Why improving your pronunciation is more important than you thought when learning a new language…
(by Jack Brian Robinson)
About a month into living in Italy I was sitting down for breakfast with a new group of friends when one of them asked (in Italian, of course) what everybody wanted for dinner that night. “Carne” I responded, meat. At least, that’s what I thought I said. My friends burst out laughing, while I looked at them perplexed. “We don’t eat that here,” they chuckled. I smiled but inside I was completely confused. They explained that due to my inability to properly pronounce the “r”, it sounded like I’d said “cane”, which means “dog”. I laughed along with them, but deep down I was quite embarrassed. How about improving your pronunciation?
You see, though I’d studied Italian for many years before moving here, I put no effort into practicing the pronunciation. I told myself something along the lines of: “learning a language from scratch is hard enough already. I don’t care what I sound like!” but, as I discovered in this moment (which was, thankfully, very soon into moving here) it wasn’t really a matter of sounding good, it was about being comprehensible.
My Feelings about Improving Your Pronunciation
Now, let me tell you, as a native British guy, mastering the Italian trilled “r” is quite the task. And I’ll be honest, I’ve never really got it fully, nor do I think I ever will. But, I found a few tricks along the way and now, at the very least, my friends understand that I want meat and not dog for dinner. You see, someone who is learning a new language ought to give the same level of importance to pronunciation as they do to both grammar and vocabulary. The most fundamental thing, of course, is being understood, but that’s not the only reason you should care about it.
As we know, people can also be quite insensitive from time-to-time, and as a foreigner in a foreign country attempting to speak a second language, it’s not uncommon to hear people repeating what you said while mimicking your strong accent. They don’t mean anything by it (most of the time), and they no doubt find it charming, but it can hurt to hear someone, even light-heartedly making fun of something you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to.
It’s a feeling I know well and one I want to help prevent you from experiencing. I’ve compiled together 3 tips that have helped me to improve my pronunciation in my second language. I guarantee, if you put in the time and follow them carefully, you’ll have people complimenting you, rather than making jokes at your expense.
Improving Your Pronunciation with The Mirror Trick
This is quite a simple concept, but it can potentially be one of the most effective if done regularly. The idea is simple: pronunciation, like singing, is a matter of having correct technique. By being able to visualize exactly what movements your mouth is making as you’re attempting a particular word or sound, your chances for success improve significantly.
Speaking, acting, singing, even conducting an orchestra: each of these activities requires technique and… apparently a mirror! It’s a good reminder we do need to work on ourselves.(Emanuele, Italian)
On a few occasions while (essentially) talking to myself in the mirror, the perfect pronunciation has happened by accident. As I was watching my mouth movements, I was able to recreate it more easily. It’s a simple thing, and it can feel a little silly, but try to do this for 5 minutes every other day. I promise you it will have a great effect on your overall pronunciation.
Repetition and Projection
This step is the reason that my fellow citizens here in this small southern Italian city likely think that I’m insane. As I ride my bike back and forth to work I can be heard by every person and car I pass, loudly repeating Italian words that I find particularly tricky to pronounce. “Torre, torre, torre, to-rrrrrrr-e”, “disseminare, disseminare, dis-semin-are”, and so on. I do this every day during my commute from home to work and back and it really helps me tackle those tricky syllables and sounds.
Our emotional state plays a huge part in how well we’ll be able to learn a new skill. It’s really important not to let ourselves get discouraged when we find challenges in a second language. This helps improving your pronunciation.(Kerol, Brazilian)
Projection is also something that is often overlooked by people. Speaking a new language can leave someone feeling shy and self-conscious, and when one is in that state it’s more than likely that they’ll be mumbling, rather than projecting and annunciating as well as possible. Practice putting a bit of force behind your voice too and I bet you’ll surprise yourself!
Voice Messages & Better Pronunciation
Italy and many other European countries have a wonderful obsession with sending voice messages to each-other, rather than writing lengthy, time-consuming messages. It’s convenient, sure, but it also has other benefits. I understand that this doesn’t come very naturally to many people. I encourage you to fall in love with sending voice messages as often as possible in your second language. When sending a voice message, not only are you are improving your pronunciation, but you’re also making a snapshot of your practice that can be utilized later on.
In Italian schools there is this silly practice to make students memorize every dialogue of the book by listening to the audio track. I, instead, ask my students to record themselves as they read them. Then grade their pronunciation and write down the words they are not sure about. I found out this way they become more concious about their mistakes and are more likely to remember the right way to pronounce a particular word.(Lucrezia, Italian)
Human beings are innately very self-critical creatures, and this is what we’ll be using to our advantage during this step. Don’t just send voice messages in your second language and forget about them: STUDY THEM! You’ll hate it, but nothing shines a spotlight on your pronunciation errors more than hearing them for yourself. “I didn’t know I pronounced that word like that…” you’ll think to yourself. And by having this self-awareness, not only will you be more conscious of the mistakes you make, but you’ll be more motivated to correct them too.
Final Reflections on Improving Your Pronunciation
No matter which language you’re learning, you’re bound to encounter a “sound” that is just completely unnatural to you and that requires more attention. For me, it’s the trilled Italian “r”. For the Italians themselves it’s the English (or rather, German, from a pronunciation perspective) “h”, as well as our “th”.
In Italian, the “h” is also called the “mute consonant” since we never pronounce it. That’s why, when we speak English, we tend to randomly add “h” sounds. However, in Italian, “o” and “ho” are completely different words… silly letters(Emanuele, Italian)
Famously, native Russian speakers also have a really hard time with English pronunciation, for the Russian language only has a quarter of the vowels that English does. Just as for English natives, many Russian sounds such as their D (Д) cause a lot of bother. The more subtle they are, the harder still!
So, which languages are you learning, and which sounds give you the most trouble? Let us know in the comments below!
The importance of improving your pronunciation can easily be disregarded. I hope this short guide has helped to convince you to give it a little more consideration throughout your language learning journey. Now, go talk to yourself in the mirror, shout foreign words down the street and cringe at the sound of your own voice. In bocca al lupo!