words that have different meanings depending on how you pronounce them won’t trigger the pronunciation tool to appear. For example, search for minute, offense, defense or record. Google will direct you to videos explaining how the words are pronounced in different ways depending on the context.
The City Stumbling Block
The algorithm seems to need some work when it comes to searching for town names. Strangely, the pronunciation tool doesn’t always pop up for very popular searches, like Paris, but does make an appearance for other, less-populated town names. A search for Albuquerque shows a photo of the city, captioned with the helpful “City in New Mexico” label.
Sometimes it shows a picture of the location, and sometimes it doesn’t. Other times, it even gets the definition of a word completely wrong — if you search for the town of Pedernales, Texas, for example, Google pronounces it correctly. However, it labels the town as a “Not-for-profit organization,” and doesn’t include a photo.
It simply butchers other town names. Search for how to pronounce a small, lesser-known location name like Balmorhea, Texas, and you’ll learn the completely wrong way to say it. In this regard, the pronunciation tool is less than reliable.
If you come across a pronunciation that you know is incorrect, or you simply want to let Google know it’s doing a good job, you can click the italicized word “Feedback” under the practice button.
This brings up four prompts. Google will ask you if the audio is helpful or incorrect, and if the pronunciation is helpful or incorrect. You can elaborate in the comment box to provide more detailed feedback.
This crowdsourcing feature allows Google to hone its pronunciation, helping it sound more like a real speaker instead of relying purely on AI.
A Helpful Tool
Can Google pronounce words? Google’s 2019 pronunciation tool is not without its flaws, but it’s useful for learning how to pronounce tricky words. Words like city names and people’s names aren’t always accurate, so ask a native speaker for guidance, if you can, when trying to pronounce them.
For the most part, Google can pronounce words correctly, so it’s a nice feature for non-native English speakers — and native speakers trying to learn a difficult word — to fall back on in the absence of a tutor.
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