Learning how to pronounce words properly in a foreign language can be really hard. It is especially hard if you are learning the language past the age of 10 years old. Sometimes, two different speech sounds of a foreign language sound exactly the same to us. And yet, native speakers of that language have no trouble distinguishing those sounds. How is this possible?
When we are small children we learn the speech sounds of our native language. As we grow older, we lose the ability to easily learn new speech sounds. Our brain starts to trick us into thinking that a speech sound in a foreign language is like one of the sounds in our native language. It's an illusion. What we think we hear is different from what we actually hear.
My first experience with the idea that our perception is different from reality came when I was learning how to draw. My instructor told me to draw my shoes without looking, from memory. Then she instructed me to put the shoes on the table and draw what I actually saw. The drawing from memory looked nothing like the real shoe and yet while I was drawing it, I was convinced that I was drawing it just like it really was. When we hear speech sounds in foreign languages our brain tricks us in a similar way. Our brain tells us the sounds we are hearing are similar to the sounds in our native language. They are not.
How do we learn to hear the new speech sounds in a foreign language given that our brains are tricking us? If you are not a small child, the answer is that we have to be very deliberate about it. The first thing we have to do is to let go of how we think the foreign language sounds, and really pay attention to how it actually sounds. Assume that the sounds you are learning to hear are nothing like the ones you know already. Small children do this naturally because they don't have any language before learning their first one. As an older child or an adult, we have to deliberately try to hear the sounds as they actually are.
Pronouncing new speech sounds can be just as hard or harder than hearing new speech sounds. Again, our brain tricks us into believing that we are pronouncing things correctly, but instead we are just pronouncing things using the speech sounds we already know from our native language. The way to pronounce words correctly in a foreign language is to first learn how to hear the sounds as they actually are, forget every sound you think you know already and then babble like a baby to figure out how to actually produce those sounds. Babbling is how babies learn the speech sounds of their native languages. They move their tongue and mouth around into all kinds of configurations and instinctively repeat sounds that match the sounds that they hear from the people around them. Older children and adults don't do this naturally. But they can do this deliberately. You can deliberately choose to babble in a foreign language. You can play around with making different speech sounds by changing the position of yours lips, or the position of your tongue or by choosing to add voice or remove it from sounds. Listen to the foreign language, and then just play with making new sounds until the sounds you are making are like the ones you are hearing. It can feel a bit silly, and sometimes uncomfortable to babble like a baby when you are an older child or an adult. But it can also be a lot of fun. Be prepared to laugh a lot.
I've created a tool to help people learn new speech sounds in a foreign language. The tool lets you record your voice so that you can listen to how you pronounce a word or phrase and compare it to how it is actually pronounced. It is much easier to hear the difference by listening to a recording.
Here is how it works. At the top of the screen there are three buttons. Press the circle button to record and the box to stop recording. Press the triangle to play the recording and the box to stop playing the recording. At the bottom of the video there is a play and stop button for the video. The tool works with any Youtube video--just press the button at the top right and paste in the link to the Youtube video you would like to study. If you want to save and share your recording, you can press the button under the stop button at the top of the screen. Recordings are not saved unless you press this button.
Here is a link to the tool with a video that demonstrates how to use it.
Here is a link to the tool with a video that demonstrates the 44 speech sounds of the English language. Start listening at 1:10.
Learning to sing a song is also a great way to learn the speech sounds of a foreign language. Here are some simple English language songs to learn.
Mary had a Little Lamb
Here are some fun Disney songs to learn.
It's audio comic books. You can hear the text in the comic book read aloud by clicking on the comic book. Click on the flashlight to highlight the regions with audio.
I made a demo of the first four pages of a Zorro comic book. You can see it at the end of this post. I'm hard at work recording the rest of it. If you join the email list at the bottom of this post, I'll email you when the full version is available.
Anyone can enjoy it, but I made it primarily for people who are learning English as a second language.
I got the idea for Babble Comics from an essay written by Sherman Alexie entitled Superman and Me. In it, the author talks about how he learned to read using comic books. He imagined what the characters were saying based on the pictures. If he could use this method to learn to read, then I thought others could use it, with the help of audio, to learn a new language.
This essay resonated with me because I'm a deep believer in learning things in context, like we all did as babies. Babies learn their native language fluently, without the help of a langauge to translate from. How do they do it? They experience it first hand. I tried to recreate this with Babble Comics. You can hear the words in the context of a story told with pictures with memorable characters. Plus, it's fun.
I imagined that people learning English using Babble Comics would try to mimic the speach in the comic and it reminded me of how a baby babbles to learn the speach sounds of their native language.