In your language-learner dreams, you may be asking a local what time the train is coming in a perfect Parisian accent, or ordering scialatelli as if you’ve spent your entire life vacationing on the Amalfi Coast. But knowing the words is one thing. Sounding like a native is entirely different.
If you’re learning a language that doesn’t share roots with your mother tongue, pronunciation can be hard. So hard in fact, that it may hinder the learning process altogether.
“We learners hold ourselves to these really difficult goals that aren’t always very realistic,” says Cindy Blanco, managing editor of learning content at Duolingo. “People feel so self-conscious about how they sound when they’re speaking a different language that they don’t get the practice, learn new vocabulary, or try out new grammar.”
Some general recommendations
Different languages pose different challenges to learners. Mother tongues can also make picking up new lingo simpler or more difficult; it’s easier for an English speaker to learn the similarly-rooted German, and harder for them to learn Italian. But regardless of the language you’re trying to shove into your brain, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind to make learning easier for you.
Keep your eyes on the goal
Every language has its own music, and many learners consider being able to speak with the same cadence and intonation as a local as the ultimate goal. It’s not, though.
“From a learning perspective, you don’t need to sound like you have lived in Paris your whole life in order to speak French and be understood, and have a great time communicating,” says Blanco.
It’s totally valid to want to eventually pronounce everything perfectly and have people ask you if you’ve spent a lot of time abroad. But the true goal of learning a second or third language should be communication, which is often unrelated to pronunciation.
Choose your battles
When it comes to communicating, pronunciation is only important when changing a sound changes the meaning of a word.
Consider the words “this” and “these.” For Spanish speakers, these words are tricky because the “I” sound in “this” doesn’t exist in their native language. They tend to pronounce it as “these.” Here, the shape of your mouth is crucial to get meaning across, but that’s not always the case. If you order tacos in Mexico using the American “oʊ” vowel, you’ll definitely sound foreign, but no one’s going to bring you a plate of spaghetti or a bagel. The same happens with the French “R”—it sounds lovely, but if you have a hard time pronouncing it, you’ll still probably be able to communicate with locals during your trip to the Pyrenees mountains.
So the next time you’re having trouble with a particular sound, ask yourself if it changes the meaning of words at all. If the answer is no, your attention and focus will be better served elsewhere.
This tip doesn’t have any unfamiliar sounds, but it still has two meanings: speak slower and give yourself time to get better.
Most people think that to be successful at language learning you need to speak fast and be as competent in your new lingo as you are in your mother tongue. That’s what some people mean by “speaking natively.” But learning a new language is hard on your brain.
Blanco explains that communication generally happens in two layers: first, you think of a concept or desire, then your brain translates that into words you can express to others through sounds.
“When you’re learning a new language, we don’t automatically map the new words to the concepts, we map them to our own language. So we create an extra layer,” Blanco explains.
So, you think of a concept, then think of the words to express that concept in your mother tongue, and then you consciously look for the equivalent of those words in the language you’re learning. And that’s just at a conceptual level. Once you have the words, your brain has to tell your face muscles to overcome decades of use and move in strange and unfamiliar ways to emit the sounds of these new words. It’s a lot.
Slowing down on the spot will give you more time to manage the internal process of thinking and speaking in a new language, while slowing down across the board will give your brain time to better adjust to something new.
“The goal of learning is to have so much practice with the new language that you start mapping it directly to the concept. That’s what people mean when they talk about thinking in the language—you want to skip the translation in your head,” says Blanco.
Thinking about your brain as a muscle and a new language as physical activity might help—picking up swimming when you’ve been running your entire life is hard. Muscles you didn’t even know you had will be sore, and maybe you won’t even know how to breathe correctly. Don’t worry—your skills will grow with time and practice.
Listen as much as you can
Blanco explains that listening to a language also helps with pronunciation because the movements your mouth makes to produce the sounds are connected to what your brain knows about the sounds.
“In linguistics, we call it perception and production—so it’s the hearing, but also the speaking, and these are two parts of the same skill,” she says.
Luckily, listening is easy. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have a lot of non-English content you can browse. There are also countless videos you can watch on YouTube, as well as music and podcasts you can listen to on your favorite platform. If you’re worried about finding something that matches your learning level, don’t fret too much about it.
“In the beginning, it’s totally normal to not understand much or anything. That will come with practice,” Blanco says.
Eventually, you’ll be able to pick out words, phrases, and then sentences. And if you think it’ll help you, you can listen while reading the words. The lyrics feature on Spotify, for example, can come in handy—find it by tapping the microphone icon in the bottom right corner of your screen on the desktop app, or swiping up on the player screen on the mobile app. If you’re listening to a podcast, you’ll find that publishers will often post the transcripts for it. You can usually find these links in the episode description, but a quick web search will also do the trick.
How to better pronounce a foreign language
Since learning challenges are language-specific, we decided to focus on the most popular languages people are learning in the US according to Duolingo’s 2022 report: Spanish, English (for Spanish-speaking learners), French, Japanese, and German.
Tips for pronouncing Spanish
You may have never thought about it, but the sounds—or phonemes—in Spanish are widely different from those in English. It’s true: English has around 42 (20 vowel sounds and 22 consonants), while Spanish only has around 24 (five vowels and 19 consonants). This is the equivalent of using all the crayons in a box to draw a picture and then being told to do the same but with only half of them. Oh, and also using some entirely new colors, because some Spanish phonemes just don’t exist in English.
When it comes to vowels, Blanco recommends that English speakers think of these sounds as shorter and sharper. For example, the Spanish “O” sounds like only half of the aforementioned English “oʊ” phoneme, which in turn sounds like the pairing of two Spanish phonemes: “O” and “U.”
For English speakers, there’s no doubt that the Mount Everest of Spanish pronunciation is the rolling or trilled “R”. If you’ve felt the frustration of not being able to replicate this sound, Blanco says you can just skip it. More often than not, an inability to trill your Rs will not affect communication. Yes, you’ll sound like an American speaking Spanish, but locals will still be able to get what you’re saying.
If you’re going to stress over Rs, your energy is better spent mastering the single “R” sound in Spanish—the one you’ll encounter in words like “para” and “arena.” This one’s especially tricky because it actually exists in English, but under a different letter, Blanco explains.
“We just don’t think of it being an ‘R’—we think it’s a double ‘T’ or a double ‘D,’ like in ‘ladder’ or ‘matter,’” says Blanco.
In cases like this one, turning off the subtitles and skipping the transcripts when you’re listening to Spanish content can be a good idea, as it will let you concentrate on the sounds and not get tricked by the words.
Tips for pronouncing English (for Spanish speakers)
The sheer number of new sounds Spanish speakers need to learn to properly pronounce English is absurd. To continue with the crayon analogy, a Spanish speaker learning English is like a master of black-and-white art suddenly needing to paint in technicolor. There are sure to be some bumps in the road.
Moving your face and mouth muscles in a way that may feel exaggerated is necessary for good English pronunciation. And even if it feels like you’re doing a Jim Carrey impersonation, you’re not—you’re just moving your face in an unfamiliar way. The other problem is that mastering English vowels is necessary because unlike the rolling Rs in Spanish, these sounds can change the meaning of a word, like in “bit” and “beat.”
“You can kind of cheat by using what you’ve got but making it long or short,” says Blanco. So, “bit” has a shorter vowel sound than “beat.”
When it comes to consonants, a tricky one for Spanish speakers is the “Th” sound (as in “thespian” and “thistle”), mainly because it’s a sound that doesn’t exist in Spanish. This is when looking at the mouths of English speakers can come in handy: paying attention to how people put their tongues between their teeth can help your brain visualize the movements of your own mouth much more easily.
Tips for pronouncing French
You’d think that French has more phonemes than English, but you’d be wrong (36 vs. 42, approximately). What’s tricky about French is not the number of sounds but the number of new sounds, which forces English speakers to learn 10 new phonemes.
Blanco explains that the main challenges are rounded vowels. These are the sounds that require you to round your lips, which can feel extremely unnatural for English and Spanish speakers since these sounds are nowhere to be found in those languages.
To get better at this, your best bet is to observe the mouths of francophones and try imitating them. Blanco recommends streaming a French show and paying close attention to how people move their lips when they speak. You can also have a mirror at hand and try to imitate the sounds and movements on the spot. Don’t do this without a reference—you want to be able to compare the correct form to what you’re doing and tweak it as necessary.
Just like Spanish speakers learning English, English speakers learning French will feel like they’re contorting their muscles a lot more, which can lead to feeling self-conscious. But there’s no need to—you’re probably not moving excessively, just moving in a way you’re not used to. Keep at it until it becomes natural.
Tips for pronouncing Japanese
Believe it or not, Japanese is very similar to Spanish. Well, at least as far as sounds are concerned. Both Japanese and Spanish have five vowels, and a similar number of consonants (14 vs. 19, approximately), so English speakers will have some of the same challenges learning Japanese as they do learning Spanish.
But there’s a catch—or more. While Spanish is a category 1 language on the difficulty scale, Japanese is a category 8 (the highest). Among the reasons for this discrepancy are stress patterns, long vowels, double or geminated consonants, and rhythm.
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Japanese has a different stress pattern than English, explains Blanco, and while Americans usually stress one syllable, native Japanese speakers tend to stress syllables more consistently throughout, making words sound somewhat flatter. Geminated consonants, also present in Italian, add to longer vowel sounds that prolong the basic phonemes to create new ones. And if that’s not enough, the rhythm of Japanese is completely different from English, which forces learners to unlearn even how they breathe when speaking.
Doing a lot of listening and thinking about intonation and rhythm can help, Blanco says, as it can make it easier for a Japanese listener to break apart what you’re saying.
Tips for pronouncing German
Luckily for German learners, this lingo shares its Germanic roots with English. While there are some new sounds you’ll have to learn (some borrowed from French), you may have an easier time trying to pronounce Goethe’s mother tongue.
Blanco recommends focusing your attention on watching native speakers’ mouths, and listening exercises. This time, forgo any transcripts, as German has sounds that are present in English but are represented by different letters. This can result in written words being more confusing than helpful.
Just like in French, the German “R” can be tricky for English speakers, but will seldom change the meaning of words. If you’re having trouble with it, you’re better off saving it for another day, says Blanco.
Regardless of the language, you’re learning, it’s important to remember that there’s no single, unified way native speakers sound, and there’s nothing wrong with having an accent. Your brain and body have spent years, even decades perfecting communication in one language. Repeating the process (with the added difficulty of having a mother tongue) can be slow and challenging, so be gentle with yourself and, above all, be patient.