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How to improve your pronunciation

A young woman in front of a dry erase board showing to pronounce certain sounds.

When learning a new language, many learners struggle with their pronunciation. It can be tough to master all the new sounds of a new language, and even tougher to improve your accent. Learning pronunciation is all the more difficult when the language you’re learning uses sounds you’ve never heard before or that don’t exist in your first language! The good news is there are many ways to practice and improve your pronunciation. Activities like reading out loud, listening to the language, breaking words down, and learning about what goes on in your mouth when you speak can all help! In this article, we’ll talk about these tips (and several others!) and how you can apply them. We’ll also discuss the importance of pronunciation in language learning, go over some tools to help improve your pronunciation, and find out which languages can be trickiest to pronounce. Ready to learn more? Let’s get started with your first tip.

1. Break down long words into syllables

One of the first steps of mastering pronunciation is to break down long words into their syllables, since this can help you more easily understand individual sounds. A syllable is (usually) a group of sounds that surround a vowel. Think about the word taco. This word consists of two syllables, “ta” and “co,” that are centered around the vowels a and o. Breaking a word down into its syllables can help you identify where your own pronunciation may be going astray. For instance, perhaps you’ve mastered the first and last syllables of a word, but can’t quite get the middle down – the word “debrouiller” /deh-brouee-yeh/, for instance, is a particularly tricky adversary. If you can identify the syllables that you’re having trouble pronouncing (e.g., “brouee”), then you can practice them alone until the word sounds right. And once you have it down, you can string the syllables back together and see if you’ve nailed the pronunciation of the word! 

Breaking a word down into its syllables can also give you great insight into the anatomy of pronunciation, especially when it comes to where to place the stress in a word. This brings us to our next tip…

2. Understand when to emphasize words and sounds.

Once you know how to break a word down into its syllables, you’ll want to understand when to emphasize words and sounds. Each word in a language will (usually) have a syllable that carries the stress of the word. For example, if you think back to the “taco” example above, English speakers know it’s “TA-co,” not “ta-CO.” But how do you know which syllable to stress? By following rules, of course! Consider Spanish: the general rule here is that for words that end in a vowel, an “n,” or “s” will fall on the second to last syllable. For example, in the word lentamente (slowly), the stress falls on “men,” so the pronunciation of the word is len-ta-men-te. Not all languages will have as predictable of a pronunciation guide as this, but it’s a good example of how learning the stress patterns of the words you’re learning can help you with your pronunciation.

It’s also important to note that, sometimes, where the stress falls can change the meaning of a word. This often happens in English to distinguish nouns from verbs. For example, think about the word “produce.” As a verb (meaning to create something), the stress falls on the last syllable: pro-DUCE. As a noun (meaning fresh vegetables or fruits), the stress is on the first syllable: PRO-duce (the words “record,” “combine,” and “permit” all follow the same pattern). Pretty cool, huh?

Emphasis can happen on a word-level, too. Some words in a sentence will be emphasized over others, and where you place the stress in a sentence can affect the meaning. Let’s take the sentence, “I want tacos.” If you emphasize the first word, “I,” as in “I want tacos,” the meaning suggests that it is you who is craving tacos, not someone else. But what if you said, “I want tacos”? Then, the emphasis on “tacos” changes the meaning of the sentence slightly to suggest you want tacos, not something else (like pasta). This is all a part of pronunciation!

3. Choose one accent and stick with it

Although you’ll likely encounter many different dialects and accents on your language learning journey, it’s better to choose one accent and stick with it (at least to start with). If you try to learn many accents at once, you could end up becoming overwhelmed. You might even start to mix up different accents! Focusing on one accent will allow you to concentrate on and master the unique sounds associated with it. As you become more proficient, your accent will probably start to match the people around you, without you even trying! And just remember: practice makes perfect.

4. Listen to and have conversations with native speakers

One of the best ways to strengthen your pronunciation is to listen to and have conversations with native speakers. When you listen to native speakers, you are getting input in your target language. Input gives you real-life examples of what the language you’re learning is supposed to sound like — how words are pronounced, how phrases go together, how intonation works, etc. Research shows that the better you are at perceiving the sounds in a language, the better you’ll be at pronouncing them!

Conversing with native speakers in your community is also a great way to practice your pronunciation. You can compare your pronunciation to the pronunciation of the native speaker you’re practicing with, and together you can pinpoint areas where you may need to tweak something. Native speakers can also give you feedback on mistakes that you don’t hear yourself, either by correcting your pronunciation or simply indicating that they didn’t understand what you said. Sometimes, recording yourself can also help with this, which brings us to our next tip.

5. Record yourself speaking to identify your pronunciation flaws

Another way to train your pronunciation is to make a recording of yourself. Being able to hear how you pronounce certain sounds and words will give you the chance to notice mistakes you wouldn’t have otherwise. As a bonus, you can compare your voice to that of a native speaker! The Voice Comparison tool in the Mango Languages app does just this: it allows you to visually compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker. You can repeat the recording/listening process until the visual representation of your recording (the waveform) aligns with the recording of the native speaker. It looks like this:

2022-08-24 22_36_52-Window

This process not only trains your ear, but also your tongue. With the waveform visual representation, you can both hear and see where your recording doesn’t match the native speaker’s voice, which will give you an idea of where you may need to improve. Recording yourself isn’t the only way to practice, however. Check out our next tip!

6. Read aloud

Reading aloud strengthens your vocal tract muscles, which can help build your pronunciation skills. Sometimes, when you are learning a new language, there are sounds (or combinations of sounds) that don’t exist in your first language. For example, in Arabic, there are hard and soft versions of the sounds “s,” “t,” and “d,” which are often difficult for native English speakers to master. In these cases, you need to train your vocal tract (and brain) by creating new muscle memories to pronounce the new sounds. Reading aloud is the perfect activity for this. It gives you the chance to work out the muscles in your tongue and throat while pronouncing new words, which can help you sound more fluent. Reading aloud also helps you practice new sounds in context, instead of in isolation, so you’ll be able to make fluid sentences when the time comes. News articles, children’s books, and social media posts are all great options for reading aloud — really anything that interests you works!

7. Learn to listen

Learning to listen to the language you’re studying, whether it’s to native speakers around you, song lyrics, TV shows, or an audiobook, is a great way to train your brain to be familiar with the new sounds of your new language. By “learning to listen,” you can make an effort to focus on how speakers pronounce words and phrases. Make note of how the voice changes when people ask questions, give commands, tell jokes or stories, etc. Pay attention to where speakers place stress in their words and sentences. If you can train your brain to gather pronunciation information through listening, you’ll accelerate your learning process!

8. Learn pronunciation with the best online dictionaries

A great way to learn pronunciation in a new language is with online dictionaries. Often, the best online dictionaries have recordings of how a word is pronounced, along with a breakdown of the word’s syllables and/or phonetic spellings of the word (spelling on its sounds, for example, using the International Phonetic Alphabet). So, when you learn a new word, check out an online dictionary to see how the word is pronounced and practice pronouncing it to match the dictionary guidelines.

9. Keep an eye on your tongue.

Keeping an eye on your tongue and learning how it is used to create sounds in your target language is a great first step to producing those sounds yourself. Sometimes, there can be subtle differences in what linguists call the “place of articulation” of a sound across languages. This is a fancy way of saying which parts of your vocal tract (often your tongue, lips, teeth) come in contact when you produce a speech sound. Sometimes, languages will share the same sound (like a “t” sound), but the place of articulation will be slightly different.

For example, in English, we pronounce the sound of the “t” in “today” in an “alveolar” place of articulation. (This refers to the tongue touching the “alveolar ridge” in your mouth, or the spot on the roof of your mouth just behind your top front teeth.) Whereas in Spanish, the “t” sound, as in , is in a “dental alveolar” place of articulation, meaning the tongue is slightly more forward (toward the teeth) than it is in English.

Infographic of the larynx and the mouth.

Knowing exactly where you need to place your tongue to make the new sound will make learning pronunciation a whole lot easier!

10. Write difficult words out according to their sounds.

Another helpful pronunciation strategy is to write difficult words out according to their sounds. Just as it’s helpful to break a word down into its syllables, it can be helpful to break hard-to-pronounce words down into their individual sounds. This way, you can identify which sounds in the word are the most challenging. Be careful: breaking a word into its sounds doesn’t mean splitting it up letter by letter. Many sounds are made up of multiple letters, so don’t be fooled! (For example, in English, the letter pairs “th,” “sh,” and “ph” all form single sounds.)

The Mango Languages app helps you identify challenging sounds by breaking down words for you and spelling out approximately how it would sound in your first language. It gives special attention to sounds that may be difficult for learners, and can help you get a sense of how sounds combine. You can see how it works in the red and green bubbles in the image below:

2022-08-24 22_37_08-Window

How important is pronunciation for learning a language?

Pronunciation is very important for learning a language, even if it’s difficult. Slight differences in pronunciation can drastically change the meaning of a word, which could hurt a listener’s ability to understand you. Take Portuguese, for example. The word avó means “grandmother,” while the word avô means “grandfather.” While they look almost the same, the accent marks indicate that the “o” at the end is pronounced differently, with “ó” resembling the “o” sound in the word “mop” and “ô” sounding like the “o” sound in “toe.” If you’re not careful and precise with your pronunciation, people may think you’re talking about grandma, when you’re actually talking about grandpa! While this is a pretty benign mistake, others could cause more serious comprehension difficulties, and may even be embarrassing! Working on your pronunciation is a crucial step in ensuring that you are clearly understood when trying to communicate with others.

What tools can be used to improve pronunciation?

Dictionaries, recording devices, apps, and reference guides like the International Phonetic Alphabet can all help improve your pronunciation. The Mango Languages app has several tools that can help guide your pronunciation practice. For example, the Voice Comparison tool allows you to visually compare your pronunciation to that of a native speaker. Mango courses also provide phonetic transcriptions to help you identify the different sounds in a word. These transcriptions were specifically designed to help learn challenging sounds. Furthermore, Mango courses include audio recordings at two different speeds: slow and enunciated vs. conversational. This allows students to home in on some of the more challenging aspects of sounds and also hear them in natural speech. All of these tools, as well as those you can discover on your own, can lend a helping hand with your pronunciation practice.

What languages are hardest to pronounce?

The languages that are hardest to pronounce depend on your first language. For many English speakers, the hardest languages to pronounce are tonal, meaning words must be pronounced with a certain pitch, which can include high tones, low tones, rising tones, falling tones, etc. (Check out the four different tones of the sound “ma” in Mandarin — all with different meanings!) Languages that are tonal (e.g., Mandarin Chinese, Thai) are traditionally challenging for English speakers to learn, as English is not a tonal language. 

Aside from tonal languages, the hardest languages to pronounce are likely to be those with sounds that are very different from sounds in your first language. For example, the trilled “r” in Spanish (as in perro (dog)), is often hard for English speakers, as English does not have any “trill” sounds. It’s also important to mention that some sounds are very common across many languages, while others are not. For example, the “m” sound occurs in just shy of 95 percent of languages. This, along with the fact that it’s one of the first sounds produced by infants around the world, is a good indication that it’s a more or less universally easy sound to pronounce. Other sounds, however, are unique to a small group of languages (such as the “postalveolar click,” found in less than 1% of languages). These are likely to be challenging for the majority of learners.

Well, there you have it! Mastering the pronunciation of a new language and improving your accent can sometimes be tricky. However, incorporating these tips into your language learning routine should help you out. Just remember that with practice, improved pronunciation is within your reach!

References

Meet The Author:
Camille Kurtz
Camille Kurtz
Linguist at Mango Languages
Camille is a Mango linguist with a BA in Linguistics from Georgetown University. She has a love for all things language-related, with a particular penchant for language acquisition and sociolinguistics. She’s learned Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese, but when she’s not brushing up on her language skills, she’s likely embracing the excitement of New York City or spoiling her cat, Jezzy.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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