Monday, 29 January 2018

Pronunciation Pain. Part 1 - Do You Need to Improve Your Pronunciation?

When one starts learning a foreign language, pronunciation is probably not the first thing on one’s mind. On the one hand, there are new words to learn and new grammar structures to understand and remember. On the other hand, there are new routines to be organised and new habits to be built for learning to actually happen in your busy adult life. So pronunciation can get pushed to the back burner very easily.

As a result, one day you might discover that even though you can recall the right words at the right time, build sentences and in general speak the language, people have trouble understanding you. Even if you have been working on your reading, listening, speaking, writing skills and tackling grammar, if you haven’t been taking care of your pronunciation, it might become that rain that spoils your language parade.

What is Pronunciation?

So, what is pronunciation exactly? A quick definition from Wikipedia tells us that “Pronunciation is the way in which a word or a language is spoken.” [1]

There is no mention of a foreign language, as you might have noticed, and, in fact, pronunciation is not limited to the sphere of learning languages. Pronunciation of native speakers can also differ based on their age, social class, education, residence, etc. So, when you speak your mother tongue you also have an accent, i.e. a certain “manner of pronunciation” [2].

For example, Birmingham or Brummie accent of the British English is seen as uneducated or working class. "Peaky Blinders" is a popular British TV series based on a story of a criminal gang from Birmingham. The members of the gang speak with Brummie accent:

So, accents are deviations from standard pronunciation. But what is this standard and who says what is standard, i.e. correct, and what is not?

In the past when there was not much communication between different regions, there were lots of dialects and not just one (standard) language. Depending on where you lived, you spoke a certain dialect which your neighbours might or might not have understood.

Later, “modern Nationalism, as developed especially since the French Revolution, has made the distinction between "language" and "dialect" an issue of great political importance. [3]” The linguist Max Weinreich wrote that ”A language is a dialect with an army and navy” [3].

So, what happened is a certain dialect was called a language based on certain social, political, cultural, or historical considerations and the pronunciation typical of this dialect became standard.

Standard dialect/language and standard pronunciation are backed by institutions, i.e. government, schools, etc. and spread by media, formal literature, published textbooks, dictionaries, etc.

Obviously, over the years these institutions have influenced populations of their countries with regards to how people speak, but the reality is much more complex than the pure standard, as non-standard dialects still exist (e.g. Scouse and Tyke dialects in the UK; Bavarian, Swabian and lots of other regional dialects in Germany), the population is not homogeneous (different age, social, regional, ethnic groups) and the standard itself changes over time.

Showing your True Colours

So, unless you are a phonetics professor teaching standard pronunciation, it might be ok to deviate from this standard and show the world what you are by the way you speak. And this includes a foreign accent too. After all, your primary goal when speaking a foreign language is to be understood and not to conceal that you are not a native speaker, isn’t it?

If you haven’t been trained to be deployed as a spy in a foreign country, you can predict with a 99.9% accuracy that if you ask your friend, who is a native speaker of the language you are learning, whether you sound like a native to them, they are likely to reply that you do not. It doesn’t mean straightaway that your pronunciation is not good, in fact your pronunciation might even be very good and not deviate a lot from the standard. Why would your friend say it then, you might ask. Is he/she just trying to piss you off? This actually might be the case but even if your friend has no intention of making you angry, their answer might mean lots of other things some of which have nothing to do with your pronunciation.

For example, it might mean that you don’t speak with a local, regional accent that your friend is used to. Or, perhaps, your friend haven’t learnt any foreign languages themselves and it’s difficult for them to understand what exactly is not “right” with the way you speak and they think you don’t sound native because you tend to use more formal words that you learnt from books rather than more informal ones they expect to hear in conversations. Or you don’t look or have manners same as local people and that influences the overall impression you produce.

Examining your Motives

On the other hand, if you know that you have a distinct foreign accent and it bothers you, before you commit to improving your pronunciation, you might want to double check your motive. This will help you decide how much (if any) of your time, money and effort you are prepared to invest into your pronunciation training.

To verify the reason you want to get rid of your foreign accent, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

Do you find that people have difficulties understanding you because of your accent and you are struggling to reach your professional and/or personal goals because of it?

Do you feel that you do not belong to a group of native speakers, for example, your friends, your colleagues, etc. and think that improving your pronunciation might help to feel one of the group?

Do you feel that people think that you are less intelligent because of your foreign accent and improving it will help you look and sound smarter?

If you have answered “yes” to the last two questions, then pronunciation is probably not the root cause of the problem, and improving it might not be the solution.

If you are trying to improve or rather change your pronunciation to become one of the group of native speakers or just to build better relationship with them, you might find that other stuff can get in the way, for example, cultural, religious or social background shared by these native speakers that you don’t share.

If your accent is not too thick and your friends or colleagues don’t have too much trouble understanding you, pronunciation is most likely not a problem for building relationship with them. In fact, people notice your foreign accent much more when they have just met you but once you have spent some time with them, they might even forget that you speak with a foreign accent.

So, instead of trying to be someone else and trying to change your pronunciation that doesn’t actually get in the way of being understood, you might want to find something you already share with the people you are trying to connect with. This could be same interests, hobbies or just the same place you visited on holidays. If you still struggle, a bit of good-natured humour (not too much sarcasm!) can go a long way.

As to you feeling seen as less intelligent because of your foreign accent, people might not even have this idea about you and it’s all in your head. Depending on what foreign accent you have, native speakers of this language might have different stereotypes about it, if any at all. In fact, stereotypes associated with certain accents are not limited to the stereotypes native speakers have towards non-native speakers.

For example, in American movies villains often speak with a British accent. Some examples include Scar in “The Lion King”, Magneto in “X-Men” and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs”:

And in this scene from The Big Bang Theory Raj talks about American accent that makes everything sound stupid:

Even if native speakers do have certain stereotypes connected with your accent, it’s not a reason to despair. Once the native speakers, you are trying to build relationship with, get to know you better, very often the power of stereotypes fades and they treat you based on your personal characteristics and actions.

However, if you find that native and non-native speakers have difficulty understanding you because of your accent and it has a negative impact on your career or personal life, then you definitely need to consider pronunciation training.

Adults and their Pronunciation: You Can Do It!

As an adult speaker of a foreign language, you might want to know that research has shown that accents “remain relatively malleable until a person's early twenties, after which a person's accent seems to become more entrenched.” [2] These “neurological constraints associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like. Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible.” [2]

Not good news if you were thinking of turning into another Queen of England in terms of your English pronunciation.

Talking about the queen though, an acoustic analysis of her Royal Christmas Messages, conducted by a scholar, revealed even her speech patterns “continue to change over her lifetime.” [2]

That's right. The person, who is practically employed to serve as an icon of tradition, also cannot help changing! It’s pretty good news for you as a language learner willing to improve your foreign accent which doesn’t seem that entrenched after all.

So, being pragmatic about your pronunciation, the task of improving it means making it closer to the standard pronunciation while understanding that life is more complex than any artificial standard and it’s ok to deviate, and, on the other hand, understanding that as a non-native speaker learning the language as an adult, you need to be less of a perfectionist as there are natural limitations connected with the way the human brain develops.

Your Pronunciation Goal

How much you are ok to deviate from the standard depends on your overall goal of learning your foreign language according to which you can place your pronunciation goal on the “pronunciation quality continuum” ranging from a very thick accent to a slight accent.

For example, you are learning your target language for pleasure, so that you could ask for directions when you go on holiday or impress your foreign friends with a phrase or two and entertain them throwing in some idioms they don’t expect from you pronounced with your thick foreign accent. Then deviating widely is ok and even cute.

If you are learning your target language for work, for example, to be able to communicate with your foreign partners or to participate in the international level events, then you might want to put your pronunciation goal further away from the thick accent end of the continuum.

If you permanently live and work in the country where your target language is spoken, then you might want to move the pronunciation goal quite far from the thick accent end, based purely on a number of occasions you need to get understood in your daily life. This is especially the case if your career depends on successful communication, for example, if you are in sales or heavily involved in interaction with clients.

So, when drawing your language learning plan, you need to look at the whole picture and based on your language learning goals, areas of improvement, the time you are able to allocate to your language study and other available resources, decide how much effort you are prepared to spend on improving your pronunciation.

To make this decision though you also need to understand what pronunciation training actually entails. If you are not sure, check out our next post dedicated to the specifics of pronunciation training.

Happy articulating!


1. Pronunciation

2. Accent (sociolinguistics)

3. Dialect

Monday, 8 January 2018

New Year - New Language Learning Plan

Happy New Year guys! Yep, 2018. Wow. 2017 went fast. Before you know it, 2019 will be knocking on the door. Hence, if you haven’t done so already, you’d better sort out your language learning plan for this year.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, you need to have a language learning plan of some sort. Two reasons. First, you need to make sure your busy life and lazy self don’t squeeze out language study out of your day and second, so that you could plan the specific and feasible outcome to stay motivated.

It’s so easy to just forget to study your foreign language when your life takes over, so you might end up going foreign language free for days if not weeks. At the same time, you will have this unpleasant feeling that your target language is fading away and you are not doing anything to prevent it, let alone improve your skills. If you put together a plan in which you indicate time slots in your day or week as well as specific resources for your language study, you are much more likely to stay on track.

On the other hand, if you base this plan on the specific and feasible language learning goal, you are much more likely to stay motivated. It’s no secret that learning a foreign language takes months or years (depending on the level you would like to achieve, how much of your time per day or week you dedicate to your study, etc.). So, at some point, you might feel that you are not making any visible progress. It is especially the case if your level is intermediate or above and if you cannot allocate too much time per day or even per week to your foreign language study. When you have a specific and feasible goal in sight, you don’t feel either stuck or overwhelmed: if the goal you set is realistic, i.e. you have allocated enough time and suitable resources to achieve it, you just keep your eyes on the prize and keep moving, keep making progress albeit a slow one.

When drawing a language learning plan I would recommend setting a goal of working towards a certain language level. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has six standardised levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) which you can use for this purpose. Alternatively, you can stick to the Elementary - Intermediate - Advanced hierarchy.

Setting a level goal is a good starting point that will encourage you to free up more time for your language study and work towards improving your level and not just maintaining it.

Your language learning planning will be easy if you have an exam booked in your target language.

For example, if your exam is at level B2 and is scheduled for the end of the year, your goal will be to achieve this level by the end of the year. It’s easy to allocate a main resource for this kind of studying too, you just need to choose a good study book designed specifically for those who would like to take this exam. As all four core language skills (reading, listening, writing and speaking) are tested at such exams at the stated level, such books are designed to help you develop each of these skills at this level too.

In this case, your plan might look something like this:

If you are not planning to take an exam and are using different resources for your language study instead of just one course book covering all four core language skills, you might find it useful to set a level goal for each of the core skills.

This will ensure that you work on each of these skills to acquire all-around language ability. Then you won’t find yourself in the situation when you discover that you speak at a decent A2 level but cannot make out what you are being told as your listening skills are somewhat between complete starter and A1.

An additional benefit of this approach is that you acknowledge your current level for each of these skills, identify areas of improvement you did not think of in the first place and allocate more time and resources where they are needed.

For example, after you have acknowledged that the levels of your listening and speaking skills differ considerably and hinder your ability to have conversations in your target language, you set a goal of taking both your speaking and listening to the B2 level but based on the current state of development of these skills allocate more time and resources to listening as you will need to make more progress with it compared to speaking. Then your time and resources for listening and speaking might look something like this:

As your listening skills are at the beginner level, you won’t be able to comprehend a lot even when listening to the level A audio materials. The best way to start is listening to rather short pieces for which you have transcripts, so that after you have listened to them you could read them and use a dictionary to look up unknown words.

The most reliable resource of the audio materials suitable for your level would be audio materials that come with your course book or online course, so you could listen to the audio while you are walking your dog, for example, and work with the transcript of this audio later during your study time.

The idea is to listen to these audio pieces over and over again with your headphones on. Headphones help you hear and understand better while listening to the same piece several times ensures you pick up all details which you miss listening to the audio once. Listening to the piece before your study time also helps you use this valuable study time more efficiently.

Another listening activity is listening to songs in your target language. It’s supposed to be a light enjoyable activity that you could engage in while driving or doing some housework, for example. You don’t have to give your full attention, try to understand everything and wear headphones while listening to songs. It’s a good idea though to have lyrics available for the songs you listen to, so that you could refer to the written text to fully understand them and to pick up new vocabulary this way.

The most important thing here is to enjoy the songs you have selected. If you cringe every time you hear some songs and force yourself to listen to them just because they are in your target language, you might start loathing the language itself not only these songs. It’s not the wisest thing to do as you will have plenty of moments when your language learning motivation will hit its low (I am not trying to discourage you by the way), so it’s better to avoid stuff that puts you off from the start.

Let’s take another situation. Your overall language level is intermediate and your goal is to achieve advanced or native level in reading so that you could read resources available to the native speakers to pursue your hobbies and progress with your target language simultaneously.

Indeed, as a busy adult you don’t have too much time to indulge in your interests and hobbies, so it is in your best interest to transfer from learning materials to native level stuff so that your choice is no longer restricted by your language level and you could actually read the stuff you are interested in in the language you are studying.

For example, switch to reading history books in your target language killing two birds with one stone - learning the language and pursuing your hobby of a history nerd. In this case, you will need to start dipping your toes in the unchartered waters of native level history books. Thus you will start growing the vocabulary specific to this area of knowledge that will make it easier and easier for you to read more of these books in your target language.

It is fantastic of course if you can read history books that you love every day but if you have other reading to do, for example, some professional development books or if you want to watch some movies, you might want to allocate, for example, alternating fortnights to your reading in history. A fortnight is a period that is not too short so that your history reading could gather and benefit from momentum and, on the other hand, you will have time for other stuff you need to read or do.

It is also a good idea to have breaks from your reading routine so, for example, having Fridays and Saturdays off might help you have a rest from your routine activities and, by the way, have some social life too.

No matter what language level you have and what goals you are setting, you shouldn’t forget to keep learning and revising your new vocabulary. Five to ten minutes per day using a spaced repetition tool can make all the difference.

If you don’t acquire new vocabulary and let the vocabulary you have already learnt slip from your memory, you will still be progressing but at a much slower speed.

This is especially the case if you don’t come across these new words too often either because your level is quite high and the words you don’t yet know are not used too frequently or because you don’t have a chance to listen or read in your target language often enough for you to come across them to remember them without using a spaced repetition tool.

To make your language learning plan comprehensive, you might want to add this vocabulary practice as well as intensive study time (if you plan to have any) during which, for example, you train all four skills and focus on your grammar.

So, don’t miss this time of the year to plan ahead: commit to specific language outcomes and a plan of action to make them happen. After all, to put a nail into a wall, you need to focus on its small head and hit it repeatedly, so don’t just hammer around and about with your language learning, specify the language achievements you would like to make, the time you are able to allocate, the resources you have chosen and stick to your plan of action to make those aspirations a reality.

Happy planning!

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