The Hardest Part of Learning Any Language – And How Not to Suck At It

Wiktor K. October 22, 2011 6
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The piercing is there to help pronounce Hungarian words better. (Devastar / Flickr)

“Polish grammar is crazy, man. It’s got, like, seventeen cases.”

“I just don’t get how you can create these monster words in German that go on forever.”

“Why do I have to speak different Japanese to my boss, and to my colleagues???”

“Holy Alphabet, what are these squiggles?”

 

Ask any learner what they think is difficult about learning their language, and they will come up with a long list of things they dislike, struggle with or simply hate. But ask a little harder – for the absolutely hardest part – and the answer is likely to be the same, no matter what language they’re learning.

Pronunciation. The dreaded, mysterious art of having to produce sounds that you didn’t know existed – and making them mean the thing you want to express.

You can master grammar, expand your vocabulary range to epic proportions, and even master foreign alphabets. You can get all that, and become as proficient in these areas as native speakers (in fact, when it comes to grammar and spelling, probably more so).

But pronunciation is the hard part. It’s the part that gives you nightmares when you start learning, and gives you away as a non-native speaker even after years of study. “You sound almost like an Englishman” – can actually be quite a demotivating thing to hear.

 

Why is it that pronunciation is such a horror? There are several reasons. Let’s just list a few:

 

It deals with the exotic and unexpected elements of the language. You could probably guess that Korean has nouns and verbs, right? No brainer. But there are sounds in Korean that you could never think of. It’s easy to imagine how grammar and words could be different (think Yoda and Jabberwocky), but hard to imagine people communicating with completely alien sounds.

It is hard to describe and write down. Give me a day or two (and lots of good, strong coffee), and I’d probably write down all the rules you need to understand basic Polish grammar. Then I’d give it to you, go through it – and it’s done, written down, understood (hopefully). But new sounds – the way they sound, the way they’re produced – are incredibly hard to put down in writing (well, unless you’re fairly familiar with a phonetic alphabet)

It feels really embarrassing. Making a typo is not a big deal – delete it and start again. Confusing a word or two, or making a simple grammar mistake in a conversation – this can be quickly dealt with (even native speakers have a lot of repair strategies to handle these awkward moments in dialogues). But it’s enough to mispronounce a word – or to become aware of how badly you mangled your introductions at a party – to enter the arena of the awkward, embarrassed and stressed out. Which, in turn, leads to even more “wooden” pronunciation…

 

I could go on, but these three reasons should be enough to convince you of one thing:

It’s important not to suck at pronunciation.

There are many ways of doing it, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to select the ones that work for you. Having said that, there are a few approaches that should work for most learners of most languages. Of course, I’m hoping you’ll help me out by adding to the list in the comments below.

 

Listen as much as you can. This, after all, is how you learnt your first language: nobody expected you to speak it instantly! Give yourself plenty of time – but also lots of exposure to quality material. Choose a good podcast or find a radio station in the language you’re learning. When choosing a source of spoken word, remember these three criteria:

- Level - Aim too low, and you’ll become lazy; aim too high, and it’ll confuse you. A good level for listening should be just slightly above your current proficiency level.

- Register / accent – Make sure you know what accent / dialect the listening material is in – and that it’s the one you want to learn.

- Availability – This one is a lot more practical: make sure your listening source is updated regularly, and that you will not run out of stuff to listen to.

 

Get expert analysis. You may think you’re pronouncing everything correctly – but since this is such a vague and difficult area, you can never go wrong with consulting an expert. Ask somebody to spend some time with you and explain the main sound differences between your language and the one you’re learning. These are the spots you want to focus on first. It also helps to have a pronunciation-only session every now and then.

 

Practice little, but often. Like with all other things, it’s not good to overdose your pronunciation. Ideally, every word or phrase you learn or record should be also practiced for the way it sounds. I’ve seen many good language teachers who introduced a brief, energetic pronunciation slot at the end or beginning of their lessons.

 

The International Phonetic Alphabet for Pāḷi : IPA Pāḷi (Eng)

"I'm the phonetic alphabet. You will not suck at pronunciation. Resistance is futile."

Learn the phonetic alphabet. Yes, it’s another system of signs and squiggles. And yes, it will take time to master. But will it help you? Of course it will! In situations when you have no access to native speakers – and no way to look the word up online – a phonetic alphabet will become indispensable. Record new words with their phonetic transcription as a matter of habit – it will pay off in the end.

 

Be ruthless to yourself when you learn – and laid-back when you use your language. During classes or coaching sessions, get your tutor to correct and focus on your pronunciation, no matter what level you are. Insist on that: you want your class to be the place where you sweat and struggle, but make progress.

When you’re out and about, though, have confidence. Chances are, people will recognise you as a non-native speaker straight awey – but you know what? They will be thrilled to hear you speak their language. And they’re ready to cut you a lot of slack because you’re trying. So smile, grab a drink and chat away. (Here’s a good post about confidence in such situations)

 

I’m sure I’ve missed some pretty cool ways of reducing pronunciation-related anguish. What are yours? Comment below!

Thanks for reading this. If you found this blog post useful, please share it – Wiktor

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6 Comments »

  1. Enrique October 25, 2011 at 2:59 am -

    The are many variables about how to learn pronunciation.The main one is the “ear” … yo cannot repeat what you cannot hear.

    That ear is very receptive when you are just born. After a couple of years it gets very familiar with one or a few languages, and refuses to hear other languages.

    Then, the language itself. For an ear trained to hear Spanish, English is very difficult, and more, if that ear isn’t working well. But the ear is also selective. My Spanish-non-perfect ear, had big trouble to adapt to the sounds of English, but none at all with the sounds of Esperanto.

    I heard people having problems with the
    pronunciation of many languages. But looks like most people can pronounce well most of the sounds of Esperanto. While I have trouble to understand some English pronunciations (depending on the speaking person) and some people (in the past) had trouble to understand my pronunciation, which always will have a Spanish accent, I never had trouble to understand people speaking in Esperanto, neither they had trouble understanding my Esperanto.

    Because each Esperanto letter has only one sound, anybody
    following the rules will be understood when reading aloud in
    Esperanto.

    Enrique

  2. Cecil Vaccaro November 10, 2011 at 4:41 pm -

    great information, thanks. hope you write some more posts soon.

  3. Mark Fletcher May 5, 2012 at 11:34 am -

    Hey Wiktor, Nice post.

    Another thing that shouldn’t get you down when struggling with pronunciation is that there are also many dialects for every language. For example, if you listen to a Londoner and then a Scot with a broad accent they sound like completely different languages. Don’t let it kill your motivation.

    A nice listening source that seems to work well with a lot of people is songs. Find a band you like who sing in the language you’re trying to learn and just listen. You’d be amazed how quick you’ll be picking up full phrases. :)

    Keep up the good work, Wiktor.

  4. Wiktor K. May 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm -

    Hey Mark, thanks for finding your way here!
    The variety of accents is daunting indeed – I think consistent approach here is key, but different accents are actually quite interesting as well.