You’ve been repeating a phrase over and over again but you still can’t seem to say it like the native speaker on the recording. How big of a problem is this and how much more time should you devote to getting it right? There’s a big debate in language learning over whether or not a native speaker standard is really the right approach to pronunciation. That’s because unless you’ve been exposed to a foreign language from an early age, it will be difficult and nearly impossible to achieve.
The more time you spend around native speakers and the younger you are when you begin studying, the greater your chances of losing your accent. Still, many argue the goal should not be to speak without an accent but rather to be sure the language you use is comprehensible to others. This means people don’t have to strain to understand what you’re saying.
Consider there exists a huge variance in the way a word is pronounced due to regional accents. Native speakers tend to be proud of their accents and it turns out some language learners are too!
The critical age hypothesis
For those learners who do just want to blend into the crowd, nature can sometimes throw a wrench in your plans. You may have heard that children are sponges and that’s what makes them such good language learners. This is in part true, but more so than being good language learners they are actually astute listeners. That’s because babies are born with the ability to hear every sound from all of the world’s 6,500 spoken languages. As they approach their first birthday, their ears gradually tune to the language(s) around them and they begin practicing sounds (we call this babbling) in preparation for speech production.
A 2, 3 or even 5 year-old who moves to England from abroad will probably end up speaking English fluently and without an accent. Nonetheless, our ability to tune our ears and sharpen our tongues decreases dramatically after we reach puberty. This is why researchers have proposed a critical age hypothesis. Luckily the prediction just refers to a window for pronunciation, not fluent speech production. Moreover, there have been some exceptional individuals who have defied the critical age hypothesis and learned to speak a foreign language later in life and without an accent. All it takes is one exception to disprove a theory so take the critical age hypothesis with a grain of salt. Recognise it will be harder to ace pronunciation if you are an older learner but remember nothing is impossible!
There are plenty of things you can do to improve your pronunciation when it comes to speaking a language in a comprehensible way. Try these tips for starters:
Use audio-dictionaries. The Internet has opened up a world of free resources for language learners, including audio dictionaries. This means you can skip the phonetic alphabet and hear the pronunciation as soon as you encounter a new word. At Forvo you can find a word pronounced by multiple speakers including native and non-native versions. Why not give back to the community while you are there and do a few recordings of vocabulary from your native tongue?
Practice whole phrases. Words sound different in isolation and you might be having trouble saying something because the pronunciation changes when a word is on its own versus said as part of a phrase. Listen out for stress, rhythm and rising or falling intonation in an utterance and try to mimic the prosody to the best of your ability.
Study minimal pairs. These are words where one letter makes the difference between completely different meanings, for example fan and van in English. When two phonemes are similar sounding to non-natives, replaying and practicing minimal pairs over and over again can teach your ears to hear the difference and your tongue to articulate it in your own pronunciation. There are plenty of websites that list minimal pairs in different languages and you can sometimes find them at the start of textbooks.
Watch YouTube videos. In recent years video bloggers have begun recording pronunciation resources that slow down the articulation of certain hard-to-say phonemes and show you how to position the tongue and lips to get the sound just right. See if anyone is producing videos for your language and if they aren’t, consider documenting your own journey to master the new pronunciation.
Use a mirror. Google a chart that shows you where to place your tongue and how to position your lips. Are the sounds you need voiced or voiceless? Next give it a go in front of a mirror. Don’t be afraid to sound ridiculous and over-emphasize a phoneme if needed. Exaggerated facial movements can sometimes help alert you to muscles in the mouth and throat that you didn’t know you have — and they can be particularly helpful when it comes to producing sounds that don’t exist in your native tongue.
Listen to everything. It may sound like a no-brainer but sometimes language learners put all of their energy into speech production and forget that before productive ability comes receptive knowledge. Listening is crucial if you want to sound more native-speaker like. Keep foreign radio stations on in the background, play music, watch videos, TV shows, even cartoons. The more you are exposed to the sound system, the easier it will be to imitate.
Know your weaknesses. English tends to be spoken with a relaxed mouth. Do some research on your target language and find out if you need to tense your jaw or use your lips and the front of your mouth to get the sounds out. Watch native speakers’ faces to imitate their approach and coach yourself to ensure you actively override your native language mode and make an effort to sound different.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You can always improve your pronunciation if you’re willing to work for it. Practice new sounds on the way to work, shout out phonemes as you walk your dog and listen to your language as you drift off to sleep. The more regularly you work on your accent and the more you hear native speakers, the easier it will be.
Find fun ways to practice
Gone are the days of having to sit in a university language lab with oversized headphones and audio tape recorders. Language learners today benefit from an abundance of technology that means you can speak a new word into a mobile phone and get an immediate response as to whether or not your pronunciation was on target.
Just remember there are plenty of fun ways to practice pronunciation outside of direct drills.
–>Learn the lyrics to a foreign song and try a little bit of karaoke. You might consider a few sing-songy lullabies or a national anthem. Choose something to learn that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to listen to and maybe even an occasion to show off your version. Rap music can be an interesting challenge.
–>Read poetry out loud and memorise your favorite poem. It will give you a pronunciation boost and challenge your brain to create new kinds of connection between the words in the language you are learning. Poetry is also a great introduction to literature and culture.
–>Look up tongue twisters and children’s rhymes. Every culture has language games that play with common sounds or test a speaker to see how quickly and accurately they can express a complicated phrase. They tend to be full of homonyms and other fun challenges that will entertain you and any native speakers you try them out on.
Do you have any tips on improving pronunciation? Join the discussion in the comments!