Updated: Feb 27, 2020
When you’re learning a new language, proper pronunciation is often a major hurdle. You may feel self-conscious about your accent and struggle to say certain words. So, you probably want to improve your pronunciation to sound more like a native. But did you know pronunciation is also an essential part of understanding a new language? By improving yours, you’ll not only sound more fluent. You’ll also understand native speakers better.
Fortunately, you can improve your speaking and listening skills by taking a few simple steps. But first, let’s go back to how we learned our first language, and how that process hindered us from learning our second.
How We Learned to Pronounce Words
Have you ever spoken with someone who has a heavy Japanese accent? You probably noticed that they pronounce the letter “L” like the letter “R”. They may say “lock” instead of “rock”, for example. Well, as it turns out, they aren’t pronouncing the word with an “L”. They are pronouncing a sound between “L” and “R”, but your brain filters it out. Likewise, the Japanese speaker’s brain filters out the English “R”, leaving them unable to pronounce the word. The two of you aren’t actually hearing the word the same way.
In her TED Talk “The Linguistic Genius of Babies”, language expert Patricia Kuhl discusses how babies learn one language over another. We all start with the ability to pick up any language. But over the first few months of our lives, we learn to prioritize certain sounds over others. For example, a three-month old from an English-speaking household will learn to understand the Japanese words she hears her neighbor speaking, at first. But over time, she’ll learn to filter out the sounds in Japanese in favor of English. Since English is the dominant language at home, her brain correctly registers those sounds as more important.
To pronounce a word properly, you first have to hear it properly. That means retraining your brain to hear the foreign sounds it would normally filter out. The good news is that this is less difficult than you may think.
How to Improve Your Pronunciation
Although these techniques work no matter where you are on your language learning journey, they work best when you’re just starting out. Ideally, you’ll start working on your pronunciation even before you learn your first few phrases. This will keep you from picking up and reinforcing bad habits that you’ll need to correct later.
Without further ado, here are four steps to take to sound more like a native.
1. Start with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
When you look up a word in the dictionary, you see the phonetic spelling with some strange symbols in parenthesis. Those symbols are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. Developed in 1888 by the International Phonetic Association, the IPA is a standardized representation of the sounds in languages.
You’re probably wondering why you need to know this. It’s hard enough to learn a new alphabet, and in some cases, a new writing system. Well, getting a feel for the IPA (don’t worry, you won’t need to memorize it) will actually make it easier to learn a language. Here’s why:
The IPA will help familiarize you with the sounds of your new language. Take French, for example. The word for the formal you is vous, but it’s pronounced “vu". If you look up the word in a French dictionary, you’ll notice that the IPA key is written the way it sounds: vu. This will not only help you pronounce words properly, but help you understand native speakers as well.
In addition, you’ll learn how to form the words with your mouth. Have you ever tried to pronounce a foreign word, but your lips, tongue or mouth (or all three) don’t want to cooperate? That’s because it takes practice and the proper technique to form the words. The IPA also provides guidance on how to create the sounds in each language.
As a bonus, you’ll be able to properly pronounce words you’ve learned by reading. Once you understand the sounds of the language, you can translate this to their written form.
For a quick tutorial on the IPA and the English language, check out this video by Fluent Forever founder Gabriel Wyner. Since you already know English, it will be easier to match the phonetic alphabet with the pronunciation of the words. Then you’ll be better able to internalize them for the next language you learn.
2. Practice with Minimal Pairs
Minimal pairs are words that vary by a single sound. In English, a few examples include: bent/vent, save/safe, and lit/let. As you can see, minimal pairs can vary by a vowel or consonant sound. And when you haven’t internalized the sounds of a language, they can definitely trip you up.
Now, you may be wondering why minimal pairs come before learning words and phrases. It’s because minimal pairs are less about vocabulary (although you’ll learn some this way) and more about training your ears.
Here’s how it works. Using online flashcards, you’ll see two words and hear one of them. You select the word you hear, and the app will tell you whether you were right. For an example in English, you might see flash cards with the words “lit” and “let”. The recording says “lit”, so you click on that flash card.
As you go through the flashcards, you can categorize which words were easy, moderately easy, moderately difficult, or difficult. This will help the app prioritize words that are more difficult for you, and serve them up more often.
Still not convinced this works? In a study published by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, two groups of Japanese participants were tested on the difference between “L” and “R”. The first group could pronounce the letters correctly after some coaching in the first round of the study, but failed during the follow up. The second group used a computer program with minimal pairs, and were told to select the sound they heard. When they got it right, they saw a green check. When they got it wrong, they saw a red x. The second group, the ones who learned with minimal pairs, had a 50 percent higher success rate with pronunciation during the second round of the study!
3. Choose a Language Course with a Focus on Pronunciation
Whether you want to take language classes or learn on your own, you need a method that gives you a strong foundation in pronunciation.
If you want to take a traditional language class:
Traditional classes offer two advantages: a teacher’s guidance and students to practice with. However, not all curriculum puts an emphasis on pronunciation. It’s not that language teachers don’t know it’s important, but they may not have been trained on how to teach it.
Language school websites often include information on their teaching methods. You’ll want to find one that starts with pronunciation, so you don’t pick up any bad habits. If you can’t find any information, email or call to learn more. One of the most famous language schools, Berlitz, focuses on pronunciation and improving your accent. The school offers online and in-person classes throughout the world.
If you’ve already studied a language, and want to improve your pronunciation, some language schools offer courses for that as well. You can also try an online or in-person accent reduction class.
If you want to learn on your own:
Language software lets you learn at your own pace, and is typically more affordable than traditional classes. Yet a major drawback has always been the lack of feedback. But this is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Online programs, such as Rocket Languages and Rosetta Stone, include speech recognition technology, which lets you record and compare your pronunciation to native speakers. Say you’re learning French, for example. First, you listen to a native speaker say the word slowly. Then you hit record and say it back. It’s not always perfect (microphone issues, etc.), but the speech recognition feature is a pretty good judge of your pronunciation.
4. Practice Reading in Your New Language
Once you have some vocabulary down, it’s time to connect the writing system to your ears and mouth. By reading in your new language, you’ll reinforce the phonetic sound of the word with its spelling. This not only helps you build a larger vocabulary, but improves your memory of the words you already know.
Don’t worry. Reading materials can be as simple as comics, graphic novels, children’s books, or newspapers. So, if you’re learning Russian, you won’t need to try to read Dostoyevsky in his native language to get the benefits.
While there are resources in just about every language on the internet, you may also want to get your hands on some printed materials. Studies show that we’re better at retaining information we read in print.
Also, try giving your writing skills a workout. If you’re learning with a language software program, consider buying a paperback workbook. By writing instead of typing, you can further reinforce the spelling, vocabulary, and grammar you’ve learned.
By focusing on pronunciation when you start learning a language, you’ll learn faster, speak better, and feel more confident. No matter which method you choose (independent or classroom learning), find a program or at least some supplemental materials that focuses on pronunciation. And if you’ve already starting learning a language or studied it for years, you can still improve your speaking skills. Bottom line, it’s never to late to learn a new language!
Free and Cheap Online Resources
The internet is full of language learning tips and tricks. You could spend hours clicking through page after page on Google to try them out. If you want a short-cut, here are a few free and cheap resources from around the web.
Wikipedia’s IPA Pages (Free)
Wikipedia is a great resource for learning the IPA. It has pages for numerous languages, which breakdown the phonetic pronunciation of words with charts and recordings. Say you want to learn Spanish. Just type “Help:IPA/Spanish” into your browser, and it will take you to the page. (The link above is for English.)
This channel features pronunciation videos for a wide range of languages, including Arabic, Korean, Cantonese, Russian, and Hebrew.
Forvo.com includes recordings of native speakers in more than 300 languages. You can use the site alone to compare pronunciations of the same words by different speakers. Or you can download the files to Anki, a flashcard app to create flashcards for minimal pairs.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has over 70 language courses in the public domain. Many begin with a detailed section on pronunciation and test you on minimal pairs. These courses were designed to help government employee quickly achieve fluency. However, some of the content can be a bit dry and may not be as up to date with slang and expressions as newer programs.
Fluent Forever Pronunciation Trainers ($12 each)
These pronunciation trainers run on the Anki app and test you on minimal pairs, spelling, and vocabulary. Available languages include: Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Russian, and Spanish (European and Latin American).
iTalki ($5-$25 per hour)
The iTalki website connects you with a language teacher for 1-on-1 hour-long lessons. You just select a teacher for the language you want and book a lesson through the site. You can specify what you want to focus on each lesson (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, etc.) Lesson prices vary by teacher, but typically range from about $5 to $25 per hour.