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?

3 thoughts on “Tuning into languages

  1. I have a friend who has an uncannily good ear for accents. Speaking of music, she often listens to songs online in the target language, with videos that show the lyrics. She’s just starting Spanish, but her accent is already better than mine (decent Spanish speaker).

  2. “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.”

    Listening is obviously an important part of it. But a bigger issue for many, I believe, is overcoming ingrained phonetic habits. Our mouths and tongues become habituated to forming certain shapes and moving in certain ways and it can be very difficult to persuade them into other formations. I would imagine that someone with a bilingual or multilingual upbringing would have an advantage in that i. they are already habituated to a wider range of formations and ii. they are accustomed to switching between phonologies.

    Studying phonetics and phonology might help. But I am put in mind of trying to do ceilidh dancing: I understand exactly where my feet should be when, and how it relates to the music yet I cannot make them conform!

  3. There is a further problem in learning a language like Gaelg (Manx Gaelic), which has been ‘revived’ and where no true ‘native’ speakers exist. There is a limited number of recordings of the very last native speakers, who were mostly of a great age at the time of recording. Those of us that speak ‘Modern Manx’ have many lively discussions about pronunciation!

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