Pronunciation can take its toll on our self-confidence. The awkward silences and the way our tongues just seem to be against us when it's time to actually talk! And all because of a couple of sounds...how frustrating is that?
Well, great news! Pronunciation does not have to be your worst enemy, nor does it have to be a reason for giving up fluency altogether.
Keep the following strategies in mind, and your pronunciation should start improving sooner than you might expect!
Step 1 - Get Very Specific with Sounds
So you open a book and read a new word in your target language. Seems pretty easy.
Then you search the web to find how it is actually pronounced... only to find your mouth will probably never be capable of mimicking that sequence of sounds in a lifetime! And let's not even mention the fact that most words vary in pronunciation depending on region and country where they are spoken.
It gets overwhelming.
Isolate sounds. All languages will sound confusing if you just throw yourself out there and have no idea what you're doing. The best place to begin is at home. Start with a basic inventory of the sounds in your target language that sound different from your native language. You can do this with any language, from German to French, Mandarin Chinese or Russian. Surely several sounds will be very similar too, so a lot of the work has been done for you!
Focus on a geographical region (if applicable). If you start learning Castilian Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Paraguayan Spanish and Puerto Rican Spanish at the same time, things might go well - but the probability of feeling overwhelmed is much higher. Pronunciation depends largely on the region of the globe you want to focus on, so start with the version that seems more useful or appealing to you. You'll have time to learn more dialects in the future, if you want!
Practice active listening as much as speaking. Listening to music and watching movies might not make you fluent anytime soon, but they are definitely activities to consider if your goal is to improve pronunciation. These are safe ways to start understanding how a language is supposed to sound. What you want is to get a more intuitive, natural feel for your language. But there's a catch: you can't just have that song playing in the background and completely ignore it! It's important that you practice active listening, such as reading lyrics as you listen to a song, testing yourself on listening comprehension or trying dictation exercises for free.
Step 2 - Start Speaking and Get Proper Feedback!
There's no way around this - if you want to improve your speaking and pronunciation skills, you have to practice speaking and pronunciation, not watching movies.
Granted, this idea can be quite intimidating and scary for most of us. We dread the moment we will be looking a native speaker in the eye and go blank or forget what we wanted to say. But there are some strategies you can take advantage of to make your life much easier!
Get feedback, but not face-to-face (yet). If you feel intimidated by the idea of having somebody look you in the eye and correcting your pronunciation, try getting feedback on your speaking skills without the pressure of real-time interaction. This means you could record yourself and show a friend or family member that clip, or even use our free Speechling app to get feedback from a native speaker in less than 24 hours. Since they will only be hearing your voice, this is a great way to start building confidence without exposing yourself too much.
Be honest about your situation. There's no shame in talking to your friend or teacher directly. Admit you are struggling. Before venturing into your first or next conversation or dialogue, tell them you need support and that you might speak more slowly or need more time than others might. This is a fantastic way to break the ice! What's the point in avoiding conversation altogether when you can just be transparent? Remember - when you postpone whatever process makes you uncomfortable, you are damaging yourself only!
Prepare some key sentences before you start speaking. Before you begin your first or next conversation with a penpal, a coach or a teacher, make sure you prepare some key sentences beforehand and write them down on a card that you will have next to you the entire time. These could be about yourself, about giving your opinion, or just some expressions you believe will be supportive. For instance, if you are learning German, it might be wise to include filler words, common greetings or even slang to help you keep going!
Step 3 - Don't Forget the Big Picture
Sometimes it's easy to lose focus and get lost in the overwhelm, the embarrassment and the struggle that comes with language learning.
It's even easier to get frustrated at the gigantic amount of resources, tools and different advice coming your way. Some of us language learners also struggle with speaking, especially if we are perfectionists or way too insecure to get past that beginner's block.
What to do?
Focus on the way people actually speak. Most languages have a formal version that you'll find on the news, the media, formal environments and meetings. But that doesn't mean you always have to speak that way. A trick that will make your life simple is to start with colloquial speech, which is usually shorter, more practical and more compact. Not only will this facilitate your journey, it will also bring more confidence, as native speakers start understanding you sooner.
Ask yourself regularly - why are you doing this? The big picture is always communication. Read our lips - always, always, always communication! Your goal is not to be perfect, it is to be understood. That is, pronunciation is not always a problem unless it gets in the way of the message you are trying to convey, and that is when it must be improved. Additionally, do not mistake a different accent for bad pronunciation. Having a foreign accent does not damage your language learning, while bad pronunciation almost certainly will.
So where can you do next?
To recap, here are some things you can do right now to improve:
- Focus on the most difficult sounds and isolate them. Start with short words, then expand.
- Take advantage of our Speechling coaches, who can help you improve your pronunciation for free without the pressure of real-time interaction.
- Start with colloquial speech.
- Focus on a particular dialect or country if needed.
- Practice active listening, which is just as important as speaking for good pronunciation.
Let us know what your biggest pronunciation struggles are on our Facebook community or Twitter profile. Not only will you get free advice and support from our team and our language learning members, you'll also help us improve to meet your needs!