The secret to learning a foreign language: resonate with it – Susanna Zaraysky

Susanna is a friend of mine and an outstanding polyglot. We had a lovely chat on Skype some time ago, and agreed on the importance of “feeling” the language, “resonating” with it.


Having a good pronunciation is not mere vanity, ir plays an important role when it comes to communicating with other human beings.

So she decided to talk about her experience with languages and life experiences in this great article. Hope you enjoy it!


The secret to learning the language well is to resonate with it

In the search for the Holy Grail of how to learn a foreign language well and how to master excellent pronunciation, you can spend years in classes and lots of money on tutors and on living in the country where the language is spoken only to find yourself sounding and feeling foreign. You can even live in a country for decades and maintain a strong foreign accent and never develop the flow of your target language.


Because you don’t let yourself resonate with the language.

Resonance? Didn’t I learn that word in physics class? Luca’s blog is about languages, not physics!

What is Susanna talking about?

The last time I heard that word was when I had to get an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Image) for my injury.

I’ll explain what I mean by resonance. When we speak of resonance, we can be referring to how languages sound and also how they make us feel, both on a physiological and a psychological level.

Sounds and feelings are not emphasized in language classes but to truly get into the groove of a language, you have to establish a psychological and physiological bond with the musicality of your target language.

In case you’re still wondering what the word resonance means outside of an MRI, let’s reference second definition in the Webster’s Dictionary:

a : the intensification and enriching of a musical tone by supplementary vibration

b : a quality imparted to voiced sounds by vibration in anatomical resonating chambers or cavities (as the mouth or the nasal cavity)

c : a quality of richness or variety

d : a quality of evoking response <how much resonance the scandal seems to be having — United States News & World Report>


Physiological resonance

Physiological resonanceis about the frequency or vibrations of sound waves. Your body vibrates differently with each language you speak. Guttural sounds in Arabic and Hebrew make your throat vibrate differently that when you speak in English. Your body is not the same in Arabic as it is in English.

Give up your English throat to properly speak Arabic and resonate with Arabic.

I broke my CD player rewinding my Arabic language CD so many times to get the proper guttural Arabic “h” sounds so I know very well about rediscovering my throat via Arabic as well as how my Chinese-made CD player didn’t resonate well with the sounds of Arabic:)


Psychological resonance

To resonate psychologically with a new language, you have to like hearing yourself speak that language. Let yourself be another person. Last week, I was talking to a close linguaphile friend of mine who was saying a few words of Portuguese to me and he said he didn’t like the way he sounded in Portuguese. He felt like he wasn’t himself. I know this well. As I explain in my Portuguese video, I found Brazilian Portuguese to be coquettish and it took me some time before I could even take myself seriously speaking in Portuguese.

You have to appreciate how you feel when you talk to native speakers. Basically, it’s a friendship. You may feel differently with some friends than with others. The same goes with languages. Your new language is a new friend that you have to get to like or else your relationship may lead to a break-up resulting in frustration, improper pronunciation and awkward sentence structure.

There have been various articles about how certain languages makes us think in a different way and therefore see the world in a distinct way. Lera Boroditsky in her Wall Street Journal article, in 2010 wrote about Hebrew speakers imagining time moving from left to right:

“It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.” -Lera Boroditsky

I agree that the way we form our sentences effects the way we think and perceive the world; however, what I am particularly moved by is the sound of language and how we emit those sounds. That’s why I focus on picking up the prosody (musicality) of one’s target language and experiencing language like music. Each language has its own rhythm, accentuation, and flow. Without paying attention to the music of one’s new language, one is not going to develop correct pronunciation and be well understood.

As Luca mentioned in his interview with Tim Doner in Paris, the closer you sound to a native, the more receptive native speakers will be to you and the easier it is to gain confidence in one’s language ability. It’s part of human nature for one to feel more comfortable with someone who sounds like themselves.


Downside of being sound-oriented

When you and a language aren’t in tune, you’re in trouble.

Given my sensitivity to sound and the ups and downs of spoken speech, I have to admit that there are languages which do not resonate well with me. In simpler terms, I don’t like the way they sound.

This is a problem, a major problem.

If I don’t like the way a language sounds, I won’t like to hear myself emit the words of the language and I will resist imitating a native speaker. I might even give up learning the language altogether. It will be very difficult to learn that language or actually enjoy speaking it.

This has happened to me three times.

I am not proud of this.

But I want to be honest. It would be false of me to say that I can learn any language because I know from personal experience what the hurdles are.

In one language that I do speak fluently, I intentionally do not mimic female speech patterns because I find that women who are native speakers of this language often sound like they’re complaining and I am irritated by how they speak.

I deliberately avoided learning one language to fluency because I didn’t like the way the native speakers were so aggressive and antagonistic in their speech. Mind you, I lived in the country for over a year and could have spoken the language fluently and I resisted.

You have to find ways to deal with what you don’t like in the way the language sounds.

I like to approximate my speech as much as I can to that of a native speaker. Having a good accent in your target language makes it easier for you to just be without calling attention to yourself as a foreigner. I don’t want my foreignness to be obvious at every utterance. Believe me, being asked multiple times a day “Where are you from?” when living in a foreign country gets old really fast.

When I lived inArgentina, there were very few foreigners and my mixed Argentine-Spanish-Mexican accent turned heads and drew stares. I am not kidding. In order to not get asked all the time where I was from, I would either put on my strongest Argentine accent. Or I’d make up stories about my origins. Once, I told a lady I was a refugee from the Taliban inAfghanistan. I don’t suggest making up wild stories inArgentinabecause people there are very well read and are aware of geopolitical issues. If you pretend to be from a country or culture that isn’t yours, your lie won’t last long.


Why pronunciation matters from the beginning

Your first academic or lengthy personal encounter with a language can have long lasting effects on your pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have a native speaker teaching you or a teacher with an almost native pronunciation, you may be stuck speaking with your teacher’s accent for a long time unless you supplement your language exposure with music, TV, radio and other media content by native speakers or personal conversations with native speakers.

My first yearlong Spanish class in high school was taught by a lady fromMadrid. I’ve never lived in Spain but there is a noticeable European Spanish prosody when I speak in Spanish because I soaked up the Iberian speech patterns of my first Spanish teacher.

To illustrate how developing an emotional bond to a language is the secret to learning language, I’ve made six multilingual (English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French) videos to accompany this blog piece to show how these languages make me feel and think. As Bosnian for me has a close relationship to post-warBosnia, I prefer not to divulge this information in a video as it’s quite complex and deals with ethnic tensions and the genocide.

All of the videos (except the one in English) are subtitled in English. You may have to press the red CC button in the lower right hand corner to turn on the subtitles.


Russian is my native language but I speak English better than I do Russian. As I had little formal education in Russian as I came to the USas a young child, I was often ridiculed in Soviet immigrant circles for my less than perfect Russian and my lack of mastery of Russian classical literature. Russian music and traveling to the former Soviet Unionhelped me develop a positive relationship to Russian and get over childhood hurdles. This may resonate well with other heritage speakers and child immigrants who spoke another language at home but don’t speak in perfectly.


I discuss why it’s important to pay attention to the resonance of languages and our emotional ties to languages and I describe how I thinks differently in English and my native Russian. With the help of my costumed niece and nephew, I explain my admiration of Sephardic Jews who have kept alive the Ladino (ancient Spanish) 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition. I talk about the documentary I am working on about how the Ladino language saved a man’s life in World War II and how important Ladino music is to keep the language alive.


In this video, I talk about my multiple personalities in Spanish as I speak with three different accents, Mexican, Spanish and Argentine and how I learned to appreciate poetry in Spanish better than in English.


In French, I am much more philosophical than in any of my other languages. The frequent vowel sounds and soft consonants give the language a smoothness and airy quality. I found my way to express my love for words in French.


My mixed European Portuguese and Brazilian accent raises eyebrows. I explain where I learned this mixed accent and how I learned to take myself seriously speaking in sensual Portuguese.


Although I’ve never lived in Italy as an adult, I learned via Italian literature to stand up for my ideas and to develop my writing career. The language is like a non-stop song and it can be tiring for me to speak in Italian as it requires a lot more energy to maintain the dynamism and melodic tone of the language.


Susanna Zaraysky (Create your world book) is a polyglot and she speaks seven languages (English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian).

Born in the former Soviet Union, she currently lives in Silicon Valley, California and is one of the few female polyglots active on the web.

Susanna Zaraysky is a polyglot and she speaks seven languages (English, Russian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian). Born in the former Soviet Union, she currently lives in Silicon Valley, California and is one of the few female polyglots active on the web.

After getting asked so many times why she could speak with excellent accents in various languages, she figured out that music, movies, radio and other media played a huge role in her ability to imitate native speakers and she wrote, Language is Music (El idioma es música in Spanish) to show others how to use music and the media to learn languages.

Susanna has her own segment on Univision Spanish TV in San Francisco titled El idioma es música where she teaches Spanish speakers how to learn English via English language songs. Given her passion for music and language, Susanna is working on a documentary to show how the Ladino language of Sephardic Jews (Spanish Jews expelled fromSpain during the Spanish Inquisition) is being kept alive via music and how it saved a Bosnian boy’s life during the Holocaust.

Susanna has her own segment on Univision Spanish TV in San   Francisco titled El idioma es música

Related links

Follow Susanna on Twitter, Facebook and on YouTube.

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  • It is so rare, and so lovely to find such like-minded people. Resonance. That’s the word I was looking for. Your advice about not imitating the speech patterns of women is spot on.
    Here is a ‘shoe on the other foot’ moment and video about the deplorable state of American English:

    This video is important, because how you sound in any foreign language really matters! I also try to avoid using street language when I speak. You never know where that road will take you.

  • Interesting post and videos. It’s great you mentioned that the resonances languages have for us can be both powerfully ‘attractive ‘and ‘repulsive’. And stubborn! If I recall correctly, even extreme language learner extraordinaire Professor Arguelles himself, has said he can’t get over the repugnant negative sound impression he gets from Mandarin.

    • Honesty is best. And I have to admit why some languages don’t stick with me. I hope this also may help people who are stuck in their language learning experience to realize that their lack of progress may have to do with the way they feel when they speak the language. Unfortunately, language teachers don’t talk about this. Or if they do, they are quite rare.

  • Great article and great videos! I can’t judge for most of your languages but as a native speaker of French I must say your French skills are really next to perfect, it’s really impressive!

    I totally agree with you on this resonance concept and it is true that switching the language partly activates other aspects of our personnality. Actually it’s a bit funny because I hadn’t noticed so far but about a month ago a bilingual girl (French/German) I was talking to told me that my voice is much deeper in French than in German. ^^

    What are the three languages you are talking about at the beginning?

      • Hi Suzanna, I share your love of romance languages, not on your level, but I am very moved when I listen to music especially in Spanish and Italian. “Con te partiro” by Andrea Bocelli must be the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard.

        Regarding Hebrew, I’m wondering if you have listened to much Israeli music, Ofra Haza singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, or Ninet singing Ein Li Eretz Acheret, for example? And there is much, much more. Israeli music is pretty phenomenal. And regarding the general culture, Israelis are so misunderstood. It is true that surface level etiquette is often lacking, but on the other hand if you have a problem in Israel, everyone, their dog and their grandmother will come to help you. I have seen this time and time again over many years.

        Personally I was resistant to learning Japanese as it is such a sexist language.

      • Alice, No, I am not familiar with the songs you or singers you mention from Israel. I also very much like Bocelli’s Con te Partiro’. I am not familiar with Japanese so I can’t comment.

  • I’ve encountered your story elsewhere, and I have to say that since I have read your blog, I think you come across as a very patronizing language learner.
    You think women sound like they are complaining or that people sound aggressive? maybe it’s because you ARE a foreigner with too many stereotypes and pre-concepts regarding the people and their culture. You think too much about how people SHOULD sound like, instead of how they just do.
    AFYI Ladino is not “ancient spanish”, it is a jewish-spanish language, in the same way Yiddish is a jewish-german one.

    • Sally, It’s too bad that you got the impression that I am patronizing as that is not my intention. I am being honest about the challenges I have faced in copying the way people speak because of how I feel when I communicate that same way.

      In no way do I deny that I am a foreigner, just like any language learner is when they learn a new language. This is precisely what this blog post is about: finding resonance with a foreign language. Being from a different country can make it hard for someone to fully accept the sounds of their new language.

      I am from California and to English learners from other parts of the world, Californians can sound lazy as they slur their words, don’t enunciate and add a question tone to the end of their sentence when they aren’t even asking a question. I am aware of this and this is in my own culture and geographic area. If a foreigner told me that he or she doesn’t want to speak like a Californian because we sound like we’re mumbling, I wouldn’t be offended. I can see where that person is coming from and understand his or her resistance to emulating the poor enunciation of many of my neighbors.

      Therefore, my impressions of languages are not limited to those in other countries. It isn’t a matter of how people should sound, it’s about being aware of how they do so that one as a language learner can adapt to those speech patterns. Some language learners are simply not aware of their internal resistance to the way the language sounds because they are limiting themselves to the sound structures of their home language.

      Ladino shares the structure of 15th century Spanish and has some words from Turkish, Arabic, Slavic languages, French and Hebrew. But the main framework of the language is like ancient Spanish. I am learning Ladino now and it doesn’t have a predominance of foreign words, it’s mostly old Spanish. Yes, it’s a Judeo-Spanish tongue, but I have to say the words of Jewish origin are quite minimal.

  • I agree with every word of Susanna. There is a quite unexplored aspect of language learning, which is its esthetic appeal on our voices. We feel attracted to languages that sound interesting in our own voices. Our voices change when we speak a different language, in terms of timbre, height, speed, rhythm, “melodic lines”. I feel it’s a bit like learning a new instrument (as Susanna pointed, our body is used in a different way).

    I enjoy visiting Buenos Aires, but won’t change my castillian spanish… as it resonates much better on myself.

    And, as a brazilian, I must compliment Susanna! Her portuguese is so beautifully spoken. You sound like a “paulistana” to me, with hints of continental portuguese and, perhaps, “carioca” accent. Para mim, você já é uma brasileira. Parabéns!

  • Sorry to complement my (perhaps lengthful) post, but as I’m rereading the article, and I would like to add that the explanation of physiological resonance/psychological resonance is brilliant. We do not only gain different voices, but we also reveal (or acquire) further aspects of our personalities.

    It is not a coincidence that the word “persona”, in ancient greek, means “resonate”, or, better saying, the mask that actors weared in order to make their voice heard through the open theaters. Speaking different languages is perhaps like having different selves, but in a healthy sense: quite like seeing the world through the eyes of a different cultural filter.

    This article really made my day, as it explained some of my intuitions, but in a more coherent way. Thank you.

    • Thanks Victor. I had no idea that “persona” in ancient Greek means resonate. I think I see children’s language teachers take more liberty getting their students to have fun with a foreign language and play. But as adults we have to stop being over-analyzing adults sometimes and enjoy the feel of what we’re doing and put on a different mask.

      • Please accept my apologies, I really made a huge mistake: it’s in latin, not in ancient greek, that “persona” means something very close to “resonate”. Even so, the word is basically the same (latin radical/verb ‘sonare’ = to sound), the difference is only in the prefix: “per”(sona) (‘sonare’ through the space of a live theatre) “re”(sona/te) (‘sonare’ “inside” someone or something). The same kind of theatrical mask was (I believe) used in Greece way before, but the greek equivalent doesn’t share the same ethymology (πρόσωπον [prosōpon] = “face” (mask)).

  • “Rediscovering my throat via Arabic”…oh my goodness, how apt! That is the perfect way to put it! I did not realize how completely unacquainted I was with my glottis and larynx until I started Arabic.

    Thank you for your beautiful post! I love the way you expressed these things.

    • Thanks for quoting this piece in your own blog post. I bet many people don’t even know what their glottis and larynx are until they take a language class that forces them to locate those parts of the body to make new sounds.

  • Dear Susana,

    You are so right!!! I know as a multi lingual (English, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew) and I speak each one with native accent, was born in Latin America, grow up in Israel and lived few years in the US.
    It’s so important to open yourself up to the local rhythm and absorb it to your soul only then you can really talk like a native.!!!


  • Dear Susana,

    I really enjoyed reading your article!

    Actually, the notion of resonance sums it up very well, it is actually a question of feeling when you speak a foreign language or decide to learn one. This is what I feel since I have started speaking foreign languages. I don’t speak the same way in German (my mothertongue) as I would do in French.
    I perfectly agree with you about the important role of the media to learn to imitate accents or ways of speaking! It is also much more fun than to just gaze upon grammar books! 🙂
    Another compliment on your cultural approach: I have the impression that many people who want to learn a language complain about grammar or everything that seems difficult to them, forgetting that a language is deeply linked with its original culture and society.

    Thanks again for this very interesting article!

  • […] The point of this blog is not to tear down the use of flash cards or other such things to help you learn.  What the point of this post is to emphasis the importance of making the language a part of you.  I am going to admit, the idea for this post didn’t come from me.  It came from the recent post over at  Susanna Zarysky recently guest posted a post about the secret to learning a foriegn language […]

  • Susanna speaks so beautifully and passionately about what it is to feel language –both physically and emotionally. It takes me back to the language drills I had to do, when the teacher kept stressing the importance of pronunciation even though we hadn’t gotten the actual significance behind the words we were saying quite yet. I didn’t understand why we were repeating phrases in Arabic and Chinese so much if we still hadn’t yet committed it’s meaning or translation in our heads.
    Also, I think it’s important to note…it’s important to learn how to think in another language and for that, you need to be completely immersed in the culture whether it’s in a local Mexican enclave or the Ethiopian corner, or actually abroad in country. It brings about a new level of “fluency” that one can’t teach you from a book.
    I appreciate the different foreign language teaching methods and seeing polyglots distinct but similar perspectives…! I’m going to repost this…and I’m also inspired to make my own videos in each language talking about what I love about the languages I’ve been learning! Thanks!

  • Love this post, Susanna! Thank you for sharing your experiences. You inspire me to do the same with my passion for languages.

  • Wow. It’s very inspiring to see the many different languages people can learn. I would be happy if I can learn just one!

    I’m teaching myself Spanish and I’m doing O.K for learning on my own with youtube lessions, websites that teach grammar, etc. But I wish I knew someone here in Canada where I live who can teach me verbelly one-on-one!

    I can also tell you Susanna, that when I try to talk in Spanish (As much as I can right now) I feel happy and confident & less awkward saying the words as to when I talk in my own native language. I think it’s because we people who speak english do more sarcasm than any other language (Although I could be wrong with that statement) It just seems that way to me…

    I have some questions about learning languages that maybe u could give pointers? I have skpye, but if u want to drop me a line my email is future_skycar @ h o t m a i l . c o m

    Cheers and take care!


  • Wow, great post and videos! Some people shy away from the idea of learning a language due to grammar and allow that to be the focus. Although it is extremely important to master a language, getting to know culture also helps a person to really feel, think and understand the why behind the language. Sometimes when you develop more of a connection, rather than just learning words, it helps to remember and commit to memory. Thank you for sharing this post!

  • Music definitely is great for learning languages! Because of that we just made a website called LyrnLang ( that allows you to learn languages through song lyrics and their translations. For now the site is very basic – it includes the actual song as a Youtube video, original lyrics and accurate translated lyrics (which are aligned), and a test with words from the song at the bottom. Please check it out – give us feedback on what you think and tell us what other things you would like us to add! Muchas gracias amigos!

  • Absolutamente fantástico. Parabéns pelo enorme talento e dedicação em aprender novas línguas. Seu português e praticamente perfeito. Sou casado com uma russa e estou tentando aprender a língua. A entonação da língua russa e bem diferente do português, dai a dificuldade. Mas sua dica e excelente.

  • wow , your italian is so cool ( i am italian) haha I am a language student, i really admire you, i am learning chinese,korean and japanese, but it’s really hard for me to have a good chinese accent TTATT any advice?

  • Thank you for this article, it is an answer to my questions on language learning. I am learning French, Spanish, Irish, Russian, and Potawatomi. My heart kept feeling strained when thinking of “the end game:” mastering these languages. My ancestry is a combination of all these beautiful languages and my prayer was to find a way to feel connected to these languages. This article and your videos are now helping me feel less anxious and more open to letting the languages resonate in me. May Heavenly Father bless you with many good years, thank youfor your help.

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