“I want to sound like a native.”
Most people begin their language learning with that in mind.
And what does that mean, exactly? Perfect pronunciation? Unlimited vocabulary? Complete comprehension?
To get to that point maybe you even envision yourself as someone who speaks your target language, like a famous actor or TV host, and maybe, just maybe, you try to imitate that individual while talking to yourself in front of a mirror.
Or that could have been me, and me alone, with my infatuation of Hollywood movies back in the day.
Regardless, the question still remains, how important is good pronunciation in the grand scheme of things?
Does pronunciation matter?
Some may argue that pronunciation isn’t as important as being able to get your message across.
It’s like getting from point A to point B, does it really matter if you’re driving a Yugo compared to a BMW? I’ll leave the debate between those two options to you.
However, life, personal experiences and people speaking in “broken [insert target language]” would indicate that good pronunciation is not necessary to being understood.
Simply put, speaking and using the language are more important than having perfect pronunciation.
Yet, I’d argue that not trying to train your pronunciation or to improve your pronunciation is a mistake. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of language learning.
It’s the reason why I speak with an American accent instead of an Italian one when communicating in English. That took considerable effort, especially when it comes to intonation, but it has paid off immensely.
This isn’t something that’s taught outright in most schools. I was even laughed at initially for trying too hard to sound like an American and not accepting my natural Italian accent. There’s a psychological part to this, because by holding onto your accent, you fit in with your original tribe (in my case, Italians). However, if you let go of that and accept a new identity entirely, you’re able to add a new tribe in addition to your old one. Trust me, it’s much easier said than done.
Therefore, in my humble opinion, pronunciation does matter.
So how does one improve their pronunciation or train pronunciation? Well, you have to learn how to play with it.
Playing with pronunciation
Clearly, having good pronunciation makes quite the impression on people.
You come across as an authority (in a sense) within your target language. To the ears of native speakers, you sound far more credible and to the ears of people learning that language, you are incredible.
Without trying to sound too self-serving, it’s one of the compliments that I get the most. And as renowned brain coach Jim Kwik would say, “What you practice in private, you get praised for in public.”
With that being said, it’s not something I naturally do. Instead, it’s a deliberate process that I go through every time I’m learning a language.
Right now, I’m struggling with my Serbian pronunciation, because so much of my Polish and Russian are coming through but I plan to iron out those kinks within a few months.
If you get the chance, I highly suggest playing around with pronunciation when you begin learning a language. What does this mean?
Simply put: have fun with trying to pronounce things properly.
Think about the way a trilled ‘r’ or an elongated vowel sounds and feels in your mouth. Your muscles are being stretched and used in ways they’re not accustomed to. Your brain might be sending “please-stop-you’re-embarrassing-yourself” signals to your mouth, but you must be brave and override that initial hesitation.
How long will it take you to master your pronunciation?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all formula or secret recipe for mastering your pronunciation. Instead, focus on passive learning 80% of the time (listening, over and over again) and deliberate learning 20% of the time.
How far you go and how quickly you get to “good pronunciation” is dependent on a multitude of factors, including but not limited to: the number of languages you already speak, your mentality, your ability to hear (or pick up) various tones, your willingness to sound awful in order to sound amazing etc.
I have to admit, there’s a “cool” or “sexy” factor when someone has near perfect pronunciation and you least expect it. Call it what you want, but I think you have to realize that person spent a lot of time practicing that accent and getting it to as close to a native level as possible.
With that being said, your aim shouldn’t be on how to perfect your pronunciation, but rather on how to improve your pronunciation.
Let go of your ego and start butchering words left and right, because before you get good at anything, you have to experience being horrible at it first.
Do you know how long it took me to say the English word “enough” properly? I’ll spare you the details and tell you right now: a looooooong time.
However, keep in mind, not all languages come with a “pronunciation guide.” Meaning that the sounds might be so foreign and seemingly complex, that even with a few helpful tips, you feel like you’re trying to breathe underwater.
Pronunciation woes, what to do?
It's easy to get frustrated with training pronunciation, because you can feel as if your progress has a ceiling.
So what would I do if I had trouble pronouncing words in a certain language?
Three words: break it down.
Break it down into smaller parts or chunks and do your best to master the smaller bits so you can move on to larger and more complex words or sounds.
For example, some common struggles for native English speakers trying to learn Italian are the long vowels in words like carezza.
Many English speakers might pronounce it car-eh-tz-uh.
Those ehs and uhs sounds dominate English (aka the schwa sound) and as a result, extending certain vowels (car-eeee-ts-aaaaa) can become rather tricky for English natives.
It may sound silly to try and master one word at a time, but your confidence will thank you for it. There’s a snowball effect in language learning, because once you realize how something is accomplished once, you suddenly have the capability (and motivation) to repeat that process in order to make significant progress.
As always, one’s pronunciation will always depend on where they’re from and that includes natives as well.
Which accent in (my target language) should I learn?
If you’re a beginner?
It doesn’t matter, because you probably won’t be able to distinguish between the various accents as it is. Use what’s around you and what you’re used to.
If you’re an intermediate learner or above? It depends on your preferences and your reasons for choosing that accent, but ultimately you’re going to want to choose something like a “neutral accent” and then adjust as you continue learning.
Many times, you simply won’t have a choice or your subconscious will choose for you. For example, I speak American English, because of my initial love for movies from America. Thanks Back to the Future and Terminator 2! As far as my Spanish, well, Castilian Spanish is what’s closest to Italy and any material I found was always based on that variant of Spanish.
More important than picking a specific accent to try and attain is to listen to various accents. You need to tune your ears to the variety a language offers. Being in Italy means you need to understand the Roman, Napoleon, Florencian, Sicilian, Venetian (and many more) spins on “neutral Italian.”
Pronunciation is 80% hard work and 20% talent. Even if you dedicate all of your time to it, there’s only so much you can progress, so don’t sweat being imperfect. Embrace and use it!
I make mistakes all of the time in many of my languages, but it doesn’t bother me because the message is understood by whoever I’m speaking to.
Therefore, don’t worry about “how to make my pronunciation good” because your accent is specific to you. Heck, even Arnold Schwarzenegger tried taking accent reduction classes but realized it wasn’t worth it because some of his biggest roles (including the aforementioned Terminator) came as a result of having such a unique accent.
In case you’re learning Italian and you’re serious about improving your accent and by serious I mean there’s no stopping you, I highly recommend you check out this FREE video course on Italian pronunciation.
It was created by Davide Gemello, a polyglot fellow and friend of mine, who has an aptitude for pronunciation and accents. His course covers everything from phonemes, shadowing, phrases and it even gives you plenty of exercises to make your Italian pronunciation ottimo!
Happy language learning!