Being able to perfect a foreign accent is, let’s be honest, really hard. It’s not like vocab and grammar, where you just have to memorize the words and rules. To nail pronunciation, you have to use some more creative approaches.
Fortunately, we know a lot of ways to learn. First, make sure to not get disheartened early on, because this is something that will take ongoing practice. To help you along, here are just a few methods we suggest, which will hopefully turn a normally frustrating task into a fun one.
Listen To Native Speakers
Yes, listening to native speakers is a pretty obvious tip. Yet we mention it because it’s probably the most important first step to take when you’re learning a language. Listening to the language passively can help you get used to the sounds and rhythms of it. And thanks to the internet, there are countless ways to increase your exposure to the language you’re learning: listening to music, downloading podcasts and watching movies are just a few options.
To really improve your pronunciation, however, you’ll need to listen a little harder than usual. You may want to pause what you’re doing every once in awhile to try to imitate what was said. If you’re watching a movie, make sure the subtitles are on. If you really love a song, look up the lyrics so you can make sure you’re understanding all the words correctly. You’ll need the lyrics to sing along anyway, because singing along happens to be good practice.
Crack Open Your Dictionary
Sure, physical dictionaries aren’t used as much anymore, but you get the point: Dictionaries are useful for a lot more than just definitions. They’re a resource for etymologies, proper usage and, most important to you right now, pronunciation. Those weird symbols that appear under the words are super useful to learn because they are your guide to nailing all the right sounds and stresses.
Depending on the dictionary, there might also be sound files so you can listen to a native speaker (or in some cases a robot) give you the proper pronunciation to mimic. In the early stages of learning a language, looking up words you’re struggling with will help you stop bad speech habits before they start. One option that includes several languages is Word Reference, which does include native recordings demonstrating how to pronounce words.
Get Familiar With Your Mouth
You’ve been with your mouth for a long time, so you probably think you know everything about it. Assuming you’re not a trained singer or a linguist, however, it still holds plenty of surprises.
Here’s an example: try making the sound “eee,” “ehh” and “ahh” while paying attention to where your tongue is located. You’ll probably notice that it moves down. Now try “eee” to “ooo,” and you’ll see the tongue slides from the front of the mouth to the back. Now let’s try looking at all of the vowels on the International Phonetic Alphabet’s vowel chart.
You probably thought there weren’t that many vowels, and that’s because in any given language, there aren’t. Every language has different vowels, and this is one of the hardest things to work on when you’re learning pronunciation. If you haven’t ever spoken a particular vowel before, it is pretty difficult to figure out how to form it just by listening to it.
This chart may look confusing, but it isn’t too bad once you get the hang of it. It’s shaped like the inside of your mouth, so your tongue is supposed to go in the corresponding spot. For “i,” which sounds like “eee,” your tongue is at the top-front of your mouth. To properly use the chart, you’ll want to look up “vowels in [target language],” and then find a sound guide like the one offered by Wikipedia. By mimicking the individual sounds of the language, you’ll slowly build your way up to full words and sentences that sound natural.
You can also practice the consonants in this same way. There’s an even larger but equally helpful chart for that. As a bonus, knowing the International Phonetic Alphabet is helpful for almost all of your language-learning needs.
Hey, Watch Yourself! Also, Listen To Yourself
Now that you’ve listened to other people speak the language and you’ve started mastering all the consonants and vowels, the next step is to look at yourself. Really, really look. To see your tongue and mouth position, it can be helpful to stand in front of a mirror to watch how you’re forming the vowels. Are you rounding your lips enough for the French “ooh”? Is your tongue in the right section of your mouth? These questions sound weird, but they’re useful.
Even better for perfecting the accent is recording yourself. As anyone who has recorded themselves can attest to, you sound different on tape than you do in your head. It may be a little disheartening when you find out you’re not nailing the German accent like you thought you were, but that’s a helpful thing to know before you go and speak to real Germans.
After a while, you may want feedback from others on your pronunciation. Ideally, you’ll have a friend or teacher who is fluent and can help you along here. If you don’t, you can get a little more creative. Some people use Instagram or Reddit to ask others to critique their pronunciation, and there are very active communities online that’s willing to help learners. Broadcasting yourself to strangers can be nerve-wracking, so you can try to find services in your local area that pair speakers. Many people trying to learn English are happy to meet up with people trying to learn their language so that both parties can improve.
Try Some Tongue Twisters
When you first start speaking a language, every sentence can feel like a tongue twister. Once you’ve started getting the basics down, however, these can be a great way to take a break from learning the pluperfect, or whichever grammar section you’re on. Try pronouncing this one:
Pepe Peña pela papa, pica piña, pita un pito, pica piña, pela papa, Pepe Peña.
Want more? Here are a few in various languages you can practice. And when you run through those, or just need to find some in your target language, there are hundreds online for you to practice. See? Pronunciation is fun!
Try Using Babbel
We can’t do an article on pronunciation without mentioning that Babbel has several tools to help you improve your pronunciation. Our app will give you practice words that correspond to a specific foreign consonant or vowel, and even has speech recognition technology to check your pronunciation. It also has some tongue twisters for you to practice some of the more difficult pronunciations, or if you just happen to like tongue twisters. Babbel has many resources to help you along on your journey to becoming conversational in a new language, so we encourage you to give it a try.