I love writing in new languages. Whether it’s a text message or an essay, I love putting words to paper, and I pride myself on my ability to communicate almost like a native speaker… until I open my mouth.
To me, the most terrifying part of learning a language is actually speaking it. Even if I sound fluent on paper, I know that my accent will always give me away.
How to improve pronunciation
If you feel this way too, you’re not alone. Pronunciation is difficult, especially if you’re learning a language from a completely different language family. The thought of using the wrong Chinese tone or of mispronouncing the French “R” might have you frozen in fear; if speaking a language were easy, Japanese wouldn’t call it yoko meshi, or “eating a meal sideways.”
But here’s the good news: Speaking doesn’t have to be terrifying! With these six tips, you’ll start sounding more like a native speaker in no time.
1. Before you speak, listen.
In order to pronounce a language correctly, you need to learn how it sounds. And in order to learn how it sounds, you need to listen to everything that you can, whenever you can.
Whether you’re picking up a language for the first time, returning to it after years away, or have perfect reading comprehension but few speaking skills, listening as much as possible is key to your pronunciation.
If you’ve studied a language formally, you’ve probably had to suffer through cringe-worthy listening activities. Forget about those, and get creative! The more fun you have, the more likely you are to stick to it.
What should you listen to? Here are some of my favorites:
- Cheesy TV shows and movies (especially soap operas)
- Funny YouTube videos created by native speakers
- Podcasts on your favorite topics
- Contemporary music (with the lyrics written out)
- Musicals and operas
- Online radio stations
Before you pop on a Japanese cartoon to play in the background—not so fast. Remember one very important thing: This listening needs to be active listening. Subliminal language-learning doesn’t work; you can’t listen absentmindedly to Farsi tapes while you’re cooking dinner and expect to be fluent by the time the chicken is ready.
Active listening requires you to pay close attention to everything being said. Choose something that matches your comprehension level. This will let you pick out the words that you know and use context clues (or a dictionary) to decipher the rest.
Even better, find an audio resource with a transcript so that you can follow along. Mark unknown words and look them up before or after listening. Transcripts are especially good for visual learners.
If people are speaking too fast and you don’t understand everything in one go, that’s okay! Set achievable targets. For example, if you’re brand new to the language, try just determining where sentences and words begin and end. Try identifying the words that are used most often. If you’re a little more advanced, decide on a specific number of new words to learn each time. As long as you stick to your goals, you will improve.
One more thing. As you listen, pay close attention to minimal pairs, which are words that sound the exact same, except for one syllable, such as call and cull, or rim and rhyme. These pairs are likely to trip you up in your target language. Spotting them early will not only help you refine your pronunciation, but it will also save you lots of awkward moments overseas!
2. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
When you look up a word in the dictionary, you usually see three things: a syllabic breakdown, a definition and a bunch of strange-looking alien symbols with upside-down and dotted letters. This is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
The IPA breaks down every single sound that humans can possibly make, called phonemes. Then the IPA assigns a specific symbol to each individual sound. This means that no symbol can make two different sounds, and no sound can have two different symbols—think about English, for example. Both “c” and “k” can make the same sound. But “c” can also sound like “s,” and “k” can be silent. The IPA standardizes each letter and phoneme to avoid confusion, so that when you first start to learn a language, you can tell exactly how it sounds regardless of its spelling.
Many IPA charts break down a specific language into characters based on their closest approximation in English, so start there. This Egyptian Arabic chart, for example, goes in-depth. Start practicing the IPA with flashcards.
3. Get corrected.
Have you ever listened to a voice note you sent on WhatsApp or watched a SnapChat video you recorded, only to be shocked by the sound of your own voice? “I don’t sound like that!” you probably protested.
What you sound like out loud is nothing like the voice in your head. That means that when speaking your target language, you might think that you resemble a native speaker—but in reality, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
So record yourself speaking vocabulary words. Play them along with a recording of a native speaker saying the same words, so that you can hear the difference.
Rocket Languages lets you directly compare your recordings to those of native speakers. The technology also uses transcriptions to instantly display what you’re actually saying. Additionally, you can speak along with conversations, to practice thinking on your feet and talking at the speed of a native speaker.
In addition to using technology, pair up with someone to get instant feedback on your pronunciation. As they correct you in real time, you’ll be able to instantly adjust. They can also point out the nuances that you can’t catch yourself, such as if you’re speaking too quickly or too slowly, or if you’re stressing the wrong syllable, or if you’re not using the right intonation at the beginning or end of a sentence.
Link up with a native-speaking tutor at iTalki or with a language partner at Tandem.
4. Take on tongue-twisters.
Before going on stage, actors do tongue-twisters to warm up their mouths. This helps them speak clearly enough for everyone in the audience to understand them, from the front row to the balcony.
This tactic will work for you too. If you can wrap your tongue around the most difficult sounds in your target language, then the rest of the language will be easy. Plus, tongue twisters are just plain fun! Record yourself to track your progress over time.
Where should you start? How about with the world’s largest collection of tongue-twisters? (My personal favorite is in Amharic: Tertariw tetertariwen seletereterew, tetertariw betertariw bemeterteru teteratro tertariwen tereterew. “Since the suspector suspected the suspect, the suspect suspected the suspector.” It works in both languages.)
5. Watch your tone.
When speaking a foreign language, you have to keep a lot in mind, from stressing the right syllables to distinguishing between minimal pairs.
But some languages, like Chinese or Yoruba, add another element of difficulty—tones. You could technically pronounce the right phoneme, but the wrong tone could turn it into something completely different. Whoops! This is especially confusing for speakers of atonal languages like English.
One helpful tip is to picture the language as a staircase. Each stair is different tone. Whenever you learn a new word, create an image for the word and imagine that image on the appropriate tonal stair.
Another approach is to learn a tonal language in a top-down way, learning entire phrases or sentences at a time so that the tones and rhythm come to you naturally.
6. Use a mirror.
Some sounds are just too tricky. No matter how hard I try, I haven’t been able to roll my “R”s, and a friend of mine cannot make the heavy Arabic “H.”
Using a hand mirror (or the selfie mode on your phone) might feel silly at first, but it works. Watch your tongue as you pronounce the sounds you struggle with; it helps to do it along with a YouTube video or a diagram. You’ll be able to see exactly where your tongue is placed so that you can train yourself to position it correctly every time.
Practice makes perfect!
You might not sound exactly like a native speaker right now. In fact, some scientists believe that accents begin developing as early as six months old, even before a child begins to speak. And that’s okay! Just focus on sounding clear—listen to as much of your target language as you can, pick up the IPA and speak often with native speakers, and you’ll be ready to converse with anyone in no time.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.