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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Language Learning Law 5: Make Pronunciation A Priority

If a native English speaker puts on almost any foreign accent the result is usually considered hilarious (by other native speakers).

I think it’s curious we have such a strong emotional response to hearing a French, Chinese or German accent.

Seeing French, Chinese or German written down just doesn’t provoke the same response. It’s the pronunciation that makes the difference.

When you start learning a language, especially from the comfort of your own home, you’ll probably feel silly putting on a funny foreign accent. You’ll feel uncomfortable about making your mouth move in new and mysterious ways which would only produce mirth and ridicule if your friends could hear you.

The sad result is we resist putting on the accent. We play down its importance. We learn to massacre a language at the same time as we learn to speak it.

It’s not just that we regard putting on an accent as uncomfortable or silly. There are other factors involved, too.

Much of our study is inevitably from written material, consequently there is little guidance to pronounce the words correctly. Getting access to the right pronunciation can be difficult. I’ve listened to computer-generated pronunciations with dismay. There is still so much progress to be made with them.

In contrast to the mental effort to learning a new language, learning the new pronunciation is physical.

It requires moving our mouth in ways that are not natural.

Our mouths don’t like doing things that are not natural.

Our brain sympathises with our mouth and says ‘That’ll do’ well before we have achieved anything close to what would be considered acceptable by a native speaker.

In fact, our brains seem to have a pronunciation filter. When we hear a new word pronounced in a foreign language, our brain breaks it up into bits of sound, approximating each one to the nearest corresponding sound (or phonemes) from our own language.

When we try to replicate this new word, we use our own familiar phonemes to say it.

The result is an approximation to the new word.

But,like a teapot made out of LEGO, the result is not as effective as you might have hoped for.

Because of this, you tentatively start a conversation in your target language only to be faced with a perplexed native who has no idea what you’ve just said.

Your native gabbles out something in response, but as you aren’t familiar with the correct pronunciation you’re completely lost and confused.

This is a frustrating experience for both of you and one which is unlikely to make you feel good about yourself or your target language.

When I started to learn Catalan, I already understood the importance of pronunciation. So I made an effort to get pronunciation right. After just a few weeks, the strangeness started to ware off and now I’m told my Catalan accent is surprisingly good - something that makes me feel the effort was worth it.

So let’s get this straight - from the very beginning you really have to make a big effort to get to grips with the new pronunciation.

It’s part of the deal.

You can’t have one without the other.

Don’t just learn to speak French, learn to speak French in a proper French accent.

Yes, it will feel strange, uncomfortable or even silly to start with. But get a grip. This is what language learning well is all about.

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