Some tips on learning how to pronounce foreign languages and on improving
your listening comprehsion.
Why good pronunciation is important
Learning how to pronounce a foreign language like a native speaker is
difficult but not impossible. The better your pronunciation, the better
people will understand you and the easier you will find it to understand
Tuning your ears and practising listening comprehension
Before you start trying to speak a foreign language, spend some time
tuning your ears to its sounds and rhythms. You can do this by listening
to the language as much as possible via the radio, TV, movies and native
speakers in your neighbourhood. There are online
radio stations in a wide variety of languages.
When you first try listening to your chosen language, you'll understand
only a little or nothing at all, other than perhaps the names of people and
places and the odd word, unless you're learning a language closely related to
your L1. You may even find it difficult to believe that what you're listening
to is a real language that people are able to converse in. However if you
continue to listen to your L2 as much as possible, you will gradually
become familiar with the the sounds and rhythms of the language and start to
be able to pick out words and phrases. Eventually you'll be able to understand
most if not all of what you hear in your L2.
There are a number of things you try to help you understand radio and TV
Rather than just listening or watching at random, find out what programmes
are on and choose one that sounds interesting. In this way you will have an
idea of what the programme is about.
Set yourself goals, for example when listening to the news try to work
out the main points, names, dates and times.
Brush up relevant vocabulary before tuning in. For example if you're
planning to watch a cooking programme, revise food words first
Even if you can't understand very much at all, try to identify word and
If possible listen to the news in your L1 first, then when you listen
to it in your L2 you'll already be aware of the mains stories.
Don't try to listen to or watch too much in one go: if you're finding
it a struggle, take a break and/or do something else.
Listening to songs in your L2 is another way to improve your listening
comprehension, especially if you have the lyrics written out so that you can
follow them as you listen.
With your ears tuned to the sounds and rythmns of your L2,
you'll find learning how to pronounce the language less difficult.
If your language course includes a recorded pronunciation guide and exercises,
listen to them until you have internalized all the points, but don't try to
learn everything in one go. Beware of pronunciation guides that compare the
sounds of your L2 with your L1. This can be misleading as the sounds, particularly
the vowels, are often different.
Alternatively or additionally you could try finding a native speaker to help you with
pronunciation. Ask them to speak slowly and to enunciate each word clearly.
Then try to mimic them. Pay attention to the shapes their lips make, and also
to their posture and any gestures they make.
Pimsleur language courses
are very good at teaching you pronunciation: when introducing new
words they break them up and teach you how to pronounce each syllable.
Once you've got to grips with the pronunciation of your L2, you need to learn
how to map the sounds to the written form of the language. This is fairly straight
forward for languages like Italian, Spanish and German, which have consistent
and regular spelling. Other languages, such as English, French and Danish, present
more of a challenge with their irregular and somewhat chaotic spelling. Learning
a language written with a different writing system adds an extra level of difficulty.
Better pronunciation through song
If you enjoy singing, try learning some songs in the language you're learning.
This is a fun way to improve your pronunciation and vocabulary. You could also
try learning to recite poems and stories. Listening to songs in your L2 is
an enjoyable way to improve your listening comprehension, especially if you
have the lyrics written out so that you can follow them as you listen.
Phonetics and phonology
Learning a bit about phonetics and phonology will enable you to pronounce
your L2 better. A good way to start is to learn the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA),
which can be used to represent all the phonemes of human speech and is therefore
a reliable guide to pronunciation.
If you take the time to familiarise yourself with the IPA symbols, the phonemes
they represent and how to pronounce them, you'll find this knowledge invaluable in
your language learning. Particularly because the IPA is used to indicate pronunciation
in some dictionaries and language textbooks.
In some cases you may not be able to hear particular phonemes, but you can be
sure that you're pronouncing them correctly if you have your tongue, lips and teeth
in the necessary positions and if your breath is moving in the right direction.
Human speech uses a total of over 800 different phonemes. A phoneme is
the smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language. Babies can
hear all possible phonemes but quickly develop a preference for the phonemes
of their native language(s). Children tend to be very good mimics, an ability
which enables them to learn foreign languages with a native accent. When
learning foreign languages in later life, most people find it difficult to
hear and pronounce phonemes not present in their native language. This is why
most adult language learners have a foreign accent.
If you're learning a tonal language such as Chinese or Thai, you need to find
a way to associate each syllable with the appropriate tone. One possible way to do this
is to imagine a series of shelves, each one representing a tone. To assign tones
to shelves you could number the shelves and/or imagine them having the shape of the
tone contours. Each time you learn a new word, picture the word together with
the thing, action, quality or whatever it represents on the appropriate shelf.
Here's an illustration of how this works for Mandarin Chinese using the tone contours:
In some tonal languages tones can change for various reasons. For example, in
Mandarin when there are two third tones in a row, the first becomes a second
tone. This process is know as "tone sandhi". You could incorporate
these tone changes into the shelves with a series of snakes and ladders:
the snakes indicate a higher tone changing to a lower tone and the ladders
indicate the opposite.
Alternatively you could picture a building with one floor for each tone and
use stairs/lifts for tone changes, or a town with separate districts for each
tone and bridges and tunnels between the districts for tone changes.