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The One Big Secret to Getting Your Pronunciation Right in a New Language

What’s the most difficult challenge when you’re figuring out how to pronounce words in a new language? I would say: false friends.

These are words, letters or syllables that, written down, look the same or very similar to those in your own language. You see them and think: great! This one’s easy! I know how to pronounce that!

And then, of course, you try to use them in conversation and the native speaker you are talking to stares at you blankly, or you suddenly realise that when a native speaker uses that word in conversation, it sounds completely different. You have to un-learn the word and re-learn the way it’s really pronounced in your target language.

This is a particular problem when you’re learning a language that is from the same family as your own (for example, another Romance language). It’s an even bigger problem when you rely too much on learning through seeing the words written down.

That’s because it’s impossible to get your pronunciation perfect unless you constantly hear the words out loud and attempt to say them for yourself. If you only ever practise reading and writing, you will get into bad pronunciation habits that make it very difficult for you to understand native speakers, or to make yourself understood in real life situations.

Which Sounds ARE the Same?

A great way to tackle this problem is to start by figuring out which core sounds are the same in your native language and the language you are learning, and which are different.

For example, the consonants m and f are pronounced in the same way in most languages, but many other consonants and vowels sound very different depending on where you are in the world. Even within Romance languages that use very similar spellings, letters like b, c, h, l and j sound completely different, depending on the language!

Completely New Sounds

This isn’t just about saying to yourself something like, “Aha, in English, the letter e is pronounced the same as the letter i in my native tongue.” Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. That’s because many languages use sounds that don’t exist at all in other languages!

For example, take the Portuguese word não. Here, the ão sound is a core, or elemental sound in Portuguese that people use all the time, but it doesn’t exist in English. This means that native English speakers need to learn to make this sound before they start trying to speak Portuguese, or they will have trouble communicating, no matter how good their vocabulary or grammar is.

Or take the Khmer consonant , which is usually Romanised as ng. This is another sound that appears at the start of many Cambodian words, but is completely missing from European languages. To make yourself understood, or to understand Khmer, you would need to work on teaching you mouth to make that sound first.

Filling in the Gaps

This sounds like a big task, but if you do the hard work of learning the core sounds of a new language right at the start, you will find it much easier to get your pronunciation right, and you’ll make sure you don’t make the mistake of memorising words the wrong way.

It’s also really important that you practise saying words aloud in conversation with a native speaker or teacher as much as possible, as early as often as you can. That way, if you’re not getting the pronunciation quite right, they can correct you and you can mimic them until you get it perfect.

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