How to learn a language on your own – The Ultimate Guide (Part 3 – Mastering Pronunciation)

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Why even bother with studying pronunciation?

Well, as always, there are no easy answers.

Some say it’s important to master pronunciation of  a foreign language. Some say it’s a waste of time

The question is – why should beginners and semi-advanced learners care?

There are some obvious benefits – the better your pronunciation, the bigger a chance that native speakers will understand you.

It means that there is always some minimal amount of work that has to be done in order to talk with native speakers.

Otherwise, each person will soon get discouraged from talking to you and leave or get black-out drunk to match your level of mumbling.

But what comes next after you reach level, where native speakers have no problems understanding you?

Does it have sense to reach for Holy Grail of learning languages – speaking with no accent?

Considering the amount of time needed, I dare to say no.
It’s better to spend this time mastering grammar and vocabulary.

I have never seen any point in pronouncing everything perfectly while still mixing up words and butchering grammar.

Many people claim to have achieved the level where there is no difference between them and native speakers.
I believe that very often this is simply an exaggeration.

Typically, the longer someone talks to native speaker, the bigger the chance that “the truth gets revealed”.

Ultimately, I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

So what should you do to achieve good pronunciation as quickly as possible?

And to avoid such mistakes:

 

0. BRIEF (AND NOT SO BORING) THEORETICAL INTRO

 

It won’t take long, I promise. If you’re interested in practical tips, move to point 1.

To speak clearly, we must first understand what the (highly simplified) building blocks of pronunciation are.

  • Phonology – can be seen as “abstract, grammatical characterization of systems of sounds or signs”. Which means – what is the difference between sounds. What makes French language French and English English (and Hodor, Hodor, Hodor)
  • Phonetics – deals with “physiological production, acoustic properties, auditory perception, and neurophysiological status” of sounds. Basically, how to produce sounds.

As you can see, mastering pronunciation requires learning the aforementioned elements of a language of your choice.

Now, how to do it practically…

 

1. IDENTIFY ALIEN SOUNDS

 

As children, we have ability to distinguish different sounds and “assemble” them into words (in other words, we combine phonemes into morphemes / words).

The sad part about learning new languages is that we mostly lose this ability when we grow up.
It means, that without preparation very often we won’t even know that we pronounce something incorrectly.
See “I’m so ronery” By King Jong Il to see what I mean.

 

 

That’s why the first step to get familiar with pronunciation is to identify the sounds which you might even be not aware of.

How to do it

 

  • look it up in dictionary

Every good dictionary has a description of sounds typical of the given language.
What’s more – as I’ve written before, always try to choose a dictionary which includes phonetic transcription of words.

 

  • google it

” Language x (e.g. Swedish) phonology” will usually deliver best results.

 

It covers 80+ languages. Choose the one you want and click “alphabet”.

Now, after using any of these methods, you’ll end up looking confused at the strange set of characters.
They are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet.

They look scary but are not so difficult to learn.

To become even more aware of the differences between your native and target language, you should learn the sounds of English language.
Here you can find interactive phonetic chart for English.

 

2. TRAIN YOUR MOUTH TO PRONOUNCE SOUNDS

 

Congratulations, by now you should know more less, what sounds you should pay attention to.

To imitate them as precisely as it’s only possible, you need (ideally) combination of couple of methods.

 

  • learn how to produce sounds mechanically

It’s a great starting point – grab a dictionary or some textbook and read a description of how you should pronounce given sounds. If the description is accompanied by picture – even better.

Usually the biggest problem is how to pronounce vowels.
Since your tongue moves up and down, forward or backwards, you have plenty of positions to experiment with.

Once (it seems that) you nail the target sound, try to memorize what the position of your tongue and lips was.
And don’t be too quick thinking that it is over.
You have to check it first. (see feedback)

 

  • start small

Choose only one or two sounds to begin with.
Let’s say that you have no idea how to pronounce /æ/ .

You check how to produce this sound on Wiki.
Then you pick up a word or two and try to pronounce this sound as closely as possible.
Say, this word is “tab”.

phonetic transcription

Once you are sure that the sound is pronounced decently, you can move on to other words.
Sounds like a lot of work but I assure you it’s not.

When I was a child I suffered from really bad speech impediment and couldn’t pronounce a truckload of sounds in my native tongue.

Can you imagine how I talked with my parents or friends?
– “mc wohn sdno”
– “Yes honey, of course we love you”

I used this method to learn how to express myself like a normal human being.

 

  • record yourself

Find some interesting text, grab a microphone or use your mobile and start reading aloud using the aforementioned rules.

How can you tell if you produce new sounds effectively?

It won’t be difficult – assuming that you did everything right, your mouth will hurt.
It means that you use muscles which haven’t been used before.

Of course, If you’re learning a language with a different alphabet, you should learn how to read it first.

 

3. LEARN HOW TO HEAR THE SOUNDS

 

Now, you can start practicing your hearing.
You’ve successfully identified the sounds which are new to you.

It’s time you started noticing them in sentences!

Such knowledge gives you immediate head-start when it comes to listening to and communicating with foreigners.

Remember, however, that grammar rules concerning your target language might alter your understanding of speech.
Some sounds blend, others are silent, or reduced.

For example, in French “à” followed by “le” combine to form “au.”

 

4. BE AWARE OF MISTAKES

 

It’s always safe to assume that you pronounce sounds at least partially incorrectly until you receive some kind of feedback.
Such assumption can save you hours and hours of tears and frustration.

 

5. FEEDBACK

 

You need final confirmation of how awesome your pronunciation is.
And who’s better to do it than native speakers?

If you have a tutor or friends who can help you – then great.
Ask them all the questions you have and to correct you if there’s something wrong.

If you are on your own, try www.rhinospike.com
You can ask native speakers there to record some text for you and then you can use it to compare it with how you speak.

You can also use Google Translate or http://www.forvo.com/ to compare pronunciation of single words.

But how will you know that you sound good enough?

You will sound in unison with the recording. Simple as that!

 


As you can see, learning how to pronounce sounds can be turned into an relatively easy to execute process. However, as always when it comes to mastering such complex task, the better you try to be, the more time-consuming it is.

And don’t beat yourself down, if it doesn’t work right away. Good things take time.

A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at himDavid Brinkley

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18 comments

  • Great article.

  • I am not sure here you are getting your info, but
    gresat topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or
    understanding more. Thanks for great information I was looking
    for this info for my mission.

    • I read a lot of research on brain and memory. That’s the secret 🙂
      Let me know if I can help you somehow!

  • Excellent post however , I was wanting to know if you could
    write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.
    Kudos!

  • Hello. I’ve been learning English in Korea on my own for about 2 years. I didn’t at first put my focus on learning and practicing the pronunciation of English and wasn’t interested in. But I’ve recently been aware that being able to pronounce correctly my target language is as important as being fluent in writing and reading. So I was looking for something that can help me in learning it, and it’s been a great help for my plan to learn it. Please excuse my bad English.. and really thanks for your greatly useful article!

  • I’m learning japanese, but i’m still confused of listening part of it.
    Listening part of one language is important, indeed. cause if we can hear what what person says, we can understand the context of the converstion, right?
    but some people say that grammar is always more important to learn upon listening, speaking, etc.
    so, how we can be brave to start a conversation with good grammar and have a good listening at the same time?? thanks so much

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Hi! That’s a fantastic question and also a really hard one. The obvious answer is to practise a lot. But if you’re looking for some tips, I’d suggest a thorough preparation before the conversation. You can practise potential topics which might come up, together with needed vocabulary. The more prepared you are, the smaller the fear is and the more confident you are. You can try to steer the conversation into “safe waters”.

  • Great article.This is what I’m loking for, so thank you so much.

  • Good article but I do have a lot of curiousity about the R and the L. I hear it interchanged in African languages as well as some Latin American countries. I know that Japanese can’t hear the sound as well. It is something that I want to research more.

  • Is there somewhere I can find links to the entire series? An archives or something? I’d like to start from the beginning and read all the way through. Thanks.

    • Bartosz Czekala

      I am afraid not, Catherine. You can use the search box, though. It’s in the right upper corner of the website 🙂

  • Unfortunately, IPA doesn’t deal with Finno-Ugric languages. But the article is great, anyway!

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