Get Your Foreign Language Pronunciation Right From The Start
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time4 mins
In my time traveling and living abroad in many different countries it’s always bugged me when I’ve met expats with shamefully bad pronunciation despite them having a good level of fluency in the local language.
These people usually employ the phonetics of their own language for their target language (e.g. not bothering to roll their ‘R’, using English vowels instead of guttural consonants or monotone pronunciation of tonal languages).
I remember meeting an Australian couple years ago in North Africa who had spent most of their adult lives living in the Middle East as teachers (for 20+ years) with an incredibly high academic level of Arabic and yet when they spoke it was like listening to somebody insert something up the arse of a cat.
It was an ordeal to listen to despite me being impressed by their excellent command of the language.
I’ve heard equally bad pronunciations right across Europe as well.
There’s no excuse for it.
Don’t race ahead until you get the sounds right
At the very beginning of my journey with Arabic back in my late teens, I started attending free group lessons in Classical and Levantine Arabic with a Palestinian teacher and about 5 other students of various ages at the same beginner level as myself.
Once or twice a week we’d go to this guy’s house and sit around his lounge room while he taught us how to speak and read.
He wasn’t qualified or trained by any means to teach language, but he was phenomenally good at teaching Arabic and set a strong foundation that’s stayed with me for nearly 10 years.
One of the things that I’m indebted to him for is my Arabic pronunciation.
You see, the other students at the time weren’t interested in accent or pronunciation. They spent a single lesson on the sounds and then wanted to quickly progress straight on to the grammar and travel phrases, whereas I spent 3 solid months trying to get it spot on.
I wasn’t satisfied with sounding like a tourist with survival Arabic, I wanted to sound like a native-born Arab.
This guy was patient enough to help me work on my accent to the point where now, in my late 20’s, I sometimes astound natives with my pronunciation.
I’ve had Arabs tell me that my accent’s better than most 2nd generation bilingual Arabs living in Australia. There’ll always be times when my accent gets sloppy but for the most part it’s excellent and it’s because I took the time to get it right in the beginning.
My accent level varies with my weaker languages but for all of them I’ve taken extra time to work solely on pronunciation and it’s made a big difference.
Start out listening and parroting native speaker dialogue
It’s straightforward enough advice.
If accent is important to you, take the time to just listen to natural conversation and repeat what’s being said (don’t worry too much about music and audio books with slowed speech for this exercise).
A lot of language books come with a pronunciation key at the start like this Russian book of mine:
These can be helpful but I usually find them confusing and prefer to just listen to dialogue to get the sounds right myself.
Start out practicing the individual vowels and consonants but remember that they often change when used in connected speech through assimilation, deletion, etc. (e.g. in Australian English, we don’t say “better” – we say “bedda”) so it’s good to practice the letters in context and pay attention to dialect variation in your target language.
Listen to the variations in pronunciation depending on the placement of a letter.
A letter might sound different at the beginning of a word than it does say, in the middle between two consonants or the end of a word.
Remember Luigi from The Simpsons? He’s the cook with the highly exaggerated, stereotypical Italian accent. These linguistic stereotypes exist for a reason – languages have distinctive sound patterns/melodies. The Italian melody is so familiar to most people that this linguistic stereotype (usually depicted by adding “a” on the end of most words – i.e. “what’sa matter witha you’a?”) is instantly recognizable as Italian to pretty much everybody.
Your target language has a melody just like this and it’s up to you to, the learner, to learn and incorporate that melody into your pronunciation.
One of the things that sets my Egyptian Arabic skills apart is that I’ve learned by repeated exposure and imitation over time how to speak the melody of the Egyptian dialect – when to raise and lower my voice, when to use long, drawn out vowels or shortened vowels, how and when to adjust speed etc.
The couple that I mentioned at the top haven’t bothered to do this and that’s why they sound terrible.
Last and very important piece of advice: Make sure you get the accent right early.
Don’t leave it till later because your crappy accent will fossilize and become a difficult habit to break later on.
Agree or disagree? Share your opinion below!
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I taught English in SE Asia for a few years (not a teacher, ex-IT guy) and found that students progressed far more rapidly by getting the pronunciation right at the beginning. While most students learned grammar, my students learned pronunciation. Their confidence soared when speaking to a native English speaker as the student would 100% be understood as to the word being spoken. At the beginning of the lesson I would have a sheet of 30+ words that focused on a particular sound, and if need be, I would use a mirror to show how the lips/mouth move in relation to that sound. The repetition was tedious at times but I made it fun and they soon realized the benefits.
You are 100% correct. I wish I found your site earlier!
Yeah! I have to get my pronunciation right! It’s important! I want my third language’s pronunciation to be at least as good as my second language’s pronunciation(English) !
this is Nigerian. how do you pronounce it EKELE NWAMARAH
In my opinion learning a foreign/second language from scratch ought to start with pronunciation through explanations, demonstration of correct articulation/pronunciation and through exercises/practice. Learning pronunciation should cover major rules of reading letters, the articulation of vowels and consonants, stress in words, in phrases, rhythm and intonation in sentences, and doing practical phonetic exercises that include listening to and pronouncing of words, phrases and sentences.
I’ve discovered your blog yesterday night and couldn’t stop reading. I’d like to add some thoughts to this interesting topic. Sorry, if I repeat something others have said, haven’t read all the comments yet.
I agree: not enough emphases is put onto pronounciation, they just say: you’re never speak like a native speaker, without ifs and buts. Of course one can sound, or approach as much as possible to a native speaker but from what I’ve seen, there are many factors:
1. You have to want it! you need to let go of your mother tongue, it will be affected, you’ll get an accent and people at home will detect it immediately and make fun of you (it adds to the feeling of you betraying your mother country and people for something else or better).
2. You have to love the other language, its sounds, the place where you’re learning it, their people, their way of thinking. I’ve spent 8 years in New Zealand, I’ve got kiwi wife and kids but still I dislike the accent, especially the sound “e” in seven, yes, tennis... I still sound foreign, they don’t know I’m Italian unless I say it (my accent is not stereotypical). If I could choose, I’d pick and accent from the South of England or Scotland (Glasgow), those are the ones I like. Compare with a year in Madrid I spent when I was 23. I went there without knowing a single work. Felt in love every week with a different girl, loved the sound of words, their S (different from our one) their C, D, their voyels (they’re all closed e and o). At the end of the year I could surprise some people by saying I wasn’t from there.
3. Age, and distance between mother tongue and foreign language. After a certain age (25?) it gets harder to reproduce foreign sounds. I’m thinking of long vowels in English. We had them in Latin but not any more in Italian. Instead we have short and long consonants and that’s what foreigners don’t get. We mistake ship for sheep, they mistake penne (pasta) for pene (penis!). I still struggle to understand and reproduce different sounds in ball, bowl, mole, mall. My kids correct me and to native speakers those sounds are world apart. I’m starting now to detect the Australian accent that I find almost identical to the kiwi accent. For kiwis, they’re world apart....
I’m tkinhing of taking a course of Intro. Arabic in college. The only problem is that half my family is in France so I should improve my lacking French speaking skills. Though my grandparents in France probably know a good amount of Arabic from their decades in Tunisia.
Seems like everyone is posting or linking articles about pronunciation these days! Still good to see that we all write about slightly different things, which shows how much there is to cover and how many different angles there are. I agree with your “don’t race ahead” 100%.
Yea, it’s a pretty popular topic! It’s always good to read everyone’s different perspectives too.
Everyone can and should work at sounding better in the language they are learning. Do we all need to be mistaken for natives. No, but the goal should at least be to not sound ‘harsh’ to a native speaker’s ear. We can all aspire to that. Work on it early and keep working at it - even after you are fluent.
I don’t think we should try to be mistaken for natives.
We’re foreign speakers after all, so it’s expected that we sound different. I do however think that native-like pronunciation demonstrates a higher level of determination on the learner’s part.
It takes time to convince people that you are a native speaker. For example, I speak a regional form of Spanish from Colombia because I’d lived there for several years and my wife is from that region. When I speak to Colombian’s from this region they can tell right away that I am a foreigner but when I speak with other Spanish speakers from other regions in Colombia and around Latin America they assume that I am Colombian; especially over the phone.
However, I don’t think the goal is to fool anyone into thinking that you are a native speaker of the language but to make yourself easy and interesting to listen to. If a native speaker of your target language finds you interesting and easy to talk to the more likely they will spend more time conversing and contributing to your language goals.
Good point Donovan .Even my professional Spanish teachers let this point slip through-probably due to the fact that getting an Englishman (me) to roll his his ‘r’ was causing her serious distress...that I ‘ve now started using Michel Thomas for French and I’m well aware of his very ungallic accent and those of the students on the recordings. However. I have exposed to hearing french before and have other CDs but for the complete novice not much help.
I usually don’t bother with products that have Michel Thomas-quality voice recordings.
However, the very first language learning software that I bought for $10 (Nodtronics - Let’s Learn Arabic) was extremely good at the beginner level, despite being spoken by some non-native guy with possibly the worst accent ever.