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.


Article written by Susanna Zaraysky

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

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