Conjugating verbs is admittedly difficult. So is memorizing new vocabulary. But nothing presents a stumbling block for new language learners quite like pronunciation does. You’ll probably learn to read and write perfectly before you can pass as a native speaker because nailing your accent is usually the final hurdle to achieving perfect fluency.
The specific pronunciation mistakes you’re probably making are largely dependent on your native language, as well as the one you’re trying to learn. A quick search online reveals troves of articles geared toward Spanish speakers learning to pronounce English words, or English speakers attempting to speak Russian correctly.
It’d be a good move for you to read up on those, but first, check out these common pronunciation mistakes that all language learners make. Sometimes, the remedy lies not in drilling a specific set of words, but in reexamining your approach entirely.
You’re Not Being Musical Enough
Correct pronunciation is so much more than nailing your vowels. There’s also stress, accentuation, intonation, rhythm, pauses and phonemes to consider. Some tonal languages, like Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai, depend on tone to indicate meaning. In other words, you won’t even get your basic point across if you don’t use the right inflection.
Even if you’re not studying a tonal language, you’ll benefit a lot from paying attention to its musical cadence.
Indeed, the link between music and language is not totally incidental. Studies have found that children who start studying music before age 7 often have bigger vocabularies and a stronger sense of grammar and verbal IQ — not to mention a better grasp on processing subtle differences between sounds, which has an obvious payoff when it comes to pronunciation.
Even if you didn’t study an instrument as a child, the game’s not over for you yet. Listen to native speakers and tune into the language as though you’re listening to a song, and don’t be afraid to sing, rather than speak, if that makes sense.
You’re Neglecting Your Warm-Up Exercises
Athletes have warm-up sessions, musicians play scales and language learners have pronunciation exercises.
While it’s tempting to dive right in, you might have more luck with pronunciation if you treat it like a skill that requires its own kind of muscle memory. And that’s not just figurative, because learning the correct mouth positions is actually a big deal when it comes to improving your accent.
To determine the pronunciation drills that’ll help move things along for you, research the International Phonetic Alphabet, as well as the correct mouth positions for the language you’re studying. You might also want to practice the vowel sounds frequently.
The key with any of these exercises is to remember to do them consistently. Repetition is your friend.
You’re Too Hung Up On Sounding Perfect
This might sound like it’s contradicting the entire premise of this article, but it’s really not. One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that correct pronunciation and accent-free pronunciation are not necessarily the same thing.
It might take you an entire lifetime to lose the subtle traces of your accent, and maybe not even then. Some people repatriate to another country and still speak with a recognizable twang 35-plus years later, but they’re still fluent in every way that counts.
Remember — you don’t need to pass for a native speaker to have good pronunciation, or to make yourself easily understood in another language. Getting too hung up on your accent can actually hinder your progress.
You’re Not Getting Enough Exposure
This should go without saying, but language learners frequently forget that the streets are the best classroom (even if you’re not a hustler).
Doing your lessons is important, but exposing yourself to the actual language, as it’s actually spoken, is what’s going to make you sound natural when you speak. That’s part of the reason Babbel’s lessons incorporate pronunciation by native speakers, as well as speech recognition technology to keep you on track.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of immersion methods beyond your language-learning app. Listen to foreign-language podcasts, or music, or watch movies — with or without subtitles. You can browse YouTube videos in your target language, and perhaps even travel to a country where your language is spoken, assuming you have the means.
The more sounds you absorb, the more you’ll naturally pick up on the shades and subtleties among them.