You’ve been working on your target language for months, diligently studying new vocabulary and practicing grammar drills. You read books, you listen to podcasts, you practice speaking the language to yourself in front of the mirror. Everything is going fine, except for one small thing — you still don’t sound anything like the native speakers in those podcasts. We know this feeling well, and we’re here to tell you not to despair: mastering pronunciation is one of the toughest aspects of learning a language, and you’re certainly not alone in your struggle. Here are a few tips that will help you pronounce like a pro.
Don’t wait till the last minute.
All too often, pronunciation is considered more of an “added bonus” than a crucial component to learning a language. Some tend to think that if they just get the sentence structure down first, they can always add in the proper accent at a later point. Don’t make this mistake! The earlier you can start focusing on pronunciation in your studies, the better chance you’ll have of achieving a native-like accent in the end.
As we discussed in a previous post, children aged K-8 naturally have the upper hand when it comes to learning foreign language pronunciation, due to their increased sound reproduction abilities. This is not to say that adults can’t sound as good later on in life — it might just take a little more work to get to that point.
Listen, listen, listen (and watch).
Watching TV and movies is a well-known technique for improving listening comprehension in your target language, but it also goes a long way for pronunciation skills. The key is to pay close attention to the way the speakers produce different sounds. How much do they open their mouths when they speak? Are sounds coming from the back of the throat, or from the tip of the tongue? It’s useful to take note of body language as well: do the actors seem more closed off, or do they gesture frequently? Practice mimicking these characteristics on your own time, and you’ll have a much easier time incorporating them into your speech.
Another tip: record yourself! Listening to your own speech can be extremely helpful and allows you to identify specific sounds you need to improve. Compare your recording with audio clips of native speakers, paying close attention to the differences you hear.
Get outside of your own cultural group.
Psychological factors also play a large role. Judy B. Gilbert, an internationally renowned educator and pronunciation expert, says that “our sense of self and community are bound up in the speech-rhythms of our first language (L1). These rhythms were learned in the first year of life and are deeply rooted in the minds of students.” Basically, our native language is inherently connected with the social and cultural communities we form at an early age. Many students are reluctant to commit to a new accent when learning a language simply because they’re not used to feeling and sounding awkward or “foreign.” If we intend to become fully comfortable using a different accent, it’s crucial that we step outside the boundaries of these communities. This can mean spending time abroad, making friends with a different ethnic group, or even moving from a rural area to a big city. You’ll be forced to integrate into a new social group with different ways of speaking, reducing the natural reluctance you might feel to sound foreign.
Take a phonetics course.
Are you actually conscious of how your tongue, your teeth, and your lips are working to produce different sounds when you speak? Probably not! If you have the time and the resources available, taking a course in linguistic phonetics can significantly increase your ability to master different accents. A professional linguist will work with you to make sure you understand, for example, where to place your tongue for certain vowel or consonant sounds. Once you’re aware of what’s happening inside your mouth when you speak, getting used to a new accent will be a piece of cake.
If taking a specialized course like this isn’t feasible for you, there are some great online phonetics resources that teach the basics of phonetics. Videos like this one for Spanish learners break down each of the sounds unique to a specific language. Incorporate some of the other tips we listed above, and you’ll be on your way to sounding like a native speaker in no time.
At Mango, we think feeling comfortable with your accent is just as important as learning the grammar. That’s why we include interactive words and voice comparison technology in our program to ease you into new sounds from the very beginning. Learn more about our technique or check to see if Mango is offered for free in your local library. And remember — start early, listen often, and put yourself out there!