Why it’s so hard to learn the pronunciation of a language …

In this article, I’ll explain to you 3 key factors you need to know about if you want to speak a language flawlessly.

Firstly, you’ll learn a little about how we create sounds.

Then, I’ll explain how children learn their mother tongue and how we learn foreign languages at a later stage in our lives.

And finally, you’ll be able to determine what your chances are to speak a foreign language accent-free, plus you’ll get some tips from me how you can improve your pronunciation, no matter what language you’re studying.

pro•nun•ci•a•tion
(prəˌnʌn siˈeɪ ʃən)

n.

1. the act, manner, or result of producing the sounds of speech, including articulation, stress, and intonation.
2. a way of pronouncing a word, syllable, etc., that is accepted or considered correct.
3. the conventional patterns of treatment of the sounds of a language: the pronunciation of French.
4. a phonetic transcription of a given word, sound, etc.


Let’s start with an example. My example.

I’ve lived in London for 8 years. Now, I’m pretty good at English, albeit I’m not a native speaker and never will be. That’s a given.

I spoke an ‘OK’ English with a pretty mix of German and Eastern European accent when I set my foot on the Great British soil. When I realised this, I decided to do everything to minimise it.

Why? I didn’t feel stigmatised or at a disadvantage, but I’ve had a strong desire to integrate as much as possible into the British society, and part of learning and adapting was to learn the language properly.

I started watching British TV, and mimicking how show hosts were speaking. Very soon I realised the subtle differences between certain English dialects, Australian and American English, and slowly I’m picking up South African English too. (No, I can’t pronounce, but I can finally notice the difference which I’m really proud of J )

What’s the situation now then? People can’t determine where I’m from. They do notice something, but they can’t associate my pronunciation with either the typical German or Hungarian accent. So, I’m assuming I’m on the right path, but I’m also aware that this journey never ends.

Cartoon - pronunciation

As a foreign language teacher, I also mentor students on their journey to reach a specific language goal – whether they study for personal or business reasons. I’m fascinated to see that pronunciation is so easy for some of them, others struggle so much to get it right, and there are a few who just can’t be bothered and gave up to learn it properly.

What makes it so difficult to speak a foreign language accent free and why are some of us better at it whilst others struggle so much to nail it?

Firstly, let’s explore a little how we create sounds.

Our lips, teeth, tongue and all those muscles in and around our mouth including our throat and our breath contribute to the way a sound is formulated and how it comes out of our mouth. Linguists have studied extensively every single language in the world including dialects and created a chart of all existing vowels and consonants that come up in natural languages. This is called the IPA chart. IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. When you look up a word in dictionary, you’ll likely find the transcript right after the word. IPA symbols are used to help you with the right pronunciation. The IPA chart contains every single sound used in all languages wide across our planet.IPA2005_1000pxIf you want to hear how all, and I mean all these little building blocks of natural languages sound, have a look at this chart and click on the sounds. You’ll be astounded to hear subtle but for some ears hardly recognisable differences between certain vowels and consonants. I find click consonants the most fascinating. They are part of the language of certain ancient African tribes in the Namibian desert such as the Khoisan. (See video links at the bottom of this post.)

Are children at an advantage?

Children learn their first language intuitively. They can hear and distinguish phonemes of their native language fairly quickly and develop a preference for them. Babies learn by mimicking, which enables them to learn a language without foreign accent. Mimicking involves observation, stretching muscles and experimenting until they get it precisely right.

Experts seem to agree that these muscles are flexible up until the age of 8-12. If you are exposed to more languages in your early years, your chance to speak them accent free is more realistic. Later on, not so much.

Alene Moyer writes in her book Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech:

Second language users face a difficult task: They must learn to perceive fine phonemic differences and establish a new system of phonological rules; produce sounds and sound sequences that often contradict the rules of their native languages; and replicate the patterns of stress, rhythm, and intonation that carry implicit as well as explicit meaning. (…)
Even if some advanced learners perform like natives for various aspects of L2 grammar, phonological authenticity is out of reach for most.

Nicely put, Alene.

In my interpretation,  the point is this: If you were exposed to more languages in your early years, and you start to learn a new language later in life, your pre-trained muscles will find it easier to adapt new sounds, therefore your pronunciation can be closer to native, if not perfect. (Of course a lot depends on how close the sound inventory is between your native and new language.)

So what can we do to improve our pronunciation and get the best out of those speech and ear muscles?

Here are a few tips you may find handy:

  • If you’re starting from scratch, listen to news programs on TV/radio and familiarise yourself with the sound patterns of the language. You won’t understand much, but try to pick up a few names, places.
  • Even better: Watch the news in your own language first, and then tune in again.
  • Identify word and sentence boundaries.
  • Observe and mimic – like children. In front of the mirror.
  • When you’re more advanced, brush up on relevant vocabulary before watching a particular programme on TV. This way, you can focus more on how things are said as opposed to what is said.
  • Imitate speakers.
  • Listen to songs with lyrics and sing along.
  • Watch out for context: Words don’t stand alone. They are part of a sentence. Learn words in a phrase as the neighbouring words can alter the pronunciation too.

And remember: the key is to be clear and comprehensible. As you see, flawless accent is almost impossible to achieve as an adult learner, and let’s admit: it’s also not essential to get your point across.

Now, I’d love to hear from you.

Have you ever struggled with pronunciation? If so, share with us what exactly you find most difficult?
In your experience, are foreign speakers at a disadvantage because of their accent?
It would be great to hear your stories and thoughts.

As ever, thank you for reading and please share if you found it interesting or useful.

Did you like this article? If so, subscribe to my newsletter and sign up for email updates.

And here are some articles, white papers and videos that will give you even more insight if you’re interested:

Book by Alene Moyer: Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech

An interesting white paper on why ego can be a hurdle when studying a second language: http://www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/alls/article/view/1915

This is how the Khoisan click language sounds:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6WO5XabD-s&noredirect=1

And a little fun, with Trevor Noah, Live at the Apollo:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgZYCj39M38

With love,

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