By Thomas Moore Devlin
Let’s be honest, perfecting a foreign accent is really difficult. It’s not like grammar or vocabulary, where you just have to memorize the rules and words. To perfect foreign word pronunciation, you need to be a little more creative in your approach.
Lucky for you, we can help. But first, remember to be patient with yourself! Perfecting a foreign accent takes lots of time and practice. To help you, here are a few ideas to try out.
It might seem like listening to native speakers is an obvious tip, but it’s probably the most important first step to take when you’re learning a language. Even just listening to the language in the background will help you get used to its rhythms and sounds. You can use the internet to access lots of different resources that will help you increase your exposure to the language you’re learning. Listening to music, downloading podcasts and watching movies are just a few options.
If you really want to improve your pronunciation, though, you’ll need to be an active listener–not a passive one. You might want to stop what you’re doing every once in a while to try to imitate what was said in the podcast, movie, or song you were listening to. Watch foreign movies with subtitles and look up song lyrics so you’re sure you understand the words correctly. You’ll need the lyrics to sing along anyway, because singing along happens to be good practice!
Physical dictionaries might be less common these days, but the point still stands: when you’re learning a foreign language, dictionaries are useful for a lot more than just definitions. Dictionaries will also give you the etymology, proper usage and, most relevant to you right now, pronunciation. The symbols you see under the words are useful to learn because they indicate the correct sounds and stresses of each word.
In some dictionaries there are also sound files associated with each entry so you can listen to a native speaker (or a robot, in some cases) pronounce the words correctly. In the beginning stages of learning a language it’s important to stop bad habits before they start. Looking up words you’re struggling with will help you develop good habits early on. One dictionary that covers several languages is Word Reference, which includes native recordings and demonstrates how to pronounce words.
This might seem unnecessary, considering you’ve been using your mouth for your whole life. But unless you’re a trained singer or a linguist, you might be surprised at how much some mouth workouts can improve your foreign accent.
Here’s an example: try making the sounds “eee,” “ehh” and “ahh” while paying attention to where your tongue is located. You’ll probably notice that it moves down. Now try “eee” to “ooo,” and you’ll see the tongue moves from the front of the mouth to the back. Now let’s take a look at all of the vowels on the International Phonetic Alphabet’s vowel chart.
Every language has different vowels, which is one of the most difficult things to get used to when learning a foreign language. Just listening to someone pronounce the foreign vowel correctly usually isn’t enough to know how to form it yourself.
This chart may look confusing, but it isn’t so bad once you know how to use it. It’s shaped like the inside of your mouth, so your tongue is supposed to go in the corresponding spot. For “i,” which sounds like “eee,” your tongue is at the top-front of your mouth. To properly use the chart, you’ll want to look up vowels in the language you’re learning and then find a sound guide like the one offered by Wikipedia. By copying the individual sounds of the language, you’ll slowly piece them together and build your way up to full words and sentences that sound natural, and maybe even like a native!
You can practice the consonants in this same way you practice vowels. There’s an even larger but equally helpful chart for that. It’s also worth it to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet– it’ll allow you to look at a word and understand how it should be pronounced.
Now that you’ve spent some time listening to native speakers of the language and you’ve started mastering all the vowels and consonants, it’s time to take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Watch yourself forming the vowels of the foreign language in the mirror, so you can really see your tongue and mouth position. Are you rounding your lips enough for the French “ooh”? Is your tongue in the right section of your mouth? These questions sound strange, but they’re useful.
Even better than watching yourself speak is listening to yourself speak. Recording yourself can be disheartening at first, since you might realize you’re not nailing that German accent like you thought you were, but it’s helpful to know that before you speak to native Germans!
At some point, you’ll probably want some feedback on your pronunciation from others. A language teacher or friend who’s a native speaker is ideal, but if you don’t have either of those you can get a little more creative. Some people use Instagram, Reddit, or other online platforms to ask others to critique their pronunciation, and there are very active online communities that are willing to help language-learners. It can be nerve-wracking to practice your language with strangers, but you can also look for services in your local community that pair speakers. A lot of people who are looking to learn English are happy to meet up with people trying to learn their language. That way, both parties can improve their language skills!
Right when you start learning a language, every sentence feels like a tongue twister. Once you’ve got the basics down, though, doing actual tongue twisters in your target language can be a great way to take a break from learning the imperative, or whichever grammar section you’re studying. Try this one:
Pepe Peña pela papa, pica piña, pita un pito, pica piña, pela papa, Pepe Peña.
Want some more? Here are a few in different languages. And when you run through those, or just need to find some in your target language, there are hundreds online you can use to practice.
We can’t do an article on pronunciation without mentioning that Babbel has some great tools to help you improve your foreign language pronunciation. Our app gives you practice words that correspond to specific foreign consonants or vowels, and even has speech recognition technology to check your pronunciation. It also has tongue twisters for you to practice some of the trickier pronunciations. Babbel has lots of resources to help you along on your journey to becoming conversational in a new language, so we encourage you to give it a try.