By Steph Koyfman
We all know it–conjugating verbs is hard. So is memorizing new vocab. But nothing trips up new language learners quite like pronunciation. You’ll probably learn to read and write in your target language perfectly way before you can pass as a native speaker, since nailing your accent is usually the final hurdle to becoming perfectly fluent.
The pronunciation mistakes you’re probably making are largely dependent on your native language, as well as your target language. A quick Google search brings up tons of articles geared toward English speakers learning to pronounce Russian words, or Spanish speakers attempting to speak English correctly.
It’d be smart to read up on those at some point, but before you do, check out these common pronunciation mistakes that pretty much all language learners make. Sometimes, the remedy lies not in drilling a specific set of words, but in reimagining your approach altogether.
Correct pronunciation is so much more than saying your vowels correctly. There’s also stress, intonation, phonemes, accentuation, pauses and rhythm to consider. Some tonal languages, like Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese, depend on tone to indicate meaning. In other words, if you don’t use the right inflection people might not understand what you’re saying… at all.
Even if the language you’re studying isn’t tonal, you’ll benefit a lot from paying attention to its musical cadence.
Interestingly enough, the link between music and language isn’t incidental. Studies show that children who start studying music before they’re 7 years old often have a stronger sense of grammar and verbal IQ and bigger vocabularies— not to mention a better ability to process subtle differences between sounds, which has an obvious payoff when it comes to pronunciation and language-learning.
Don’t worry–if you’ve never studied an instrument, there’s still hope for you. Listen to native speakers and tune into the language as though you’re listening to a song, and don’t be afraid to sing rather than speak, paying special attention to your intonation.
Athletes have warm-up sessions, musicians play scales and language learners have pronunciation exercises.
You’ll have the best luck with pronunciation if you treat it like a skill that requires developing muscle memory. And that’s not just figurative–learning the correct mouth positions is actually really important when it comes to improving your accent.
To figure out the pronunciation drills you need to improve your accent, research the International Phonetic Alphabet in addition to the correct mouth positions for the language you’re studying. You’ll also want to practice the vowel sounds regularly.
The key with any of these mouth exercises is to remember to do them often. Repetition is your friend.
This might sound like it’s contradicting the entire premise of this article, but it’s really not. One big thing to remember is that correct pronunciation and accent-free pronunciation are not necessarily the same thing.
It might take you your whole life to lose most of your accent, and you still might not sound quite like a native speaker. Some people repatriate to another country and still speak with a recognizable twang decades later, but they’re still considered completely fluent.
Remember — you don’t need to pass as a native speaker to have accurate pronunciation, or to be easily understood in another language. Getting too hung up on your accent can actually impede your progress.
Language learners frequently forget that the streets are the best classroom.
Going through language lessons is important, but exposure to the language as it’s spoken in real life is what’s going to help you sound natural when you speak. That’s part of the reason Babbel’s lessons incorporate pronunciation guides by native speakers, as well as speech recognition technology.
Luckily, there’s no shortage of ways to immerse yourself beyond your language-learning app. Listen to music or foreign-language podcasts, or watch movies — with or without subtitles. Find YouTube videos in your target language, or (best of all) travel to a country where your language is spoken natively.
The more sounds you absorb, the more you’ll start to naturally pick up on the shades and subtleties among them.