Sunday, 18 February 2018

Pronunciation Pain. Part 2 - Welcome to the Language Gym

In the previous post, we tried to answer the question if you actually need to improve your pronunciation and how much it is ok for you to deviate from the standard pronunciation based on what you use your target language for. We examined what pronunciation and standard pronunciation is, the motives or reasons why you might want to get rid of your foreign accent, your chances of improving your pronunciation as an adult language learner and your pronunciation goal.

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 and other resources you are able to allocate to your language study, decide how much effort you are prepared to spend on improving your pronunciation.

The reason for this analysis is that pronunciation is a separate skill that requires specific work with full focus only on this skill.

What is Pronunciation Training?

So, what pronunciation training actually entails?

Depending on what your areas of improvement are, you might need to work either on separate sounds or intonation or both. If either of these two is off, your pronunciation might hinder communication, i.e. understanding.

If it is both separate sounds and intonation that you need to work on, usually, pronunciation practice starts with working on separate sounds.

Working on Separate Sounds

Here you are likely to need IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) or any other transliteration system, especially if the language you are learning is not phonetic, i.e. words are spelt in a different way than pronounced. English is one of the examples of a language with traditional (read: nightmarish) spelling, i.e. the spelling that has stayed the same even though the pronunciation has changed a lot over the centuries. That’s why, by the way, English words are transcribed in our Ready vocBlocks and when you make your own vocBlocks transcription pops up automatically from the built-in dictionary.

When working on sounds, you might want to read or watch some theory on how certain sounds are pronounced, i.e. how and if your tongue, lips and soft palate move to form these particular sounds. It is especially important for the sounds that are very different from your native language. For example, /θ/ and /ð/ in English if you don’t have any such sounds in your mother tongue.

Don’t be surprised if your mouth refuses to articulate the sounds of your target language the way they should be pronounced and if your facial muscles hurt after the training. Articulating sounds of different languages requires work of different muscles, so if you have been speaking mainly your native language or if you have been articulating the sounds of your target language in an incorrect way, different muscles have been working, so the ones that are working now, when you are training correct pronunciation, hurt. Yep, welcome to the language gym!

When practising separate sounds, you need to monitor that your organs of speech are positioned and move correctly. While you won’t be able to see your soft palate or fully see your tongue, the position and movement of your lips can be easily monitored when you practise with a mirror.

And even if you don’t think much of this technique, don’t just brush it off as unnecessary: you will be surprised how easily your organs of speech slip back to the familiar moves they have got used to over the years of speaking your native tongue. Even when you think your organs of speech move and/or positioned correctly, a check in the mirror might prove otherwise. So, grab that mirror, beaut, to check you really round your lips in the right way for that /əʋ/ sound!

It doesn’t mean, of course, that from now on you are compelled to stare in the mirror every time you speak your target language. It’s necessary for your phonetic training, of course, but that’s where it ends. And though phonetic practice can turn out to be addictive for you if you are a bit of an actor or if you don’t mind checking that you look gorgeous while speaking your target language, it would be a bit on the wacky side if you pulled a compact mirror out of your briefcase in the middle of a contract negotiation with your foreign partners, glanced at it while pronouncing your /θ/ and packed it back smiling and nodding with satisfaction.

First of all, while having a real life conversation in your target language you are much less likely to be in control of your language per se, including pronunciation. You will have to think what to say not just how to say it!

And, secondly, you won’t have to think about your pronunciation. The muscles that work when you speak are just that, they are muscles. As other muscles in your body, after a long enough period of working out (phonetic practice) they start taking care of themselves. Same way as you don’t have to constantly think of correct posture or hold your stomach in after you have been working out in the gym for some time, you will be articulating sounds correctly without constantly making an effort to do so.

Working on Sounds in Context

The next step of phonetic practice is working on short phrases, sentences and tongue twisters so that you could train the sounds that you have been working on at the first step, in connection with other sounds.

The main feature of this kind of practice is exaggeration: you need to articulate the sounds you are working on very clearly and distinctly, much more clearly and distinctly than they are pronounced in real speech.

Again, this doesn’t mean that you will be articulating the sounds in this exaggerated manner in real life conversations going forward. Absolutely not. If you did, you would sound really weird (nobody does it) and you would sacrifice speed which is one of the parts of good pronunciation. But when training, you need to focus on one thing at a time (it’s not speed at this point) and exaggeration is necessary for you to learn to articulate the sounds correctly.

At this step of your phonetic practice, you might find it useful to monitor your pronunciation by recording your voice and playing it back to yourself. While listening to your own voice is not the most pleasant thing in the world, treat it as a necessary evil that will help you avoid slipping back to your old pronunciation mistakes or making new ones. For the next (third) step of your pronunciation training recording and playing back your voice can also help avoid any mistakes.

Working on Intonation

This third step is working on intonation. Intonation is the music of the language so just as with musical notes that people look at when playing a musical instrument or singing, you might need to employ some graphic means to mark whether the intonation goes up or down, which words in the sentences are stressed and where pauses are made.

You can mark the sentences and texts, you are working on, either based on the standard intonation patterns or by listening carefully to the audio of native speakers. A combination of both, i.e. marking texts while listening to the audio and applying your theoretical knowledge of standard intonation patterns is all the more effective and accurate, especially if your musical ear is a bit deaf.

Please note that the texts you use for this purpose should be the ones designed for language learners even if they were not specifically designed for training pronunciation. With real stuff from youtube, for example, you risk copying all sorts of deviations from the standard and might struggle with the complexity and irregularity of real thing that you don’t need for your phonetic training.

After you have marked the text, you need to repeat it sentence by sentence after the speaker copying the intonation, stressing the right words and pausing in the right places. If a sentence is too long, you can stop the recording where the speaker pauses and repeat a part of the sentence before listening and repeating the next part.

Working on Speed

Once you feel confident enough with intonation, you could challenge yourself with repeating these texts with the same speed as the native speaker(s) of the recording.

Speaking in your target language with a native-like speed is quite important as (like other elements of pronunciation) it impacts communication.

It is like driving on a busy road: you need to have approximately the same speed as others so as not to break the flow (in the case of speaking, the flow of conversation). Too slow and other road users get impatient, too quick and other road users get uncomfortable.

If you cannot imitate the speed from the first attempt, don’t worry, it’s not that easy, especially if you are physically struggling to articulate all the sounds of your target language. It’s a matter of practice to make your target language speech quicker and more native-like, so keep trying!

And, by the way, if the text you have chosen happens to be a heated argument between two friends or spouses, an exchange of quick emotional remarks, good luck with that! It’s a tough but good practice which you might actually enjoy if you are a bit of an actor.

Now that you have an idea of what phonetic training is, you can decide if and how much time you can spend on it and (if it’s a yes) add working on the sounds, intonation and speed of your target language to your language learning plan.

Happy articulating!