Practicing correct pronunciation on your own
Even after you have learned how to pronounce the words in your target language, you will have to continue practicing. Saying foreign words is, in part, a sort of "athletic" activity, in that correct pronunciation can only be achieved if we make the effort to position our mouth, lips and tongue in a certain way - and that way is often quite different from that which we use to say words in English.
Take the Spanish "D" or "T", for instance. Spaniards place their tongues between their teeth when they pronounce these sounds, something an English speaker would never do for these letters; we only do it for our "th" sound. Or the French "u" sound (which is very similar to the German "ü"). To correctly utter this vowel sound, you form you lips as though you were going to whistle, and then try to say an "ee" sound (as in our word "seem"). The proper French "u" can only be said if the lips are in that
almost-closed "whistling" position. Of course, we don't have this sound in English.
Knowing how to form the sounds in the foreign language you are learning isn't enough. You must be able to immediately and spontaneously produce them whenever you speak that language. In other words, you must train yourself to achieve proper articulation automatically, without having to think about it. This is at times no easy task, since when you speak a foreign language, you must concentrate mainly on what you want to say, on the necessary words and on the correct grammar. If,
on top of all this, you also have to think about pronunciation, there's a good chance that one of these elements will come up short. Therefore, you should try to do some pronunciation training every day so that speaking correctly becomes second nature to you. The following is an exercise that will help you to greatly improve your pronunciation, and keep it "in shape".
Get a book in your target language, preferably something that is not too far beyond your reading ability, and that deals with a subject that is of interest to you (it's always easier to pick up and read a book that you like, isn't it?). If you are a beginner, you might want to pay a native speaker to record a few pages of the book for you, so that you can hear how the text should sound. Or, you can purchase an audio-book in your target language, and get the written text as well. Plan to read a few paragraphs from that book every day, following these instructions:
- You will read aloud for five to seven minutes. It's obvious why you should do this, is it not? After all, you want to practice pronunciation, and that's not easy to do if you don't actually say the words!
- Read very slowly, at least three times slower than normal, speaking in "slow motion", and exaggerate every sound in every word you say. You will try to pronounce each sound in each word as perfectly as possible, that is, as close to a native speaker's pronunciation as you can.
Perhaps you have seen that strange exercise they make people do in acting school: they tell you to hold a pen between your teeth, and while doing so, to read a text. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? After all, it is completely impossible to pronounce the words well with a pen in your mouth. But this exercise does, of course, make very good sense: the point is to help you become aware of how the mouth should move to enunciate a word perfectly. That pen in your mouth forces you to strain the muscles
of your mouth, lips and tongue in order to try to make your words understandable. By doing so, you become conscious of which muscles must be put into play to produce the various sounds. After a couple of minutes of this, when you take the pen out of your mouth, you will see that you can suddenly pronounce the words much more precisely than you could before you did the "pen" exercise. (Try it out; you'll see what I mean!)
There's no need to employ the "pen trick" when reading in your new language. Nonetheless, you should strive to articulate every word with decisiveness, clarity and great precision. Don't hurry: as I mentioned before, you should speak very slowly. Read about 3 minute's worth of text, then repeat it, attempting to improve on the first reading (if you are at a more advanced level, you can read 5-7 minute's worth of text without repeating.)
- Do this every day, without fail. (well, if you do skip a day, don't worry, it's no disaster. Just be sure you start again the following day.)
After only a few weeks, you will notice that when you read in your target language at a faster, more "normal" speed, your pronunciation will have improved significantly. Nonetheless, keep up this exercise, preferably making it a regular habit. You'll see that the rewards you reap will make it well worth your while.
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Feeling idealistic? Then don't miss the next article:
View the world through rose-colored glasses -Visit another country!
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