One of my most exhilarating memories came one night when I ordered take out in China. The food arrived very quickly via motor-scooter (one of the things I miss most about the place) only to have the delivery guy be reluctant to give me the food, not believing it could possibly have been a foreigner he was talking to on the phone just a few moments before.
My pronunciation had finally fooled a native speaker.
I'm currently learning Malay, and I find that same surge of excitement when a native speaker, one that isn't my very patient teacher, understands the phrase that I'm trying to formulate.
Generally speaking, there are two "goalposts" to shoot for with pronunciation:
- Actually being understood by native speakers
- Being mistaken for a native speaker
Here are a few practice methods that I've tried, personally.
Mimicking, Shadowing, and Chorusing
What is mimicking?
Mimicry is a method that applies to almost every skill. How did you learn to cook? You might’ve gone through a series of trials and errors until you found the right proportions of ingredients to put in a stew or the right temperature for baking a cake. Perhaps you watched you parents cooking in the kitchen.
The same basic idea applies to language learning, too.
- Choose an audio sample that consists largely of comprehensible input.
- Play and listen carefully to short phrases or sentences in the target language.
- At the end of the word, phrase, or sentence, repeat it back exactly as you heard
This approach is the basis for many language learning tools, including well-known ones like Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, and Glossika.
Mimicry is convenient – you can do it anywhere – and is also an exercise that you can customize to suit your skill level. At first, it will be all you can manage to simply get through a sentence. As you get comfortable with that, you can start to focus on mastering tricky sounds, adjusting to the rhythm of your new language and matching the fluctuations in pitch, airflow and stress that together communicate emotion.
Down the road you'll start to notice some seriously fine details, like how Mandarin doesn't actually have a "d" sound. Very slowly, say top. Now say stop. You should notice that these "t" sounds aren't the same: the /t/ in top is aspirated, meaning it involves a lot of airflow, whereas the /t/ in stop is unaspirated. English doesn't differentiate between these two sounds, but Mandarin does. Pinyin d is an unaspirated /t/, whereas pinyin t is an aspirated /t/.
What is shadowing?
The concept of shadowing has been around for quite some time, but today commonly refers to a practice described by Professor Alexander Argüelles in ~2000.
Argüelles is an American linguist that has “devoted his life to learning as many foreign languages as he can, as well as he can, in a systematic and scholarly fashion.” He was one of the top polyglots profiled in Michael Erard’s Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners, and has been described by The New Yorker as “a legendary figure in the polyglot community.”
Shadowing is the technique of listening to an audio sample and repeating along as close to simultaneously as possible. In other words, you listen to a piece of audio, and as soon as the words enter your ears, you begin to repeat them aloud.
According to Argüelles, for best results this process should be done:
- Using an audio selection at or just above your current ability level.
- While walking swiftly in the outdoors.
- While maintaining a good posture
- Speaking in a loud, articulate manner
- Repeat the source audio immediately after hearing it
Whereas with mimicking you might experiment with a tricky word or sound, rolling it around your mouth several times, shadowing focuses on getting the sentences out of your mouth at a native-speaking tempo. As the name implies, you're like the shadow of someone's voice.
What is chorusing?
Chorusing is a system that many people discover on their own as an effective means of practicing a language, and improving pronunciation in particular. Put simply, it consists of repeatedly listening to a selected audio clip and simultaneously parroting what you hear back until your own speech resembles the source material as closely as possible. The idea is that you get a bit better with each trial, so with each repetition you focus on on progressively finer details.
The term chorusing is most associated with Dr. Olle Kjellin M.D., PhD., a Swedish linguist with a background in medical and speech science research. He believes that “pronunciation practice is more of a motor skill than intellectual and should be practiced like other motor skills such as playing the violin or doing high-jump, i.e., persistent, deliberate practice with a great multitude of repetitions of the same basic movements with immediate feedback.”
The process for chorusing is as follows:
- Edit a high quality audio recording from your target language down into a series of individual sentences; have each snippet repeat six times and leave a brief pause between each repetition
- Set the volume loud enough to hear clearly, but quiet enough that you can also hear yourself over it
- Repeat along with the audio while constantly focusing on its rhythm, pronunciation, stress, and such
- After several repetitions, start gradually turning down the volume of the source audio until you can no longer hear it over your own voice
- Repeat often, and with many (30+) different audio snippets
- If possible, practice with a tutor or teacher who will provide "immediate, uncritically praising but constructive feedback" after each repetition
Dr. Kjellin goes into more depth in a paper on the topic, which can be read here.
Whichever method you choose, one of the most important factors is the content you choose. You should choose clean audio that is free from extraneous noise. Find content that features native speakers and pick topics that are of interest to you.
Podcasts are an awesome option. They are numerous, often free, you can find one on just about any topic that you can imagine. They use natural spoken language, feature a large vocabulary, and often have more than one person talking. People unconsciously adjust their speech upon realizing they're talking wither a learner, so podcasts present a great opportunity to interact with "genuine" language.
Another important point is to repeat everything you hear, even the filler words like umm, uhh or err. These little words and expressions are often left out of textbooks but are an important part of sounding like a native speaker. That goes for times when the host misspeaks, too: this knowledge will be useful when you make mistakes, yourself, and gives you great insight into how native speakers go about formulating their own sentences.
The International Phonetic Alphabet
What is IPA?
In 1888 renowned linguist Paul Passy established the Association Phonétique Internationale (International Phonetic Association), a group of linguists and language teachers whose goal was to devise a system for transcribing the sounds of any language: the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The IPA works by assigning symbols, based on the Latin and Greek alphabets, to individual phonemes. Phonemes are the individual sounds that make up a word. The word “dog” (dɔg in IPA), for example is made up of three phonemes: the beginning ‘d’ sound, the middle ‘aw’ sound, and the ending ‘g’ sound.
A major advantage of the IPA is that it's universal. Learning it enables you to understand how any word from any language should be pronounced, even if you don't speak that language. Here are a few more advantages:
- IPA doesn’t use combinations of letters to represent a single sound, eliminating the need to worry about spelling rules. The IPA uses /ʃ/ to represent the “sh” as in ship, for example, and /f/ to represent the “ph” as in glyph.
- IPA symbols are all unique, whereas many languages associate multiple sounds with the same letters. While "th" sounds like one thing in throw and another in they, the IPA assigns /θ/ to the sound in "throw" and /ð/ to the one in "they."
- IPA doesn’t use multiple symbols to represent the same sound. The "s" sound in silo and the first syllable of cycle are both represented by /s/, for example.
- IPA symbols are never context dependent. Instead of having to know that “c” sounds like an "s" before the "y" in cycle but like a "k" after it, each of these sounds gets a different IPA symbol: /s/ and /k/.
- Truly an international alphabet, IPA also includes symbols for click languages (ʘ, ǀ, ǃ, ǂ, ǁ) and tonal languages (˥ ˥˩ ˧˥ ˧ ˧˩ ˨˩˦ ˩, or numbers 1-5), plus a whole range of other "diacritic" markers that help clarify the slight differences in a given phoneme that arise from language to language.
How does the IPA help you to improve your pronunciation?
When you learn a new language, you'll also be learning a mix of sounds: some totally new, some similar but slightly different to ones you already know. The IPA is a set of blueprints that instructs you how to make any sound, even ones you've never heard before.
Each IPA symbol has a three part name that tells you whether a given sound involves your vocal chords, where in the mouth it is made and how airflow is manipulated to make it. The same "parts" are recycled between sounds, so oftentimes, you can break down the sounds you already know to figure out new ones.
Take one of the F sounds from Japanese, /ɸ/, which is featured in Mt. Fuji.
Its full name is a voiceless bilabial fricative, whereas the English F sound, /f/, is called a voiceless labiodental fricative. They're very similar: The only difference is that /ɸ/ is made with both of your lips (bi + labial), whereas /f/ is made by bringing your lower lip to your upper teeth (labio + dental).
That's good news because English's P sound, /p/, is a voiceless bilabial plosive. If you can say the word perfect, you already understand how to make a "bilabial" sound.
In practice, all this means is that if you put your mouth into the position necessary to say P, as in perfect, but then make an F sound instead, and you'll have made that Japanese F sound. (Note that you shouldn't completely close yours lips like you do in practice; leave a little gap for air to go through, or you won't be able to make an "f" sound.)
The IPA looks somewhat scary because it utilizes many obscure sounding terms, but it quickly becomes very intuitive. Professional singers use the IPA to sing in languages that they don’t understand.
Active Listening and Self-Assessment
Active and Passive Listening and When to Use Them
Everybody knows that listening is a vital part of learning any language, but it might not be as obvious that there are actual two main types of listening: active and passive.
- Passive listening is any listening you do while you’re engaged in other tasks, like listening to music while you exercise or having the TV on in the background while doing dishes. The sound is there, but you aren't really listening to it.
- Active listening involves listening for a specific purpose – perhaps for facts or to follow a story, perhaps to note how people use the tone and pitch of their voice to convey emotion. A simple active listening exercise would be to listen to a recording of a short story, then try to re-tell it in your own words.
Generally speaking, when people talk about listening as a means of practicing a language, they're referring to active listening. A lot of passive listening might help you internalize the flow of a language over the long term, but you'll see more tangible and immediate results from spending time listening actively.
An active listening exercise for pronunciation might look like this:
- Choose an audio example that is just beyond your current ability
- When you encounter unknown words or phrases, simply try to pick out where one word ends and another begins
- For words and phrases that you do understand, listen to how the word fits into the sentence as whole: how emotion is added to that word or phrase, how it slides into the next phrase, how much "oomph" it is or isn't given
The goal here is not to listen and repeat, but rather to totally focus your attention on what is being said and how it is being said. Speaking takes quite a bit of effort, and if you're worrying about what words are being said or keeping up with the pace of conversation, you'll likely miss important information about how those words are being said.
Once you've picked a few things out, perhaps how someone began a sentence with a high-pitched voice that gradually lowered throughout, or how certain words blend together (what is that? > wha-dihh-zat?), you can then make a point to practice those things in your next mimicking, shadowing or chorusing session.
Record yourself for better self-assessment
Self-assessment is an integral part of all of the above methods, but unfortunately, you can't always trust your ears – especially when in the moment. Your ears might even trick you: the "sh" sound in English (/ʃ/) and Japanese (/ɕ/) aren't the same, but they're close enough that your brain will probably interpret /ɕ/ as /ʃ/ until you're told that they aren't the same. Compare she and し (shi).
Recording your own voice, walking away for a few days and then and playing the recording again will likely be a real eye-opener. When you listen back to your own voice, you’ll hear things that never occurred to you while you were speaking them. While a bit discouraging at first, this is an excellent way to clarify what pronunciation hurdles you still have to get over.
The self-recording and playback method works great with the mimicking method above. Try listening to a short phrase from a native speaker, record yourself repeating the phrase, and then compare both recordings (actively listening!) to see where your pronunciation deviates from the original. Is your rhythm off? Maybe the "melody" of your intonation isn't quite the same? Maybe you emphasized a word a little too much, or are really struggling with a certain sound?
(It's also a great idea to date these recordings so that you can see your improvement over time!)
What's important to understand is that, when we sound "foreign," it's often because ingrained pronunciation patterns from our native languages are seeping into our target language. Part of learning is figuring out what these patterns are and how they work in the language you're learning – mimicking, shadowing and chorusing are all great ways to do that.
Whichever method resonates with you, whatever your reasons for improving your pronunciation level, two things will be key to your success.
- High quality audio from native speakers.
- A consistent practice regime and learning system.
Glossika can take care of all that for you. It takes useful phrases from a huge variety of topics in order to help you learn languages. With adjustable repetition speeds and pause lengths, you can use Glossika as a tool for nearly any language learning method you see fit. Now, Glossika also includes a self-recording tool, so you can easily self-assess your progress and hear how you grow over time.