Pronunciation Problems

Hello! My name is Travis and I’m a new teacher here at Sagalingua. I’ve decided to make the subject of this blog post about one of the most important (and unfortunately overlooked) aspects of learning a new language. Pronunciation!

So why is pronunciation so important? Well think about this; if you say a phrase or sentence and mix up the word order a bit, or maybe conjugate a verb wrong, chances are a native speaker will still be able to understand what you want to say. However, if you pronounce even one word in a manner which a native speaker doesn’t understand, it can cause major confusion or even complete misunderstanding of what you are trying to say.

Take this example sentence in English: I see a ship. Let’s take the word order and mess it up a bit. If someone said to you “See I a ship,” or “A ship I see,” you would most likely still understand them even though these sentences are incorrectly formed. Equally so if someone said, “I sees a ship.” But let’s imagine that the person speaking to you mispronounces the word ‘ship’ so instead you hear “I see a sheep.” This completely changes the meaning of the sentence just by changing one sound! The same thing happens if the ‘sh’ sound is mispronounced; we might end up hearing “I see a chip.” Now obviously context can sometimes help to decipher these errors, but not always. Especially if a word is pronounced in such a way as to make it completely unintelligible. If this were to happen with the word ‘ship’ in our example sentence, we would end up with “I see a ______.” The message is now almost completely lost.

However, all of this is not to say that things like grammar and vocabulary are not important. Obviously in order to communicate effectively you need to learn new words and how to use them. But that is sometimes not enough if the person you are speaking doesn’t even understand them!

So you might ask, “How can I improve my pronunciation?” Well, below I have outlined a few things you can do that will help you move towards better pronunciation in any language you might be learning.

#1: Think about sounds, not just letters.

The key to learning and practicing pronunciation is to focus on the sounds you are making and hearing, not the letters that represent them when written. Writing systems can often be deceiving when trying to figure out how to say new words. But it is also good to learn which letters can make which sounds, and in which contexts. In English for example, the letter ‘c’ can either represent the sound /k/ or the sound /s/ depending on the word. A useful tool for learning about sounds is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart. This chart was developed by linguists and maps out all the different sounds we know of that exist in all the world’s languages. That might seem like a lot but there are actually surprisingly few! And its a great way to better understand the sounds of a language, especially considering that the language you’re learning almost certainly has sounds that don’t exist in your native one!

#2: Slow down!

One tendency people sometimes have when learning a new language is to try and speak as quickly as possible in order to match the pace of a native speaker. Unfortunately, this can negatively affect your pronunciation. Try to focus on saying words correctly first before focusing on your speed. Being able to speak as fast as a native speaker won’t help you if they can’t understand the words coming out of your mouth! Think of it this way: when you’re learning to play a new song on an instrument, its much more effective to first play melody a bit slower in order to learn all the notes, then once you’ve done that you can focus on playing at the correct speed. It’s the same way with learning a new language!

#3: Practice (alone).

This might seem like an obvious tip, but frequent practice is essential for perfecting pronunciation! This is because pronunciation is not just a mental activity, but also a physical one. When learning a new language, this involves training the various parts of your mouth to move in ways they’re not used to doing so. This is because (as mentioned above) the language you’re learning most likely has some sounds that don’t exist in your language, or at least have sound combinations that are different. Often practicing alone can be helpful because you can focus on specific sounds without being nervous about making mistakes or sounding silly. Practice repeating individual sounds and also individual words that have those sounds until you get it right!

#4: Record yourself.

Recording yourself is a great way to not only allow you to hear pronunciation mistakes, but also to track your progress and hear how you have improved over time. Record yourself reading a paragraph from a book, some lines from a movie or tv show, even something you yourself have written. Then have a teacher, or even just a native speaker listen and point out errors you have made. Maybe even record them saying the same thing you did so you can listen for the differences. Focus on the areas where you have the most difficulty, practice, and then record yourself again in a week, two weeks, or even a month and see how you have improved!