The 3 Steps to Hacking Pronunciation in Any Language

In December I wrote the three-part series, Trilingual in Three Years, to share in detail my approach to language learning. After finishing that series I embarked on my overland trip from NOLA to Bogotá, since which Globalect has focused more on travel and backpacking, my hispanophone struggles and successes in Mexico, and the linguistic oddities I’ve encountered so far on the road. In the meantime I’ve been writing more about language learning over at the Transparent Language blog, where I’ve just finished another three-parter, this time just on pronunciation.

This series, Hacking Pronunciation in Any Language with the IPA, is a guide to learning and using the International Phonetic Alphabet to navigate learning new sounds in new languages. The IPA is the tool linguists use to objectively describe and transcribe every sound producible in human language. This means that guttural Arabic pharyngeals, popping Zulu clicks, sing-song Cantonese tones, and nasal French vowels are all documentable, studyable, and doable with the aid of the IPA.

This series is your guide to using the IPA to learn the sounds and achieve a nearly perfect accent in any language.

Part 1: Consonants

In the first post in the series, we look at consonants. What makes a consonant a consonant, and how do you describe it? The IPA equips us to figure out 1) where in the mouth any given consonant sound is produced, 2) how we move air through our mouths to produce it, and 3) whether it involves still or vibrating vocal chords. These are the three ingredients that make up all consonants in every language.

IPA consonants

The IPA consonant chart, your first tool for learning pronunciation in a foreign language

Think you’ll never get the hang of the pesky English <th> sound in words like then and that? It’s really just as simple as learning what an interdental fricative is, what that means for your teeth and tongue and vocal chords, and letting air out of your mouth and into the world as a fully-formed sound.

Part 2: Vowels

ipa_chart_vowels1

The IPA vowel chart, complete with ‘bases’ for reference using familiar vowels to reach unfamiliar ones. (Image from http://bit.ly/1FGIKlm)

If vowels were as simple as their consonant cousins, we could probably just ditch the IPA altogether, but unfortunately these speech sounds are less concrete and more difficult to master. Part two on using the IPA for pronunciation is all about these ambiguous, sonorous, open-mouthed phonemes and how to figure them out. We talk about the imaginary X- and Y-axes in your mouth that correspond to frontedness and height, and how to shape your mouth around the point where these lines intersect to hit the perfect vowel note.

The IPA helps you in this process by giving you a way to conceive of what your mouth is doing when you produce a vowel, and using the ones you already know as jumping-off points for making the little adjustments that result in new sounds.

Part 3: Phonetics

The bonus round, the most onerous of pronunciation tasks, is the third and final article in the series, on phonetics.

IPA Diacritics

The IPA suprasegmentals and diacritics chart, with most of the information you’ll ever need on phonetic variants of speech sounds. Normally, even in the most fluent of speakers, it’s these details that give them away as non-native.

Once you’ve mastered your consonants and vowels, the basic building blocks of language and pronunciation, you’re ready for the vocal cherry on top, the icing on your foreign language cake, the secret ingredient in the native accent recipe. Aspiration, degree of rounding, and prosody are just some of the many tiny puffs of air or contortions of the tongue that can either broadcast your native language in HD or conceal it in a cloak of invisibility. The IPA has a whole set of tools for identifying and learning to adjust these microscopic inaccuracies, the topic of the final post in the series.

By the way, none of this matters.

When I’m wearing my teacher hat, I feel the need to point out that your accent in a foreign language is one of the last things you should be worried about in language learning. You need to make yourself clear and understood, which most people can do even with a heavy, comically distracting accent.

However, with my blogger hat on, I can step back and be a bit more realistic in relating to you, language learners of the internet. There are the many of us — myself included — who are just vane perfectionists: we want to work on our accents just because we want to, because it sounds nice and we’re proud of not sounding ridiculous. That’s okay, but just remember that language is about communication, not perfection, and that you can never truly become native in a new language (nor should you try).

If you do want to give improving your accent a try — even though I officially discourage it — these articles I wrote for Transparent Language should be a perfect starting point:

Part 1: Consonants
Part 2: Vowels
Part 3: Phonetics

Are you struggling with pronunciation in a foreign language, or do you have some tips of your own? Share them in a comment below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons.

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