“Excuse me?” asks the woman behind the desk who sounds like someone has just insulted her mother.
“I need a sheet of paper. To write on,” the man repeats, adding clarification and hand gestures.
“Oh! A SHEET of paper. Here you are.”
Sheet is just one of those words that sounds too close to a vulgarism. It’s simply too easy for non-native speakers to mispronounce the ee sound as an i sound as in the word hit, or something close to that anyways.
Of course, after all is said and done the native speaker will probably find the whole situation amusing, but for the non-native speaker this sort of situation can be incredibly embarrassing.
This may be an extreme example, we probably don’t all go around worrying about accidentally swearing out our conversation partner, but the fear of embarrassment when speaking a foreign language is one of the critical factors that can really hold you back from learning.
Thankfully there are some things that you can do to bolster your confidence that go a long way. If you do these things, you’ll feel more comfortable having a conversation, knowing that even if you’re making mistakes you’re still able to make yourself clearly understood.
Conquer Foreign Language Pronunciation and Speak Like a Native
Here we’ll focus on pronunciation since this is key to conversational speech. How do you know what you’re actually saying is what you think you’re saying? The only way to be sure is to have excellent pronunciation.
Even if you’re far, far away from having a detailed knowledge of the language, a good accent can catch other people off guard. When people start telling you that think you’re a native Spanish speaker, for example, you’re going to have enough confidence to think of yourself as the king of Spain.
To get to this level, here are the steps you should start taking today.
1. To speak, you must first learn to listen.
As children, we spend a lot of time just listening to adults speak. Over time, the sounds of our native language become ingrained in our own speech and we sound just like everyone else around us. And so naturally, when considering how to make successful voyages through new languages, it’s always best to start off with lots of listening to really capture the sounds we’ll later have to utter in conversation.
It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out, if you’re improving or if you’re nearly fluent. Listening is key to speaking.
Be sure to choose as many possible sources of audio as you can think of. There are all of the usual suspects available to you: television, movies, podcasts, news broadcasts, music, etc. However, even if you spend every waking moment listening to these things, all of that listening won’t be worth a dime if you’re not actively listening.
To ensure you get in lots of good active listening practice, choose something that’s at your level and that you can mostly understand without having to look up a ton of words. You should also try to find something that comes with a transcript where you can look up all the unknown words ahead of time or after listening.
To compliment your extensive listening practice with various source materials, you’ll need some intensive practice to really hone in on the sounds you’re hearing. The easiest way to do this is to work with minimal pairs.
Minimal pairs are pairs of two words that sound the same except for one syllable. For instance, wine and vine. For many non-native English speakers, the v and w sounds can be difficult to differentiate. It’s possible to find audio files for many such words where you only hear one of the two words and you have to guess which one it was. This is perfect to turn your blunt listening skills into a fine, precision instrument.
2. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet.
So now you’ve got the sounds down in your head. Time to start making those sounds yourself. But where to start? If you’re completely new to a language, learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, can go a long way to aiding your pronunciation.
The IPA breaks down all of the sounds we humans can possibly make into the smallest possible units of sound, or phonemes. It also renders these phonemes into consistent spelling patterns. For instance, in English the ch sound can be pronounced like a sh sound as in parachute, a k sound as in ache or something else entirely as in the word loch.
No writing systems that I’m aware of match their spoken sounds to written characters perfectly. English is particularly bad in this respect. The IPA, however, simplifies this by using a different character for each particular sound.
So, first things first. Get a list of all the IPA sounds in your target language and practice, practice, practice!
It’s fairly easy to find IPA charts that show words in English with similar phonemes to your target language. It’s also possible to learn about how each sound is made according to how wide you open your mouth and how your tongue is positioned. This can be more helpful with sounds that have no close relative in the language or languages you already speak.
To really nail the IPA and how it’s connected to your target language, make some flashcards. On one side have the IPA symbol for one phoneme and on the reverse side have whatever way that phoneme can be spelled in the writing system of the target language.
3. Get your mouth moving.
Once you’ve mastered the phonemes of your target language, it’s time to take a step up. Obviously the next part of the journey is to start saying words and sentences. A lot of this is just going to be repetition until your mouth is comfortable saying common words in your target language.
“But that’s the old fashioned way,” you might say. “Surely, there’s something I can do to learn faster.” While nothing can entirely replace talking enough to get used to new sounds, there certainly are some tricks you can use to enhance your performance.
Remember those minimal pairs we were talking about earlier? Well now it’s time to reverse the game. Make pairs of words that sound similar except for one sound and grab someone who speaks your target language. Show them the two words you have and then say only one of them, having them point to the one they think you said. If they can pick the right word every time then you know that you’re comprehensible at the very least.
Other classic tricks include learning to sing songs in your target language and using tongue twisters, both of which are good tools to have in your arsenal. One more should be added though: shadowing.
Shadowing is about listening to a sentence, or some longer chunk of dialogue, and then repeating it back. Why is this helpful?
In all of the above techniques, we were just focusing on single word pronunciation. Shadowing will improve your rhythm and intonation. This isn’t just about sounding good, it’s about grammar. The way we raise and lower our voices conveys important information to our listeners, like when intonation rises at the end of a question.
4. Catch your mistakes.
You’ve probably heard it a million times by now, but it’s true. You can’t learn if you don’t make mistakes. But you also can’t learn if you don’t know what your mistakes are.
The least cumbersome way to go about this is to record yourself speaking. Have you ever listened to your own voicemail message only to realize it sounds nothing like what you thought you sound like? The same will be true in a foreign language where you’re probably making mistakes you don’t even realize. But if you catch them on a recording, you’ll have better luck catching them when you’re actually speaking.
If you really want to improve, though, you’re going to need a language partner. Language partners are critical for getting good at pronunciation. Whether it’s a teacher, your best friend or someone you found online, having a native speaker correct your pronunciation will rocket you to previously unknown levels of tongue twister success. Scientific studies have even verified how effective immediate error correction from a native speaker can be compared to traditional listening techniques.
5. Become culturally refined.
Read novels set in the land of your target language. Watch movies about foreign romances in whatever part of the world speaks the language. Brush up on your history of the appropriate country or countries. Do anything which will give you a better cultural understanding.
“How can this possibly help with my pronunciation?” you might ask. But research has shown that students with the greatest sensitivity to the culture they were studying were also the ones best able to achieve high levels of pronunciation. It shouldn’t be too surprising that our cultural identity is deeply intertwined with how well we speak. After all, if you think the French are all snobs you’ll probably have no interest in sounding like they do, even if you can mechanically memorize French grammar and words.
But with any luck, you’re studying a language you love and you’ll be able to blow through these steps thanks to your undying motivation. After you’ve finished with all this great practice, you’ll be sure to have the confidence you need to speak to anyone and know you’re saying what you think you’re saying…at least 99% of the time.
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