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3 reasons why mastering pronunciation can be hard

Sound-Blending-Mango

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It’s true. Mastering pronunciation in a new language can be really challenging. But you shouldn’t feel bad about it! 
That’s because there are legitimate underlying reasons it can be so challenging! Bonjour, سَلام، چِطورید؟, and welcome back language learners, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re summarizing what you need to know about why it’s difficult so that you can feel more confident and in control of your language learning process! Well, بدون إطالة (‘without further ado’ in Arabic) let’s get to it! Here are the 3 main reasons why mastering pronunciation can be tough:

  1. Different sound inventories 

  2. Different tones

  3. The reality of sound blending

 

#1 Different sound inventories

This is the most obvious of the three points. Simply put, different languages use different sounds. Think consonants (like b,d,g) and vowels (like a,e,i,o,u). It’s likely that your target language has some sounds that you don’t have in your native language repertoire. Take the trilled ‘r’ in Spanish, as in perro. English doesn’t have that consonant in its sound inventory, so it can take English speakers some time and effort to master that new sound. And even when there are similar consonants and vowels, they’re not always a 1:1 correspondence. For example, English and Spanish both have the ‘p’ sound (linguists call it a voiceless bilabial plosive consonant). But the Spanish ‘p’ uses measurably less outward air flow (called aspiration) when compared to the English ‘p.’ That’s why often when English speakers are learning Spanish, one common piece of feedback they’ll receive is to make their ‘p’s less airy, less aspirated. Takeaway: different languages have different sound inventories!

 

#2 Different tones

You’ll often hear bilingual people say that they think their voice changes when they're speaking their different languages. That’s actually a known phenomenon that has been studied. For example, Korean has higher pitch (in linguistics terminology, it’s called fundamental frequency) than English. The prosody of sentences can also sound quite different in different languages. What do we mean by prosody? Think about the way your tone fluctuates when you say “Where are you going?” It likely starts at a mid-tone followed by a higher tone then back down to a mid-low tone. In Korean, that same sentence would have a very different prosody: 다 어디 가? (TA eo-di ga?) The tone would likely start out high then get low, then rise back up to a high tone. Then factor in tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, which have an understandable learning curve for people who speak atonal languages like English. In simple terms, tonal languages are languages for which a change in the pitch of your voice can change the meaning of a word. For example, 睡觉 shuìjiào means  ‘to sleep’ but 水饺 shuǐjiǎo means ‘dumpling.’ So - next time you’re practicing your language - watch your tone!  

 

#3 The reality of sound blending

Did you ever notice how the word ‘mountains’ gets pronounced differently when you say it carefully in isolation versus quickly in a full sentence, like “I enjoy the mountains.” This is because of sound blending! Sound blending is essentially the verbal equivalent of cursive writing. It’s the process by which sounds change based on the words around them. It typically happens in faster, connected, casual speech. The reason this can be tough for language learners is that you may have learned the word in isolation and can pronounce it perfectly in isolation, but when you put it into the context of full, connected speech, it sounds too stiled -- almost robotic. To learn more about what sound blending is, how it works, and how you can improve your own sound blending to sound more natural in your target language, check out this short video! Psst - did you know? The Mango Languages App was designed with sound blending in mind! The app uses real human voices (not AI-generated robots) so while you’re learning within the app, you’re getting that rich exposure to natural, authentic sound blending!

Well, there you have it! 

The 3 reasons why mastering pronunciation is so hard. To recap, they were: 

  1. Different sound inventories 

  2. Different tones

  3. The reality of sound blending

Last thing! (don’t skip)

When you’re faced with the difficult task of pronunciation mastery, it can be really helpful to reflect on your personal language learning goals. How do you want to sound in the language? What level of proficiency are you aiming for? If you’d like a fun and easy worksheet to help you reflect on your goals, check out our FREE Setting Good Goals worksheet (free sign-up link here!)

Thanks for reading! 

We hope you leave this article feeling inspired, motivated and re-energized to use these tips to reach your language learning goals. A tout à l'heure! !خُداحافِظ  We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!


Join the Mango fam!

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English | (recording language)

  • French | Bonjour means ‘Hello!’ and A tout à l'heure means ‘See you later!’

  • Farsi (Persian)| سَلام، چِطورید؟ (sahLAHM, cheTOHreed) means ‘Hello, how are you?!’ and خُداحافِظ means ‘Goodbye.’

  • Modern Standard Arabic | بدون إطالة (bidoon iTaala) means ‘without further ado’ (lit. ‘without long talk)

  • Interested in learning English, Farsi, Arabic, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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