5 Steps to Better Pronunciation in Any Language

Ready to improve your pronunciation, but not so sure of where to begin? Here are 5 steps to better pronunciation in any language.

Step 1: Break down any self-imposed barriers

(If you’ve already got that positive, “I can do this thing” attitude, feel free to skip right ahead to Step 2.)

Sometimes the first step to doing anything – finishing a project, studying for an exam, improving some aspect of our language skills, asking someone on a date – is to eliminate the negativity, worry, and fears within ourselves.

We all struggle with negativity sometimes. You’ve probably had one of these thoughts enter your brain before before: “I’ll never get this right.” or “This is too hard.” or “People will laugh at me if I seem like I care too much about doing well.” or “Is this really that important?”.In my experience, these negative thoughts just make the task at hand more difficult. So instead of sabotaging yourself before you begin, don’t listen to them. They’re just thoughts after all. Just because they pop into our minds against our will, doesn’t actually mean that they are true. Instead, focus your attention on the task at hand: improving your pronunciation. This is a perfectly reasonable goal. It just needs to be broken down into smaller, more manageable subgoals, which brings us to…

Step 2: Learn to hear differences

The next step in better pronunciation? We have to learn to recognise a different set of sounds.
Our native language has a set of sounds that we use to communicate. In English, we’ve got the sounds “h” as in “hat”, “l” as in “lots”, “e” (as in “bet”) and “o” (as in “tote”) – just to name a few. Once we’re familiar with these sounds, we don’t think about them too much. We just use them intuitively to make words like “hello” or “hole”.

Other languages have their own sets of sounds. Some of those sounds are the same as ours, which is useful. For example, a Polish “s” sounds essentially the same as an English “s”.

Some sounds, on the other hand, are similar to a sound in our language, but not quite the same. Learning about these differences can radically help to improve our pronunciation.

Let’s take “r” as an example. The  English “r” is pronounced differently to the Spanish “r”, which is different to the French “r”. Those links all lead to different Wikipedia articles with long titles, but they include really useful sound files so you can listen to all of those different “r”s.
We also need to listen for the differences between what seem to be the same sound in a new language, but are actually different, and as a result are not interchangeable.

For example, Polish has two sounds which sound a bit like the English “sh”, but are actually different from the English “sh” and different to each other as well (Sound 1, Sound 2). If we don’t have those sounds in our native language, it can be hard to hear the difference because we’re not used to having to differentiate between them.

Wikipedia is also a great source of more information about the sounds in your new language, with handy charts like this English consonant chart, this one for German, this one for French, and this one for Polish. If the symbols are new to you, don’t worry too much about them, and just listen to sound clips instead.  You can also read through the article on your chosen language’s phonology (by searching: chosen language + phonology) to find out other useful information.  The more you know about your new language’s sound system, the more power you’ll have over your pronunciation.

Step 3: Learn to pronounce these new sounds

Ok, so we now know there’s a difference between the English “r” and the French “r” and that Polish has more than one “sh” sound. What do we do next?

The next step is to learn how to pronounce the unfamiliar sounds of this new language.

Let’s take our French “r” – something which a lot of French learners have difficulty with initially. The French “r” is called a “uvular trill” in phonetics, because it’s created by the vibration of the “uvula” (also known as that dangly bit in the back of your mouth).

(Fun fact: blowing a raspberry is called a “bilabial trill” – bilabial because your two lips are involved. But back to the French “r”…)

Can you gargle? If so, you’re well on your way to the perfect French “r”.

Gargling is basically a French “r” or “uvular trill” involving a liquid. If you can do it without water and then use that sound within an actual word, then you’re all set.

Most importantly: practice makes perfect. I’m working on a post to help you practice French pronunciation with Vanessa Paradis, so keep an eye out for that in the future.

Step 4: Free up some cognitive resources to let your pronunciation shine through

Freeing up your cognitive resources sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

In reality, all I mean is this: Now that you’ve got a handle on the sounds in your new language, the next step is to make sure you pronounce them correctly in conversation. For that, you’ve got to cut out a little slice of your attention to dedicate to pronunciation.
As an example, it’s much easier to read a sentence in a language perfectly than to think of what you want to say, call up the words and structure you need to say it, and also pronounce that phrase perfectly.

In the first case, you only have one thing to think about: pronunciation. The phrase has been written for you. Grammar? Done. Vocabulary? Done.

In the second case, you’ve got loads of other things to think about besides pronunciation, which means that you can’t really give pronunciation enough attention to produce sounds perfectly, so you’re more likely to stumble or make a mistake.

What can we do about this?

The best thing is to free up some of our attention. First, if you’re worried or anxious about using the language, take a deep breath and try to focus on what you’re saying instead. Not only will worrying take your attention away from the task at hand, it also interferes with your ability to filter out distracting information. That’s not something we need when we’re trying to make pretty sentences.

Another way to free up some attention is to take advantage of muscle memory to learn certain words or phrases so that you don’t have to think as hard to produce them. Taking steps towards mastering the vocabulary and grammar of the language you’re learning will also increase your confidence and allow you to more quickly decide on the structures and words you need to communicate, letting you to focus that extra little bit of attention onto your pronunciation. In short, the more distractions you can eliminate, the more you can focus on pronunciation. With time, the correct pronunciation will come so naturally that you won’t need to pay it much attention at all.

Step 5: Practice

Finally, remember to practice not just individual sounds, but whole words and phrases. For some fun ideas to practice pronunciation, click here.

And once you feel confident pronouncing those sounds, words, and phrases, it’s time to practice Step 4. Use the spoken language as much as you can and train your ability not just to pronounce sounds correctly, but to pronounce them correctly while thinking about everything else that go into speaking the language. Essentially, it’s time to train those useful multitasking skills.
What do you think? Is pronunciation one of your priorities? A horrible chore? A fun thing to work on? Am I the only one who loves Wikipedia charts this much?
Image by Westinghouse Electric (Time Capsule of Cupaloy) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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