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Pronunciation and listening comprehension

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 them.

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 broadcasts:

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.

Learning pronunciation

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.

There's a good online introduction to phonetics and the IPA at: http://www.unil.ch/ling/english/phonetique/table-eng.html

Accents

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.

Learning tones

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:

One way to remember Chinese tones

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.

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