Try recalling your language classes in school. How much time did you actually devote to the sound of the language?
Not much I suppose.
But here’s the rule I’d like you to follow from now on:
Never delve deep into a language before you have mastered the sound of that language.
Over the years I have observed two very interesting patterns regarding this:
- People who skipped this essential part are enormously disadvantaged at a later stage. Bad pronunciation and intonation negatively impact the efficiency of their progress and they just can’t get into the harmony of the language.
- People also tend to pronounce a foreign language using their native sound system. Many language books, especially with the absence of audio/visual materials, indicate the pronunciation using the native sound. For example, French books frequently mark “a” in Café as “a” with a short “a” as in top. But the real French “a” has must be pronounced in an oppressed way.
This again highlights the importance of having guidance from a native speaker.
If you want to become a really good speaker in the language, then practice again and again until you sound at least 90% like the native speaker.
And it is also good practice to record your own voice. Perhaps you already know that you sound different than your recorded voice on a tape. (This is because the voice you are hearing while you speak is influenced by the vibration of your own organs.) My fellow language-enthusiast used to tell me that I relaxed my tongue much too frequently. I never thought so until I listened to a recording of myself, and it became glaringly obvious.
Mastering the sound of language will bring you more benefits than you can imagine. Apart from the confidence boost, you will also be more “in tune” with your target language.
As far as possible, build a firm foundation in the target language with the assistance of a native speaker. This will help minimize your mistakes right from the start. Although it might have been difficult to find native speakers in the past, with the proliferation of online language exchange communities, you can now easily find willing native speakers to help you.
And what’s more, you can enhance your native language abilities by offering to teach your native language in exchange.
Getting a native to help you will also allow you to gain an authentic foreign accent and this will certainly help you in your travels to that particular country,
There is a caveat though. When you are traveling to a foreign country, sometimes it would be beneficial to show that you are actually a foreigner, so that you get better treatment. This applies to countries such as Italy, where people would love you if you make an effort to speak their language. The French, on the hand, are much less tolerant on this aspect, whereas the Swedes normally switch immediately to English, as they don’t believe a foreigner can actually communicate in Swedish as well as they themselves can in English.
The importance of vowels is often underestimated. You might think you’ve mastered them once you know your “a”,”e”,”i”,”o”,”u”, but vowel systems differ greatly from language to language, more so than consonants.
In fact, vowels can single-handedly characterize the signature sounds of a language or an accent.
They may be represented by the same IPA (International Pronunciation Association) symbols in different languages, but they can stand for different sounds. On average, there can be 3 to 7 vowels in a language, so it’s important that you master them first before you go on to tackle other things. Knowing your basic vowels will help you achieve the right pronunciations and prevent you from fumbling later on.
Spend at least a week getting to know your vowels, and try to find a native speaker to coach you through and correct you.
Don’t move on until you know your vowels perfectly. It might seem like a waste of time in the beginning, but use your initial enthusiasm for the language to push yourself.
Consonants differ far less dramatically than vowels.
Some important notes about consonants:
- There are more consonants in some languages than in others. For example, in German, we have the “ch” consonant like in Bach, and the click consonant in Hadza (Tanzania).
- Similarly there are languages with limited consonants. For example, you won’t find a “p” in Arabic.
- Consonants can be stressed differently in certain languages. E.g. German consonants are pronounced “harder” than other languages.
- The same consonant can sound very different in another language. For instance, the “r” in French is an alveolar consonant and is pronounced with the back of your mouth. This sounds very different from the Japanese “r” which can sound like an “l”.
- The same consonant can sound different when placed in different parts of a word. For example, in Spanish, “b” at the beginning of a word is pronounced as the usual “b” with mouth closed for a split second in the beginning (and “b” and “v” have the same sound”). But when it is in the middle of a word, you need only slightly make a similar shape of the mouth without making your lips touching.
Do take note that many of these tricks are never taught in standard language instructional materials and can only be acquired through observation and experience.
Stressing different words in a language can convey much more meaning than speaking in a dull emotionless monotone. Consider the following example:
Show me the money.
Imagine me saying this in a monotone, not stressing any of the words. It would seem like any other ordinary request.
Show me the money.
Now we get a hint of emotion. By stressing on “show” I’m telling you that I really need to see the cash with my own eyes.
Show me the money.
Here I seem to be emphasizing that I want to be shown the money and not anything else.
Show me the money.
In this case, I am making it clear that you should show me the money, and not anyone else.
Show me the money.
Here we recreate the Jerry Maguire effect by stressing every word successfully implying our sense of urgency and desperation.
Jokes aside, beginners often tend to overlook this aspect and end up sounding very robotic and mundane. By placing emphasis on the right words we can aim to sound more interesting and lively. Just listen to native speakers and notice the way different words are emphasized and try to emulate this to sound more natural when you speak. After all, the more interesting you sound, the more interested people will be to hear what you have to say.
Tone is another interesting characteristic of language. Somewhat similar to stress, tone deals with the rise and fall in pitch. Tone doesn’t depend on the emotion of the speaker or the meaning of the sentence. Rather, most languages have inherent tonality.
Learning how to imitate the tone of a language is an important part of learning how to speak the language right. In tonal languages like Chinese, altering the tone or pitch of a word is just about the same as changing the vowels or the consonants. For example, in Chinese a slight change in pitch is all the difference between saying horse instead of mother.
French tends to have an upward rising tone, where the final syllable of a word has a higher pitch; German, on the other hand, has a downward tone.
If you can get the tones of a language right, say, the Italian tonality, then you can try to speak any other language with your Italian tone and possibly fool people into thinking you are an Italian native.
Acquiring an accent can be the “ultimate icing on the cake” in your journey to perfecting your language ability. While some accents are glaringly obvious like the American twang compared to the lyrical Irish accent, some are subtle and barely noticeable to the untrained ear.
Eventually you may be able to notice these minor differences in accents between different regions and people. Mastering it can take longer, but can be very gratifying.
Let’s first compare the American accent with the British Accent. Although both are English, they are articulated using different parts of the mouths. Britons tend to use the front part of the mouth and the tip of the tongue, whereas Americans “push sounds together” with the back part of the mouth and to a large extent rely on the nose. That is why American English is to be said to sound “harder”.
Each accent is essentially just a system of pronouncing words in a standard manner. And the differences between them are best seen (or rather, heard) in the vowels. A neat little trick that I share with my students who want to get a “cockney” London accent is that to simply enlarge their mouth when pronouncing the “I” sound. Of course there are other little details which can only be acquired through active listening to the native speaker’s speech.
There are many training materials on the web. The one I highly recommend most is the International Dialects of English Archive.
The rhythm of a language is characterized by the duration of the syllables when spoken. If you pay attention to the spoken language you can tell that a difference in duration can evoke different meanings of a particular word.
For example, Japanese “syllables” are known as moras and each mora is pronounced with the same time value and stress. So, if we have a Japanese word with 3 moras, each of the moras would be pronounced for the same duration, with an equal level of stress.
This is similiar to Chinese, where each character consists of a single syllable that lasts for the same amount of time.
English on the other hand has syllables requiring various durations. Stressed syllables for instance are pronounced for a longer duration, with a higher pitch, while unstressed syllables are pronounced for a shorter duration.
Also, in English, sentences can be constructed with a main-clause and additional sub-clauses. Rhythmic rules dictate that when speaking, you must spend roughly the same amount of time saying the main clause as you do the rest of the sentence. So, when saying, “I like you, but not as much as I like chocolate cake with frosting”. You must significantly speed up in the latter part of the sentence.
Many famous orators have a signature rhythm in their speech. They are carefully researched and perfected to have maximum impact on the listeners. A certain type of repetitive rhythm like the ones used by Hitler in his rally speeches are said to have a hypnotizing effect on the audience. Rhythmic speeches can not only mesmerize you, they can inspire you and even instill fear.
These tricks are not just used by leaders and public speakers. If you notice carefully, you can tell that people from different lines of work deliver their sentences with differing qualities. Doctors do not generally speak in a confrontational debating manner just as lawyers do not speak softly and reassuringly. Even evangelists would be less effective if they didn’t speak with a motivational rhythm in their voice.
Have you ever wondered why the French sound rather peculiar when they speak? There is often a strong nasal sound and some even say they “speak with their nose”. As incredulous as this might sound, there is some truth to this.
The French are not the only ones with a unique speech style; each language makes use of different parts of your mouth and vocal chords. The Chinese normally speak with the front of their mouth. The Spanish and the Italians like to roll their tongues, the Americans speak with the back of their throat, and the Africans like to speak in clicks.
In order to pronounce the way a native speaker does, not only should you adopt the mindset that you need to make sounds in different ways, (as opposed to pronouncing a similar sound based on your mother tongue) you should develop new strengths in your vocal cord and mouth as well. This can be time-consuming but necessary.
In other words, when you are just starting out, it might be physically impossible to imitate a language 100% since you are not familiar with the muscle movements required. However, with sufficient practice, you should be able to master this with no difficulty at all.
At times you may find it really difficult to imitate a sound or to understand the way a native speaker is using his mouth. A very good technique I’ve discovered is that of “reverse engineering”:
Observe how a native speaker speaks your own language. Chances are, he/she will be speaking with an accent. This will give you clues as to how he is using his vocal instruments., This includes which part of the mouth he tends to use more, where he puts his tongue, how the air in his mouth is regulating, etc. For example, if you are wondering how to speak German the way Germans do, just listen to how they speak English. You will notice that they pronounce English in an especially “breathy” way, accentuating all the “s” and “z”. The British entertainer Sacha Baron Cohen does a very good job in his show “Da Ali G Show”, impersonating an Austrian. If possible, listen to how he pushes his tongue forward and taps on his palate.
Of course, performers on TV normally like to play on stereotypes and exaggerate accents for a comic effect. You want to sound convincing and not offensive.