The advantage of learning good pronunciation is that it is probably the easiest way to sound fluent at an upper beginner or intermediate stage, and early effort will continue to help you throughout your language endeavours. If you’re the outgoing type or are learning primarily to communicate verbally, good pronunciation is a good way to keep people happy conversing with you and get compliments on your skill.
Pronunciation is especially important for languages with very different phonology, such as Chinese. This is because the differences are so great as to make mispronunciation a barrier to communication. If you are learning a tonal language or one with many new sounds, consider paying closer attention to pronunciation.
Pronunciation can be split between sound, syllable, word, and sentence. Every target language has different rules governing these. This is known as the study of phonetics, split between phonology and prosody.
What to learn
Here are several aspects you will need to look out for in your practice:
Sound inventory: Every language has a set of distinct consonants and vowels. These sounds can be very different from English (such as tones and click consonants) or only slightly different.
Oral posture: This is the way native speakers tend to hold the muscles in their mouth.
Tone: This is the use of tone to distinguish morphemes. This means two words can be identical but for their tone and carry completely different meanings. If your target language is a tonal language you will need to become proficient in order to communicate.
Difficult sound clusters: Different languages have different rules surrounding which sounds can fit into a single syllable. This means some languages will have clusters of consonants you will find difficult to pronounce.
Stress: Languages have different rules around what syllables are stressed within words, as well as how they are stressed
Connected speech: Words flow together in a way that makes them sound different than if they were spoken individually. Notice how this sentence sounds different in your mind. when. I. type. the. last. part. like. this.
Intonation: This is pitch when used to convey other types of information. The most simple example is rising pitch to indicate a question. Intonation is often used in other ways and these can differ between languages.
Rhythm and tempo: Languages are spoken with a different sense of pace and timing.
The next sections will elaborate on some of these aspects.
The difficulty with learning new sounds is understanding precisely how to make them. If you would like to master the pronunciation of your language, it helps a lot to learn some of the terminology around sounds and parts of the mouth.
Your best tool for learning the sounds of your language is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is a system of writing all the sounds of human language. Knowing the core sounds associated with your language and familiarity with their IPA symbol is very useful. By googling any IPA symbol, you can find the Wikipedia article describing it, which has a sound file to help you. Here is the Wikipedia entry for the phonology of English to help you.
Next I will provide you with some resources to understand the fundamentals of consonants and vowels. It can be very easy to think you are producing something correctly. However, careful study of the sounds of your language can reveal differences you were not previously aware of.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on phonetics will be a useful reference later on.
The IPA also includes a vowel chart, which is very useful for understanding how different vowels are formed.
Here is a great video analysing English accents that also serves as an interesting introduction to the vowel chart:
(link on YouTube)
Consonants have three fundamental aspects. Here they are with links to a series that describes them:
Oral posture is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp, but understanding it can provide a huge boost to your pronunciation. You can think of oral posture as the natural resting place, or “home base”, of the mouth of a native speaker. Every sound is produced from this base.
You can learn from this home base by adjusting the posture of your own mouth when you are speaking. This should help you achieve more accurate pronunciation.
Pronunciation guides rarely talk about oral posture, so the best way to learn it is often by paying careful attention when watching a video of a native speaker. The best time to spot this is often by watching the mouth of the speaker when they pause between phrases, or by paying attention to how they sound when they make the equivalent of our word for uhhh.
Here is a video of an accent trainer describing French that may help you understand the concept:
(link on YouTube)
Here are some aspects to look out for:
Tensing or relaxation
Location of tensing (can be the whole cheek or isolated parts)
Bunching up in the back of the mouth
Arching or cupping
Bracing (often against upper teeth)
Retraction or protrusion
The positioning of the velum
The width of the pharynx
Difficult sound clusters
Consonant-heavy languages can be difficult to pronounce due to the clusters of consonants that can take some time getting used to. These are generally learned by practising them in isolation over and over.
For most learners, it is important to pay focused attention to where and how stress is placed on words. English stresses by a raising of pitch and lengthening of the vowel. In other languages, stress can be more subtle or expressed differently.
Here are some aspects of stress that may be relevant to your language:
How to practise pronunciation
How easy your job is depends on how many resources exist on the internet. I recommend you search for pronunciation guides online. If you’re lucky, you can find a guide somewhere that takes you through all the sounds and precisely how they are pronounced. The key is to identify the aspects that will be difficult for you based on differences between your native and target language and consciously practice these aspects.
It may take some time to train your ear. For a while, different sounds will seem the same to you, but if you persevere, they will eventually begin to sound different. Eventually, you will wonder how they ever sounded alike.
You don’t need to learn everything about pronunciation at the start. A good understanding of each of the main sounds is sufficient. A lot of pronunciation skill comes naturally as you begin to talk more and try to bring your speech to resemble more closely that of native speakers you hear.
I recommend you plan out some sessions where you focus on pronunciation early on, ideally when you first start speaking. To do this, you can use the suggested exercises below.
As I mentioned, you will need to spend time isolating the aspects that are relevant to your language and focusing on improving them. Dedicate some time to doing some activities in which you practise speaking some words alone in front of your computer. You don’t need to do this too much, just until your brain is made aware of what it needs to do to make the new sound. After that you can gradually integrate the sound naturally as you practice your language.
|Isolate sounds||You may need to get used to pronouncing individual sounds before you can use them correctly in words. You can do this using the Wikipedia articles for the IPA symbol associated with the sound you want to learn (example: English schwa). Play the audio and repeat it aloud.|
|Isolate words||Once you have the sounds roughly right, try to use them in a simple word. Use Forvo, Wiktionary, or any other dictionary that has audio to get a good example to mimic.|
|Correction with your conversation partner||Ask your partner to critique your pronunciation. They may have trouble identifying what you are doing wrong. This is why the IPA can be very useful.|
|Record yourself||Play back a recording of yourself reading a text. Even better is if you have a native audio recording you can compare it to. For single words you can just use Speech Jammer and increase the delay to max to hear yourself right away. This will take some getting used to.|
|Shadowing||Listen to an audio recording of a native speaker with a text reference and try to speak over them, copying their intonation, pace, and pronunciation.|
|Read aloud||If you study alone, try practising by reading aloud texts you are reading for study. It helps if the text also has a native audio recording. It is also helpful to practise throughout your study by trying to read flashcards or anything new you encounter aloud.|
Overcoming the mental hurdle
One of the biggest hurdles to enabling adult learners to speak with a good accent is purely psychological. That is, we are afraid of sounding silly when we speak. The result is we default to the way that sounds the least silly to us—the sounds of our native language. It is important to understand that good pronunciation will initially feel very weird to you.
A helpful tip is to try speaking your target language with an exaggerated caricature of how people from that country speak your native language. More often than not, you will land much closer to a good estimation of the correct pronunciation than by starting from the default of your native language.