Have you ever struggled with the pronunciation of a foreign language?

Since no two languages have quite the same sound system, learning the pronunciation of any foreign language can be a challenging task.

Depending on your mother tongue, however, there will always be certain languages that are very difficult to pronounce, simply because they feature sounds that are almost completely unrelated to any sounds you know well. 

For English speakers, these can be sounds like the French "r", the German "ch", or the Arabic "ع". For non-English speakers, even many of English's most common sounds (like the American "r") can be quite challenging to learn. 

Today I'm going to talk to you about how to learn the pronunciation of any language, and in particular of difficult languages.

1. Tackle Sounds from the Start

In general every language that you learn will have a different "phonetic inventory", that is the amount of sounds that are contained in the language. This inventory is different from the inventory of your own native language, that's why it is difficult to acquire the pronunciation of any other language.

But there is a key point to take into account. A little over ten years ago, I started learning Swedish and like every other language I learn, I dove right into learning—I was listening, I was reading, I was doing a lot of things. I was exposing myself to the language as much as I could.

Then I made a YouTube video where I spoke Swedish and I got some feedback about my pronunciation and intonation. I was surprised to learn that my Swedish sounded quite "off" to the native ear, and as a result, I started asking myself what went wrong.

After a bit of research, I realized that I had overlooked a key phonetic detail of the language: Swedish is actually a pitch accent language.

When people think of tonal languages, they usually think of languages like Mandarin Chinese, where the way you intone a particular word can change the meaning of the word entirely.

The most common example of this in Chinese is the syllable "ma", which can mean "mother", "horse", "scold", "hemp", or can be used to form a question, depending on the tone applied to it.

Though Swedish is a tonal language, it isn't quite so complex. In fact, it belongs to a simpler class of tonal languages called "pitch accent" languages, which only have a few pitch patterns that distinguish meaning. Japanese is another such "pitch accent" language.

In the simplest terms, what this means is that in Swedish, the meaning of certain words can change depending on which of two pitch patterns is applied to that word. 

For example:

  • Anden (Accent 1) means “duck” (i.e. the animal) 
  • Anden (Accent 2) means “spirit”
  • Buren (Accent 1) means “cage” 
  • Buren (Accent 2) means “carried”
  • Komma (Accent 1) means “comma”
  • Komma (Accent 2) means “come”

For the first few years of my Swedish learning, I had completely overlooked this aspect of the language. This caused me to apply incorrect phonetic patterns when speaking, and as a result, my Swedish speech felt quite unnatural to a native speaker's ear. 

And of course, this is a problem. If you spend years practicing incorrect pronunciation or intonation in a language, those problems are going to become incredibly difficult to fix down the line. Even today, for example, the quality of my Swedish accent suffers from those years of repeated mistakes.

It's as if I had spent all that time tying a knot. A knot, when tied purposefully and tied well, can be easily untied following a few simple steps. 

A knot tied randomly and haphazardly, however, and then tightened and re-tightened over a long period of time, can be incredibly difficult to even begin to untie, let alone completely fix.

For this reason, my first recommendation when learning difficult-to-pronounce languages is this: 

Learn and practice proper pronunciation and intonation from the very beginning of your learning.

If you do not do this, your story could end up like mine with Swedish, where you will eventually have great difficulty eliminating certain mistakes.

2. Approach Difficult Sounds from Multiple Angles

So, how should you approach learning difficult sounds?

When most people attempt a difficult sound, they usually tackle it from a couple of angles.

First, they start with auditory information: how the sound sounds to your ear.

This is the most obvious place to start, by listening and attempting to repeat

Usually, however, this is not enough. 

If people can't deduce how to pronounce a sound just from auditory information, they'll move on to visual information, or how a person's face or mouth looks when the sound is being pronounced. 

Here, you might try to observe things like:

  • Jaw position
  • Presence or absence of lip rounding
  • Position of the tongue (if visible)
  • and more.

Sometimes, this visual information can be quite helpful. If you're learning the two English "th" sounds, for example, it is quite easy to see that the sound is made by placing the tongue between the upper and lower teeth.

For sounds that are articulated in the back of the mouth or throat, however, obvious visual cues can be difficult or impossible to find.

If they can't pronounce a sound based on auditory or visual cues, most people will stop here.

There are, however, a few more avenues to explore that could help you get a handle on a difficult sound in your target language. 

The next thing to do is to look for (or ask for) detailed explanations on how to pronounce a difficult sound.

The idea here is quite simple: try to find someone who can give you a detailed explanation of how the sound is actually produced in the mouth, step by step. 

For example, I only managed to truly grasp the notorious Danish "d" sound after watching a YouTube video made by a native speaker. You can find many such videos all over the Internet, teaching difficult sounds in all popular languages. 

When looking for explanations, I recommend keeping in mind that the quality of explanations can often depend on the source:

  • Native speakers, for example, can often produce a sound perfectly, but are typically not so good at explaining how the sound is made.
  • Non-native speakers, on the other hand, can often accurately explain how a sound is made, but are not as good at pronouncing the sound well 100% of the time.
  • Lastly, explanations based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA), are extremely accurate in a technical sense, but can be quite difficult for non-linguists to interpret and understand.

Because each of these sources has its pros and cons, I recommend researching a couple of them, and seeing if there isn't something in each explanation type that can help you. 

And here's one final piece of advice that can help you figure out even the most difficult sounds:

Start from a "close" sound you already know, and work toward the desired sound.

As complicated as pronunciation can often seem, we all have the same pronunciation "tools" at our disposal: our lips, tongue, palate, throat and vocal cords. Even the most impossible of sounds is expressed with some combination of these elements. 

This means that even if a certain sound seems difficult to you, there's a good chance that a sound you already know and use often is mechanically close to it. All you need to do is start from the "close" sound, and then slowly learn to make the necessary changes until you can express the new sound. 

This worked for me with Danish's infamous "soft d". Before I knew how to pronounce it, the closest sounds I knew of were the Italian "l" and the English "th". 

So, thanks to the advice of a handy YouTube video, I started with those sounds, and then gradually altered my tongue position until I was able to pronounce the new sound correctly. 

When learning any difficult sound, having a comfortable "home base" to start from can help turn the process from a guessing game into a process of simple, step-by-step adjustments. 

3. Work in Sound Chunks

The next thing to do when learning difficult sounds is practice using that sound in the larger context of words and sentences.

This is important because individual sounds (particularly consonants) are rarely expressed in isolation in any language; instead, sounds exist in relation to other sounds, and can even sometimes be changed and molded by them. 

So, once you feel like you're starting to get a grip on a challenging sound, start looking for larger and larger "chunks" of language that contain that sound.

First, look for words with that sound. If possible, try to find words that start with the sound, end with the sound, and have the difficult sound in the middle.

Then, look for short sentences and phrases that those words appear in. At this stage, you'll start to see how stress and intonation can affect certain sounds. Additionally, if you practice common and popular phrases, you'll be building up your spoken fluency for the long run, as well.

And lastly, if you're up to it, you can practice pronouncing the difficult sound in even longer sentences and phrases. Some learners at this stage even like to look up and practice tongue-twisters, which can often feel like the ultimate "proving ground" to show that you've truly mastered a tricky sound.

Final Thoughts

When you're learning a language for the first time, it can be tempting to put off learning difficult, tongue-twisting sounds until you get a little more experience with the language. 

As I've described here, though, such a strategy doesn't work, and can have long-term negative effects on your ability to be understood well in your target language. 

Pronunciation doesn't have to be mind-numbing guesswork, however. By simply approaching the problem from multiple angles, you should be able to find the help you need that will unravel even the trickiest of phonemes.

From the very start of your learning, you should begin by observing the sound as closely as you can. Don't just mimic what you hear, but mimic how native speakers express the sound with their mouths, jaws, lips, and tongues.

If you're still stumped, ask for help! Both natives and native speakers can offer unexpected insights into difficult sounds, and can help you train your vocal apparatus to express the authentic sound in an authentic way. For most popularly-learned languages, there should be plenty of YouTube videos that will provide this kind of assistance.

And if you'd really like to get down to the nitty gritty of how the sound works, you can even consult technical resources like the International Phonetic Alphabet, though you should be aware that these can be confusing if you don't have a background in linguistics.

Whichever method of explanation you prefer, don't forget to always start from sounds you know to help you learn the sounds you don't. After all, the pronunciation of any sound in any language only involves a handful of factors; starting from a "close" sound can help you get most of the way there. After that, a bit of fine tuning should be all that's needed to hit the right sound.

Once you've got the right sound down, you'll then be able to practice it in its natural habitat—words, phrases and sentences. Start with words, and then as you gain confidence, begin practicing the sound as it appears in longer and longer "chunks" of authentic language.

Okay, that's it for now. But before we go, I've got a challenge for you:

If you've got a camera and a good microphone, I'd like you to take a difficult sound from your target language, and make a short video of yourself practicing that sound. If you'd like, you could even talk briefly about how you went from not knowing the sound at all, to finally being able to use it accurately in your target language!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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  • Thanks Luca, you’re an amazing polyglot.
    Would you please make a specific video on learning German in 6 months?

  • Great tips! Thanks! I’m studying Levantine Arabic and I’ve found that getting feedback from native speakers is the best way to develop phonemic awareness in your target language. There are so many nuances to pronunciation that are easy to miss, devalue, and/or get wrong without someone’s help. You really cannot do this part of language learning on your own.

  • Thanks for the information. I’ve been trying to learn French for about 1 year and finally realized that phenome is just as important as grammar and vocabulary., especially with French as spoken and written French can be somewhat different for an English speaker. So I revised my strategy and got a pronounciation course from Dylane Moreau, a Belgian living in Canada, along with an audio dictionary by DK so I could work on my vocabulary.

  • Luca: osaatko todella noin hyvin suomea, ei ole kuin muutama pieni virhe? Vai osaako joku ohjelma kääntää noin hyvin! Ich wundere mich sehr, dass du so gut Finnisch kannst, oder hat es irgendein Programm geschrieben! Tällä hetkellä opiskelen itse Italiaa.

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