I have taught English to hundreds of foreigners - mostly Germans
and Spaniards, but also French, Russian, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, and
Arabs. My pupils are usually advanced when they begin lessons with me,
in that they can carry on a conversation in English - which doesn't
mean that I can always understand what they're saying!
Take the Spanish, for example. Do you know what a "go-at" is? When a
Spanish girl said this once, I almost corrected her, since I
thought she meant "go to", such as "go to church", or whatever. But
then I realized she was trying to say "goat". Where in the world would
she get the idea that the word "goat" is pronounced as two syllables,
"go" plus "at". Well, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? She was trying to
pronounce the word "goat" as if it were a Spanish word, not an English
one. Apparently, years ago, when her high school teacher first taught
that word, this girl either wasn't in class, or wasn't paying attention
(or the teacher herself pronounced it incorrectly, something that
occurs all-too frequently in Spanish public schools).
Thus we see the first source of problems as far as pronunciation is
concerned: using the rules of pronunciation of your own
language to try to pronounce a foreign word. This will only
rarely turn out well! I once saw a quote that said it concisely:
"Language cannot be separated from sound, and that is the heart of the
When you learn new words, you will ideally first
encounter them aurally, that is, hearing them. Learn to
recognize them first by their sound, and then to say them correctly.
After that, you can deal with how they are written.
Of course, I know that this is often not practically
possible. You learn vocabulary from a list (one of those lists
containing the 1000 to 2000 most frequent words in the language), and
are thus forced to try to read them before you hear them. Not
very natural, is it? After all, when you took your first steps in your
own language way back in early childhood, you heard your
mother talking, and tried to imitate her. You certainly did not begin
by picking up a book and trying to read your first words, did
If you have access to a native speaker of your
target language (and perhaps already have lessons with that person), I
think a good investment would be to pay him or her to record, word for
word, all the words in your basic vocabulary list, speaking slowly
and clearly, of course, perhaps leaving a few seconds between
the words, so that when you listen, you can repeat the word
you've just heard. Then, you can listen to that recording again
and again. True, it might take the person a few hours to record a list
of a couple of thousand words, but maybe you and a few friends can chip
in to pay him/her for the effort, and then you can make copies of the
recording for each of you. When listening to the recording, you can
simultaneously look at the list. This way, you are learning the
sound of the words along with their correct spelling. When you yourself
say each word, BE A PARROT!
Consider the parrot. Some of them know quite a few
words. How did they learn them? Certainly not by reading. They learned
simply by hearing and repeating. No thinking was necessary. When you
repeat the words your teacher says, you should strive to be a parrot as
well. Don't analyze (for example, don't ask yourself: "Let's
see, was that sound the teacher said like this, or like that...?")
SIMPLY TRY TO ABSORB THE SOUND, AND REPEAT IT
AS CLOSELY AS POSSIBLE.
By not thinking, you will be able to avoid censoring
what you yourself say, which can lead to mental blocks. For instance,
some pupils, when they hear a word in a foreign tongue, hesitate before
trying to say it themselves. They first want to think about how it is
written, how to form the mouth when pronouncing it, etc. Yet the best
thing to do at first is just say it. Your pronunciation wasn't
on the mark? Fine. Then say it again. And again. And again...
Keep repeating it until what you say sounds like
what the teacher said. Insist that your teacher not be satisfied until
you say it right. Usually, you will get it after a few tries at most.
If not, then is the time to analyze. Now, you can
think. Ask yourself what you are doing wrong. Are your positioning your
lips and tongue correctly? Could it be that you didn't listen well in
the first place, so that you aren't really sure how the word
sounds yet? Have the teacher say it again (or rewind your recording a
bit). LISTEN MORE CLOSELY. Then try to say it again. In any
DON'T BE SATISFIED UNTIL YOU ARE ABLE TO
PRONOUNCE THE WORD AS CLOSELY TO THE NATIVE SPEAKER'S PRONUNCIATION AS
If your mind seems "blocked", that is, if you can't
seem to get it right no matter what you try, then it's time to take a
step back. Don't tell yourself you just can't get it
right, that you are a failure, or whatever. Even if you're learning a foreign language as difficult as Chinese, always
remember: There are millions of people who speak that language,
and they certainly aren't all geniuses! It can be done.
When it isn't going well, the first thing you should
do is RELAX. Seriously. SIT BACK IN YOUR CHAIR. BREATHE
DEEPLY. Inhale, exhale, slowly. Feel your body relaxing, your mind
opening up. Tell yourself that you will now listen to the word again,
in this relaxed state, and that you will then be able to say it
yourself. Listen again, and repeat. I have seen countless times that
when a pupils relaxes, he or she can suddenly listen much better, and
is thus better able to repeat what is heard. Try it out when the going
gets rough, and more likely than not, you'll surprise yourself at how
much easier it is when you are relaxed.
Relax, listen, absorb the sound, repeat, as if
you were a parrot.
the best way there is to learn good pronunciation.
...and if you still
can't get it right, don't despair! Read the next section for more
6) ..And if you still can't get it right,