Tuning into languages

Yesterday I did an interview on Skype with a student of linguistics in Germany who is writing a thesis about acquiring native-like pronunciation in foreign languages. I talked about the methods I used to try to do this – listening, mimicing, learning about the phonology of a language, recording my voice and comparing to native speakers, and so on.

While we were chatting, it occured to me that speaking a foreign language is somewhat like playing a musical instrument, or to singing in tune with others. It particularly resembles playing an instrument like a violin or a trombone, which require you to constantly monitor whether the notes you’re playing are in tune with each other, and with other instruments, if you’re playing in an orchestra or other group, and to make adjustments as necessary.

Your voice is your instrument, and learning to pronounce a foreign language is like tuning your instrument. It’s not something you can do once then forget – to acquire native-like pronunciation you need to do a lot of listening and make lots of little adjustments to your pronunciation. It also helps if you understand how the sounds are produced, especially ones that don’t occur in your mother tongue – studying phonetics and phonology can help.

Even if you know nothing about music, you can probably hear when an instrument or voice is very out of tune. It just sounds wrong and clashes with the other instruments / voices. Similarly if your pronunciation of a foreign language is very different from native speakers, i.e. you have a strong accent, it will sound odd to them, and they may have trouble understanding you. The closer you can get to native-like pronunciation, the easier it will be to communicate.

Do you aim for native-like pronunciation in languages you’re learning?

How to go about this?

Reflections on the Polyglot Gathering

Polyglots dancing at the Slaughterhouse in Berlin

I got back from the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin late on Monday night. I travelled by train the whole way, which is a bit more expensive than the plane, and takes a few hours longer, but I prefer to travel this way, and you see more. The journey went smoothly, apart from the train from London, which was an hour late getting into Bangor. Fortunately I got a partial refund on my ticket. On the Eurostar I talked to a interesting lady from Vancouver, and on the train to Bangor I talked, mainly in Welsh, to a doctor from Felinheli.

This year’s Gathering was as much fun as previous years – it was my third. I arrived in Berlin quite late on Wednesday evening the day before it officially started, and missed out on most of the polyglot games that were going on in the afternoon and evening. Next year I might arrive a day or two before the start to give me a chance to explore more of Berlin – this year I spent most of my time in the venue and didn’t go exploring.

Over the next four days I learnt about many things, including Portuguese-based creoles, Greek, minimalism, Sardinian languages and dialects, why many language learners don’t acquire native-like accents, metaphors in native Canadian languages, language mentoring, how musical techniques can be applied to language learning, the stagecraft of multilingualism, and much more. I got to know old friends better, met lots of new ones, and I spoke lots of different languages. My talk on Manx went well, as did the introduction to Welsh that I helped with.

The talks were mainly in English, with some in French, Italian, German, Esperanto, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Indonesian, and in various combinations of these.

Between us we polyglots speak quite a few different languages. The most common (i.e. those with quite a few speakers / learners) include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, Esperanto, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Finnish, Hungarian, Welsh, Irish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Swahili. There were also speakers and learners of Wolof, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Romani, Tamil, Latin, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish, Breton, Sardinian, Luxembourgish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, Albanian, Basque, Tagalog, Turkish, Navajo, Toki Pona, Klingon, and probably other languages.

I’m looking forward to the next polyglot event – the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal in July. I’ll be doing a talk on the origins of language there, so should get working on it.

Some things I learnt from the Gathering

There are many ways to learn languages, and no single way will work for everyone. Some like to focus on one language at a time until they have reached a level they are happy with, then move on to the next language; others like to study many different languages at the same time. Some learn grammar and vocabulary first, then learn to speak; others start using their languages straight away, or soon after they start studying. Some like to study on their own; others like to study in a class and/or with a private tutor. Some combine many of the above and more, to varying degrees – I certainly do.

From Malachi Rempen’s talk on cartooning, minimalism and language learning (Less is More: What Silly Doodles Can Teach Us About Fluency), I learnt that you can do a lot with a little. He showed how he can make his Itchy Feet character express a wide variety of emotions with just a few lines, and suggested that the same can be applied to languages – you can communicate even if you know only a little of a language. He also argued that fluency means different things to different people, and might not be the best thing to aim for.

Tim Keeley, professor of Cross-Cultural Management at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka, explained that the idea that only children can acquire native-like accents in foreign languages is wrong – the brain is flexible throughout live and you can learn to perceive and produce foreign sounds. However there are emotional barriers which stop many people from sounding ‘native’. When learning another language you can also take on or create a new identity, and those who are willing and able to do this are most likely to sound more like native speakers. You also shouldn’t worry about mimicking people. In fact that is a good way to acquire native-like pronunciation.

Michael Levi Harris, an actor and polyglot from New York, talked about parallels between learning a part and learning a language. He explained that actors tend to exaggerate speech and physical mannerisms when learning a part, then make them more subtle, and that language learners can try the same things – exaggerate the pronunciation, gestures, etc. until they become second nature, then tone them down. He also talked about taking on different identities when speaking different languages and with different accents. If you can find a native speaker of a language whose voice and mannerisms appeal to you, then you can create your character in that language based on them.

The extend to which you take on a new identity in a new language depends on how much you want to integrate into a new culture. If you want to be taken for a native, then you need to sound and act like them. Alternatively you could try sounding like a native, perhaps with a bit of a foreign accent, but not worry so much about acting like them. If you spend a lot of time in a different county interacting and observing the natives, you’re likely to pick up at least some of their behaviour anyway.

Fiel Sahir, an Indonesian-American musician and polyglot who currently lives in Germany, talked about applying musical techniques to language learning. He explained how practice is the key to music and language, but it has to be intelligent practice that focuses on areas that you find difficult. This might be particular passages in a piece of music, or particular tenses or noun declensions in a language. By focusing like this, you can make a lot of progress.

Focus is something that I find difficult sometimes. I can and do focus, but often get distracted. I was thinking about how I’ve been dabbling with a variety of languages recently and not making a lot of progress in any of them. So my plan is to focus on one, or two, languages for the next year – Russian and Czech – and learn as much as I can in them. I will keep my other languages ticking over, but not spend much time on them.

Multilingual musicians

A Sardinian friend of mine, Elena Piras, knows six languages (Sardinian, Italian, English, Scottish Gaelic, French and Spanish) and sings in most of them, plus a few others, including Scots, Bulgarian and Georgian.

Here’s a recording of a performance from earlier this year in which she sings in Sardinian, Scots, English, Scottish Gaelic and Bulgarian.

Elena aims to sing each language in as close to a native accent as possible, and I think she does this very well.

Another multilingual singer is Jean-Marc Leclercq or JoMo, who holds the world record for singing in the most languages in one performance: 22. I heard him doing this at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin in May this year. His pronunciation in the languages I know didn’t sound entirely native-like, and it sounded like he had a strong French accent in the other languages.

Do you know other singers who sing in multiple languages?

How well do they pronounce them?

I myself sing in various languages, and try to pronounce as well as I can, but know I could do better.

Here’s a recording of a song I wrote earlier this year in the five languages I know best (English, French, Welsh, Mandarin and Irish):

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Changing accents

I heard an interesting discussion on Radio Cymru recently about accents. They talked about Welsh, and English, regional accents that have negative associations for people from other regions, or that people find difficult to follow, and whether they would change their accent to make it easier for others to understand them, and/or to avoid the negative associations.

My accent has changed a bit over time – it is currently more or less RP, but used to be more northern, and it depends to some extent though on who I’m talking to. I haven’t tried to change it deliberately. The only thing I consciously pay attention to in formal situations is the pronunciation of th [θ/ð], particularly the unvoiced version, [θ], which tends to default to [f].

Are the negative associations with accents from particular parts of your country, or with accents of particular social groups within your country?

Have you deliberately changed your accent in your native language(s)? If so, what led you to do so?

Fluent Forever

Today we have a guest post by Gabriel Wyner.

An example of the app on a phone

Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you a project I’ve been working on to help folks learn languages faster. To help introduce it, let me give you some background on myself and what I do.

I’m an opera singer, and for my career, I needed to learn German, Italian, French and Russian. Over the course of studying those languages, I developed a language learning method that began to produce really phenomenal results: I was able to learn French to C1 fluency in 5 months and Russian to B2/C1 fluency in 10. This method eventually turned into an article at Lifehacker, which went viral and led to a book deal with Random House, and has basically turned my life upside-down (In a good way, fortunately! While I don’t have much time for singing, I adore writing and learning about languages!)

One of the central tenets of my methods revolves around pronunciation. I learn pronunciation before anything else, because once my ears are attuned to a language’s sounds, I have a much easier time memorizing vocabulary, and I don’t have to fight against bad, ingrained pronunciation habits when I’m ready to start speaking.

The tricky part in all of this is that effective pronunciation training tools are few and far between. For most common languages, there are some scattered YouTube pronunciation guides, perhaps a brief discussion in the front of your grammar book, but very little that’s comprehensive, systematic, and enjoyable to use. And there’s little to nothing that will successfully train your ears to hear sounds you haven’t heard before – subtle things like the differences between German’s “See” [ze:] and “Sie” [zi:], “Bahn” [ba:n] and “Bann” [ban], or German’s “mein” [maen] and English’s “mine” [maɪn].

However, there is research that describes exactly how to train ears to hear new sounds. It’s a pretty simple process: you find a pair of sounds that are tricky to distinguish (say, German’s mein and English’s mine), you play a recording of one of the words at random, guess which one you heard, and then see whether you were right. Every time you go through this cycle, your ears get better. And with a bunch of well chosen word pairs and good recordings, an app could take you through that cycle and teach you the pronunciation system of a language within a couple of weeks. I’ve made one using Anki for my own Hungarian studies, and it took me ~10 days at 20 minutes a day to get a handle on the [occasionally stupidly difficult] sounds of Hungarian (tyuk vs gyuk, kar/kor/kór, ad/add, has/hass…).

11 days ago, I launched a Kickstarter to fund development of this app. The campaign has done phenomenally well, funding in 2 days and doubling after day 7, which has allowed me to add all sorts of stretch goals and bonuses for all the backers of the project. I think this is going to be a wonderful and much-needed tool for the language learning community, and I’m excited about working on it. If you or anyone you know wish to learn languages, please do help spread the word. You can use these handy links below:

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The importance of stress

Last night at the Polyglot conversation group a friend who is learning Welsh told me about the difficulties he had when trying to buy a train ticket to Dolwyddelan, a small village in the Conwy valley in North Wales. None of the ways he tried to pronounce it were understood by the ticket seller, so he ended up spelling it out. I also wasn’t sure what place he was referring to until he spelled it for me, even though I’m used to hearing mispronounced versions of Welsh place names.

In Welsh word stress almost always falls on the penultimate (last but one) syllable, so in Dolwyddelan it’s on the ddel, i.e. /dɔlʊiˈðɛlan/. If you put the stress anywhere else words just sound wrong or incomprehensible.

In languages like Welsh where there stress is usually in the same place it’s not so hard to get it right, but in languages with irregular stress placement, like English and Russian, it’s more difficult. You can try to learn where it goes in each individual word, and/or try to develop an instinct for it through extensive listening. I think I’m beginning to do his for Russian.

Accent and ego

According to a study at the University of Haifa, the strength of your accent when speaking a foreign language depends, to some extent, on how much you like and respect the person you’re talking to. Your position in relation to the other language also affects your accent, something the article calls ‘language ego’.

I’ve noticed that people who identify strongly with a particular region or country are more likely to have a strong regional or national accent. Whereas people who don’t have such strong affiliations are more likely to tone down or switch off their accent and perhaps adopt another, or least aspects of another accent, to make it easier for others to understand them. This does depend on the circumstances though – in some cases people who wouldn’t normally emphasise their accent might do so to show group solidarity, or to signal their opposition to another group.

My accent in English sort of defaults to RP, but takes on a flavours from other accents depending on who I’m talking to. Though I come from Lancashire originally, I’ve never had a strong Lancashire accent and don’t strongly identify with that area. In Welsh I have a mid-Wales accent which is gradually becoming more northern. In Irish I have a strong Ulster accent, which I tone down somewhat when talking to Irish speakers from other regions. In Mandarin I have a Taiwanese accent, though I can do a sort of Beijing one as well, and in French I had a bit of a Languedoc accent which has morphed into something else now. These accents are a result of spending time in the regions where they’re used, so you could say that I identify to some extent with all them.


I went down to Cornwall for my sister’s wedding a few days ago and heard some interesting English accents on the way. While waiting on Bristol station, for example, I heard some people talking in unfamiliar accents that might have been Bristolian. At first I wasn’t sure what language they were speaking – it certainly didn’t sound like English. After listening to it a bit more I realised that it was English after all, but I had to listen for carefully to make out what they were saying. It sounded very fast with a lot of elision.

Have you ever heard someone talking in what sounds like a foreign language only to realise later that it’s actually a language you know?

The announcements on railway stations in the UK are usually in RP English which has been pre-recorded and is then spliced together as necessary. So the way the Cornish place names were pronounced by the station announcements sounded quite different to the way they were pronounced by the Cornish conductor on the train. I really like Cornish accents and acquired bits of one myself while I was there, even though I only stayed for a long weekend.

BBC Voices has examples of Cornish and Bristol accents, though none of the recordings sound like the accents I heard on Bristol station, so maybe the people were from somewhere else.

Yesterday I went the dentist, and while I was chatting to the dental hygienist she detected a Welsh accent in my English and switched to Welsh. So we continued talking in Welsh and she was surprised when I told her that I’m not a native speaker as she’d assumed. Apparently I have a mid-Wales accent in Welsh.

Foreign accents

At the moment I’m writing an essay on the acquisition of foreign pronunciation. There seems to be a widespread belief that people who start learning a language at an early age are more likely to speak it with a native accent, while those who learn languages as adults tend to speak them with foreign accents. The essay is exploring whether this is true, and what factors contribute to the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

While there’s plenty of evidence indicating that the younger you start learning a language, the more native-like your pronunciation will be, there are exceptions to this – some adults manage to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages, while not all children do so. Other factors that seem important include the length of time you’ve spent in a country where the language is spoken, the amount of exposure you get to the language, how much you use your first language, whether you have a talent for oral mimicry, and how important it is for you to speak the language like a native. Other factors don’t seem to be as important.

In my case, I aim to speak languages with as little foreign accent as possible, and am reasonably successful in this. I think I have a good ear for languages, which might be related to my musical abilities, and am quite good at oral mimicry. I find that mimicking the way foreigners speak English and doing the same when I speak their language helps.

Do you speak an foreign languages with a native-like accent? What has helped you to do so.

Language learning and accents

Today we have a guest post by Jeff Foster.

Without a doubt, I am a language enthusiast. My goal is to become fluent in 3 languages by the time I graduate from high school. Those languages are Spanish, Italian, and Russian, in addition to English obviously. Using my Spanish class in school as a base of vocabulary and grammar structure, with Skype and other texts to enhance my overall knowledge. Combining all of these things has allowed me to gather a pretty good knowledge of the language. For Italian, I selected Rosetta Stone and I am thoroughly disappointed with it. While it does give you a good feel for accent, pronunciation, and very basic sentence structure, it lacks grammar, vocabulary, etc. For Russian, I am currently using Teach Yourself Russian, a book for learning Cyrillic and a few words.

Anyway, looking ahead to the future I would love to learn as many languages as possible, namely German, Scottish Gaelic, and possibly Arabic. I’ve had particular trouble with the accents. According to this article, accents can be acquired in a variety of ways. For example, my school advisor, after living in England for one year, many years ago, still carries a strong British accent. Many people make fun of him, saying that he fakes the accent.

What is your opinion? Is it possible for someone to somehow retain an accent, even long after leaving the country?