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

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