When we think about other languages, the way they sound is one of the first things that comes to mind. How do you sound when you speak English? How do you sound when you speak a foreign language? What actually controls the way we sound?
We’ll come to these questions soon.
When we start learning a language, we start learning new words. And of course, try to pronounce the words the way we hear native speakers saying them. Or maybe we read the words and follow the pronunciation rules that we know.
At the start, we do spend time focusing on the sounds of the language.
But very quickly, pronunciation can become a skill that takes a back seat to others: grammar, reading, listening, speaking and writing. Sure, we’ll always try to say words the right way. And our teachers will correct our speaking errors. But there’s not enough time to focus on absolutely every dimension of the language in class. Pronunciation is an important skill that for quite understandable reasons, doesn’t always get the attention it needs.
Luckily, improving the way we sound in a foreign language is something we can improve outside the classroom as well as practice during other class activities. In order to improve outside the classroom though, it helps to think about the equipment we use to communicate via speech.
Pronunciation is a combination of many factors. First, let’s think about the mechanics of how we speak. We use our mouths. That probably sounds obvious, but what parts of our mouths are we using? Our tongue, teeth, lips are the main players. But there’s also our glottis, the part of our vocal folds that open and close. There’s also our nasal passage. And then there’s the alveolar ridge, the ‘fleshy part’ behind our two front teeth. Some languages use the roof of the mouth. And even English uses the space between our tongue and the roof of our mouth to form the /r/ sound in red.
Have you thought about how the mouth actually works when you speak English? Have you considered the mechanical difference between view and few? What about the difference between two and do? What is physically changing? Why does oat sound different to out or eat? What parts of your mouth are actually moving to change the sounds you are making?
There are no answers provided here — you’ll have to figure it out yourself by trying! But when you have the answer, you’ll start to think more about how your mouth works as a sort of musical instrument.
You can use this instrument very easily to speak your native language. Each word is a song you’ve played a million times. But what about other languages you might be learning?
You will have to play your instrument differently.
Improving your pronunciation in another language is not just about memorising the sound of that word. It requires muscle memory and deliberate attempts to use your ‘musical instrument’ differently.
It helps to memorise what position your tongue should be in — especially when it comes to vowels. This is because vowels are controlled by the position of your tongue. Vowels are also produced by changing the shape of your lips. Sometimes, there’s even more of your face at play! French vowels will be affected by how you use your nasal muscles.
You should also remember whether you need to use your glottis to ‘voice’ the consonant (okay, here’s an answer given away for free — the only difference between view and few is this: view is voiced and few is unvoiced). Your pronunciation will improve if you pay close attention to the mechanics of your mouth (and throat) when you learn new words.
There are practical steps you can take to improve your pronunciation. But you have to accept that you will look and sound a bit foolish. So consider doing these things in private.
One strategy is to watch videos of native speakers speaking. If you’re learning German, watch videos of German native speakers giving interviews or making speeches. You want to be able to see their mouths. Watch what their lips do and think about the lip shape when they’re forming vowels. Remember, they will play their instrument differently to you. Your job is to watch how they do it. Pause the video on certain vowels. Take a good look at the shape of the lips as well as the form of the tongue. Yes, when the speaker’s mouth is slightly open, you will often be able to discern the tongue position!
Next, get in front of a mirror and reproduce the words (in reality — sounds) you analysed. Try to recreate the lip and tongue positions of the native speakers. While you’re in front of the mirror, take your phone and start recording some audio — or better yet, take a video of yourself saying the target words. Then you can compare your lip and tongue positions to those of the native speakers.
If all of this sounds a bit much, that’s understandable. But achieving a high level of pronunciation might require you to work differently than just memorising the sounds of words. There can actually be a big difference between how you hear a foreign word when you say it in your mind and the sound you make when you actually produce it aloud. Record yourself reading a short text and see how it sounds. If you’re not happy with the results, it’s a sign that you should consider analysing your pronunciation mechanically.
At the end of the day, speaking another language with confidence is a fantastic feeling. And the way that we produce sounds with our mouths is fascinating in itself. Have fun playing that instrument!