I am sure at the beginning of this adventure you are eager to get started learning some impressive phrases, but before we get to that stage we have we have to take a look at the mechanics. It’s these fundamental cogs that will enable us to go on and tackle the big picture. Although this step is the simplest and shortest, it’s still very important and deserves your full focus and respect. Any bad habits you pick up at this point will be very hard to shake off in the future.
Step 1. Goals
Pronunciation - We need to learn both to recognise and also reproduce the range of sounds in the spoken language.
Script - We need to learn the relationships between the sounds of the spoken language and the visual writing system. Some languages have an alphabet using characters to represent phonemes (e.g. English) and others use a logographic system which uses unique characters to represent entire words (e.g. Chinese).
Resources For Memorizing The Sounds And Their Related Characters
Using A Language Course
Many self-taught language learners begin learning a language with an audio course, hence this is the resource people typically use to learn the pronunciation and script. The biggest problem with this is that most courses will provide you with some samples of script and corresponding audio and expect that to be an effective enough resource to train your pronunciation with. Your ears at this point are not trained to hear the slight nuances that native speakers use and hence although you think you are pronouncing something correctly, many times you will you will be far from the correct form. Without feedback from a native speaker or a very detailed breakdown of all the phonetics being used, you are destined to start developing a poor accent.
For me there is only one particular course that tackles pronunciation very well:-
Pimsleur - This is a great course to start with, although I hold my reservations as to its effectiveness at more advanced levels of language learning. The good thing about this course is that for each new word that it introduces it breaks them down into each syllable and repeats them several times very slowly with both male and female native speakers to the point where you could not possible overlook a single phonetic. I honestly don’t know why more courses don’t do this.
The main problem with using a language course to learn the pronunciation of a language however, is that you won’t be receiving any constructive feedback on your own execution. In the past, I’ve had an experience in which I had 100% convinced myself that I was perfectly imitating the phonetics in my language course, but it took a conversation with a native speaker to show the reality that this I had many flaws in my pronunciation. This is why I will always recommend..
I would say that professional instruction is the very best method of perfecting your pronunciation skills, but unfortunately it’s not free! A good teacher will demonstrate the ideal mouth positions, drill you over and over again, correcting you when you’re wrong, accepting nothing less than perfection. You don’t have to enroll on an entire course if you just want to use their services for learning pronunciation, you can pay a tutor by the hour both offline and online (e.g www.italki.com)
Ways of getting native feedback on your pronunciation for free include:
- Posting a recording online. Find a forum where native speakers are willing to help people learn their language. Reddit is great for this, for example if you wanted to get feedback on your French pronunciation www.reddit.com/r/french would be a great place to go.
- Offer conversational practice in your own language in exchange for native input on a website like www.sharedtalk.com.
- Ask an acquaintance who speaks the language natively to help you.
When it comes to the apps that use your tablet or phone’s microphone to test if you’re repeating the phonetics perfectly (and there’s a lot of them), I advise you to stay well clear. The developers may have good intentions, but the reality is that this technology is wildly inaccurate at the moment. I would guess I’ve used 7-8 different applications so far and they’ve all been entirely useless.
There are some apps which are built for the purpose of listening training, and educating you on phonetics, but if you already own a full language course then it’s hard to see the benefit of using an app, other than on-the-go convenience.
One forthcoming app that I’m particularly interested in is the “Flow Trainer” app, which will supposedly submit your recordings for analysis by a native speaker providing you feedback within 12 hours (requires a premium subscription). I could see this service being extremely valuable.
A note on non-alphabetic languages
Learning the characters for languages such as Chinese or (partly) Japanese that employ logographic writing systems is something that can’t be mastered straight away as each of the many thousands of words has a different character. My advice is to learn the modern romanized alphabetic writing systems at first to facilitate to vocabulary acquisition and gradually learn the respective characters.
Without a doubt the best way of memorizing each character for these languages is by using flashcards (physical or digital), a fantastic website for this is www.memrise.com.
In terms of practicing the writing element of these languages, if you have a smart phone or tablet, I highly recommend searching for an interactive application that trains you to produce the strokes correctly, such as this one for Chinese on the Apple iOS.
The Flow of the Language
This is something you won’t be able to perfect at the beginning, rather it’s something you’re going to have to work on regularly throughout the learning process, especially when it comes to speaking with others.
Stress, Rhythm & Intonation – These 3 things are collectively called ‘prosody’. Can you hear the speaker stressing and de-stressing certain words within sentences or syllables within words? Can you recognise the distinct musical flow to speech? Is the speaker varying the pitch of their voice at all?
Prosody may demonstrate a variety of features of the speaker or the utterance: the nature of the utterance (statement, question, or command), the emotional state of the speaker, the use of irony or sarcasm, emphasis, contrast, and focus, or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or choice of vocabulary. Speaking with a native-like ’flow’ will make you sound really authentic and perhaps allow you to make deeper connections with other people as it allows you to express your emotions in ways which natives will better understand.
Bonus Tip: Find audio of a native speaker of the language you are learning speaking your own language instead, with a very heavy accent, the heavier the better. The rhythm, intonation and stress (along with some phonetics) that they are applying when speaking your language will be carried over from their native tongue, there’s a lot to learn from this. Perhaps you can already do a great imitation of a native speaking your own language, great, you’re already more equipped than you thought.
Extra tools & resources
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) - When I discovered the power of this tool, the way in which I studied pronunciation was changed forever. It’s an alphabetic system that maps every sound a human can make with their mouth to a specific character and so in theory it can be used to visually represent any word in any language. Even if you’ve never heard of the term IPA, you will have probably seen something in the dictionary that looks like this: “injustice [ɪnˈdʒʌstɪs]“. Each character in ɪnˈdʒʌstɪs represents a different phonetic, and if you have already learned how to pronounce each of them then you’re equipped to pronounce the entire word.
To help my readers to start using the IPA in their studies, I’ve made the following interactive pages for; French pronunciation, German pronunciation, Italian pronunciation and Spanish pronunciation. Even if you are not learning one of these 4 popular languages, you can take inspiration from these pages on how to gather your own resources. Each page displays all of the IPA phonetics used within the language, examples words containing the phonetics, a spoken audio sample of the aforementioned examples and a demonstration of where they might also appear in the English language.
Another great resource is this interactive application produced by the linguistic department of the university of Victoria which demonstrates each IPA phonetic voiced individually. Now I know this chart may look very intimidating, but remember you only have to learn just a fraction of these phonetics, just the ones relative to the language that you are studying.
www.forvo.com is ‘the largest pronunciation guide in the world’. It’s a huge website hosting audio recordings for almost every word in almost every language imaginable, all crowd-sourced from their dedicated community. If a word is not already in the database, you can add a request for it to be recorded by a community member. With each recording you are given the extra handy information of the gender of the recorder and the regional dialect/accent that they speak with.
www.rhinospike.com is a website where you can request a chunk of text to be recorded by a native speaker. By submitting recordings in your own language you can bump your requests up the queue. This is a great tool to clear up any doubts you may have as to how something is pronounced or to create your own listening exercises.
Setup your computer for foreign language keyboard input:
- Add an extra input language for your keyboard in Windows, you can switch between languages instantly with ‘alt+shift’.
- Find the alt-codes for accented letters for Windows keyboard inputs. Essential for European languages.
This is the first post of the series in the guide“How To Learn A Language Fast: The 4 Steps To Fluency”. A strategy that aims to make the path to fluency more time efficient.
Here are the 4 parts:-
- Step 1. Learning Pronunciation & Script (The Mechanics). (Current Page)
- Step 2. Learning The Most Important Vocabulary and Grammar (The Core of The Language).
- Step 3. Learning The Vocabulary Relevant To Your Life and Personality. (Coming Soon)
- Step 4: Step Away From The Books And Communicate. (Coming Soon)
I make all of these resources available for free, but if you really want to show your appreciation you can:
Newsletter: If you want to keep up to date with all my latest articles, why not subscribe to my regular newsletter. Just enter your e-mail address in the box below where it says ‘Receive My Latest Tips By Email’, confirm your e-mail adress and you’re done, easy!
Comments: If you liked this page feel free to leave a comment, it would make me very happy to read your support! Also if you have any value to add to this page don’t hesitate to share, discussion breeds progression! All spam or abuse is not tolerated and will be swiftly removed.
Questions: If you have a question about language learning that you’d like to ask me, you can do so in the site forums site forums. If you want to contact me for a more personal matter, use the contact me page.