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Here’s a scenario that you may be familiar with:
You’ve learned the basics, and you’re ready to start speaking. You meet a native speaker, and you greet them in your target language. And… they can’t understand you. You know you said the right words! So what went wrong?
If that sounds like you, then you may need to work on your pronunciation.
Poor pronunciation gets in the way of sounding like a native speaker. Sometimes language learners feel like pronunciation will come naturally with time. So many don’t take the time to focus on it.
This is somewhat true. The more you speak and hear the language, the more you will adapt and pronounce words properly. But that’s assuming you’re actually speaking and listening all the time. Many beginners don’t do enough speaking or listening in their target language.
Instead, they depend on learning from reading. They learn from textbooks, Google Translate or transcripts. These can be helpful resources…but too much dependency on them can keep you from mastering pronunciation. You don’t want to fall into that trap.
By focusing on pronunciation first, you'll be easier to understand right away. It can also help you feel more confident in your language skills and sound more impressive to native speakers.
No matter what language you’re learning, there are ways you can study to improve your pronunciation!
Tactic #1: The Mimic Method
The Mimic Method, created by my friend and fellow polyglot Idahosa Ness, is a way to get over the dependence on reading to learn. With this method, you switch how you learn, and learn faster by training your ear. Think of it as Sound Rehab.
As a musician, Idahosa applied the same concepts of learning music by ear to language learning. The method breaks down languages into sounds, syllables, and sentences. You put them together to create rhythm and intonation, and effortless, native-like pronunciation. You first learn the Basic Elemental Sounds of your target language so you’ll have the building blocks of good pronunciation. Then, you focus on learning to pronounce words by ear instead of reading through a textbook.
For instance, English has about 43 elemental sounds, while Spanish has 39. So when learning Spanish pronunciation, I need to focus on which sounds are different and master those first. I also need to remove the extra sounds in English from my speech when speaking Spanish. It’s important to master the basic sounds because otherwise, you’ll struggle with the language as a whole.
Learning by ear allows for faster recall, better listening comprehension, and near-native pronunciation. After all, that's how babies acquire their native language with little to no accent.
Take a look at our review of the Mimic Method for more info.
Tactic #2: Master Listening & Shadowing
To learn a language, you must learn how to listen well. In our native language, we have a tendency to passively listen quite often. But we can’t get by doing this in our target language. We don’t have a deep enough understanding of it in the beginning to absorb what we hear. So, we can’t learn from passive listening.
To pronounce words correctly, you need to learn how native speakers pronounce them. The best way to do this is to actively listen. Pay close attention to exactly how the language sounds and flows. If you’re watching a video or chatting in person, notice the way the native speaker moves their mouth to form the sounds.
Let’s look at the way we use our mouth to create these sounds across languages. For example, the Japanese “r” sounds nothing like the English “r”. In Japanese, the “r” is between an “l” and “r” sound. It's created by flicking the tongue to the spot on the roof of your mouth where it starts to curve upward. But in Spanish, the “r” sound rolls when it’s doubled. When it’s a single “r”, it sounds like a quick “d” sound created by tapping your tongue on the ridge in your mouth just behind your front teeth. It’s very similar to the “tt” sound in “butter” when you say the word quickly.
Think about how different that is from the hard English “r”. The English “r” comes from pursing your lips and drawing your tongue back towards your back molars. Your lips don’t play much of a role in forming that sound in Spanish or Japanese, and you don’t push the tongue back at all!
By listening closely, and observing how the mouth moves, you can greatly improve your pronunciation.
You can take it a step further by shadowing. Shadowing is a learning technique that relies on ear training and mimicry. You listen to the speaker and repeat what they said, either at the same time or immediately afterward. It helps you to not only remember the vocabulary and sentence structure, but also the pronunciation. Plus, it helps you get over your anxiety of speaking! The more you shadow and follow along, the better you will be able to copy the native speaker’s rhythm and tones.
Tactic #3: Learn the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an excellent learning tool for pronunciation. Although a given letter can vary in sound across languages and dialects, the IPA standardises these sounds by giving each one its own unique letter or symbol. It breaks them down in a nuanced way so you learn every small difference. By learning IPA, you can really improve your pronunciation.
When you read a word written in IPA, you read how the word should sound in its original language. It's uninfluenced by your native language or writing system. Thus, you learn how to pronounce it right the first time. You’ll catch even subtle differences that distinguish learners from native speakers.
It can take a bit of effort to learn IPA, but it'll help increase your language learning speed and pronunciation in the long run. You don’t even have to master the entire IPA – just learn the sounds used in your target language.
George Millo wrote a fantastic, in-depth article for learning IPA, which you can check out here.
Tactic #4: Record Yourself Speaking
One of the best things you can do to improve pronunciation is to record yourself. This can be intimidating at first! But when you record yourself, you can accurately hear how you sound. You’ll be surprised how much more you notice about your speaking habits when you’re listening to yourself on a recording rather than just hearing yourself speak in the moment.
Is your rhythm off? Which sounds are you struggling with? The recording will allow you to hear the truth. Not only will you be able to catch vocabulary and grammar mistakes, but you can analyse your pronunciation. Then you can see where you need to improve.
This is why so many people find the Add1Challenge helpful. The goal of the Add1Challenge is to have a 15-minute conversation in 90 days. A big part of that is learning to speak the language with good pronunciation. During the Add1Challenge, you record videos to analyse your own progress at different points in the journey. And when you share your video with others in the community, you’ll get encouraging feedback on your progress as well. It’s a win-win!
Once you know what you need to work on, you can go back and assess how native speakers would say it. Then try it again!
Tactic #5: Speak from Day 1
All of the previous tactics have helped me in past language missions, but my most preferred tactic will always be to speak from day 1.
The more you speak and converse with others, the better your pronunciation will become.
Why? Because you’re getting consistent practice. When you converse with native speakers, you’re training your ear to pick up on the nuance of your target language. You become used to those sounds, and you start to adjust to them.
You also hear the natural way a native speaker would say things. It’s usually very different from the written form – spoken words can get clipped or smushed together, such as “going to” becoming “gonna” in spoken English, or “what do you mean” becoming “whaddya mean”. The more you take part in conversations, the easier it is to naturally copy those sounds and improve your own pronunciation.
You will make mistakes along the way, of course. But embrace those mistakes! When you make mistakes, and you practise speaking to correct them, you’ll internalise that information better than you would if you only read it over and over.
While good grammar and vocab depend mostly on your brain’s long-term memory, good pronunciation is more a question of muscle memory. It’s that muscle memory that lets you have easy, fluent conversations. So you need to practise having conversations to grow.
Over to You!
Which of these tactics will you use to master your pronunciation? Will you try a mixture of them? Do you use any other methods to improve your speaking skills that I didn’t mention? Let me hear about them in the comments.