Want to stop saying “Bon-Jer”? Here’s How To Improve Your Pronunciation in a Foreign Language
It’s Okay to Have an Accent
There’s a very specific feeling of shame I get when I say something in Portuguese to a Brazilian and they can’t understand me. I have even occasionally had someone say to me: I don’t understand you… can you say it in English?
It’s these moments when you feel like curling up into a ball and giving up altogether.
But don’t. Take a deep breath.
- Having an accent is normal, it’s not a failure.
- You’re on a journey and you’re still learning.
- You can practice your pronunciation and get better at it.
In this article, I want to help you contextualize what it means to have an accent so that you’re less worried about it. And then I want to show you how to improve pronunciation in a foreign language and get to a point where you are easily understood by native speakers.
It’s okay to have an accent.
First, I want to make it clear that it’s okay to have an accent. You will always have an accent, even when you’re fluent.
Think of English: there are hundreds—maybe thousands—of accents. All of these are “correct” ways of speaking the language. A person from the Southern United States who speaks with a drawl is not speaking English any better or worse than someone with an Irish lilt or someone with a Glaswegian twang. Fluency in English has nothing to do with a person’s accent.
It’s the same with your second language. European Portuguese is different from Brazilian Portuguese, which is different from the Portuguese spoken in Mozambique. French from Quebec is much different than that spoken in Senegal or any of the twenty-or-so French accents you’ll find in France. Castilian Spanish is quite different from Latin American Spanish accents. And so on.
We all have an accent in English, and we all will have an accent in our second language. So right away, let’s get away from the idea that there’s a “correct” accent that you need to aim for in your second language.
Aim for “good enough.”
Still, you need to pronounce your words close enough to how the listener expects them to sound if you want to be understood.
Languages exist to achieve a specific goal: to connect people and help them communicate. For communication to be successful, your language partner needs to be able to decipher what you’re saying.
To do that, your pronunciation does not need to perfectly match any given accent, but it does have to be good enough for your partner to understand you.
It can be hard, but that’s not a reason to get discouraged and give up. Just like any other skill, pronunciation improves with regular practice. So, practice.
7 Strategies on How to Improve Your Pronunciation in a Foreign Language
1. Listen to Native Speakers
One of the best ways to learn how to pronounce words in your second language is to listen to the language. A lot.
This is, of course, why the Pimsleur method has such an emphasis on audio. The native speaker audio clips help learners develop a feeling for the pronunciation of the language. Learning to listen is essential for speaking well, especially if your second language has different sounds and phonemes than your mother tongue.
The Internet provides a wealth of great resources for those who want to complement your language class materials. There are thousands of foreign language films and series on Netflix, music on Spotify, videos on Youtube, and podcasts. The options are endless.
Try to search for listening resources that have:
- High sound quality
- Articulate speech, which means that the speaker is not mumbling
- Clear sound that is free of distracting background or ambient noise
- A speech rhythm appropriate for your level so that you can follow what is being said. If you’re a beginner, you might need to slow down the audio slightly (which is easy to do on YoutTube and Spotify)
Listening to natives will help you understand how words should sound and can help you better imitate them.
Shadowing is a powerful technique to improve your pronunciation.
Basically, shadowing consists of listening to audio and repeating what you hear at the same time. You are literally imitating the speaker, a split second after you hear them. Your voice becomes an echo—a shadow—of the voice you are listening to.
Through shadowing, you exercise your vocal muscles to articulate the words and you train your ear to listen carefully to the way things are said. It helps train our muscles, improve prosody (which is the “musicality” of speech), rhythm, and even tones. Each of these is important to sound more like a native speaker.
I like this technique because for many reasons:
- You can do it by yourself
- There’s a bunch of research to show that it works
- It’s free
- You can do it anywhere you can listen to audio—in the car, on the bus, while taking a walk… anywhere
So how do you do it?
- Find good-quality audio from a native speaker. Start with short clips, up to 2 minutes. The audio clips provided in Pimsleur lessons work great. You can also find a podcast or YouTube video in your target language.
- Study the selected section carefully, making sure you understand the content. If you’re a beginner, you can even find subtitles or transcribe the audio so that you can read along with the audio.
- Imitate what you’re hearing. Try to sound exactly like the speaker. You might choose to try the same clip a few times.
This activity is surprisingly difficult (and tiring!), but it is powerful. Try doing it for a few minutes throughout the week as part of your home language learning immersion program.
3. Record Yourself in Your Phone and Play it Back
It’s difficult to focus on how we sound as we’re talking, so listening to a recording of yourself speaking can help you notice what your pronunciation is like. It’s actually surprisingly effective for seeing the speaking habits we have—and changing them.
It can be uncomfortable at first (it’s weird to talk to yourself and also to hear yourself speak another language!) but it works.
If you’re struggling to think of things to say, try one of these ideas:
- Think of a situation (at a bakery, in the library, at a cafe) and have both sides of a conversation with the cashier, librarian, or barista.
- Pretend that someone is interviewing you about your life and create a dialog answering the questions.
- Find reading materials and read out loud.
Then record yourself, listen back to it, and notice where you’re having trouble.
The other benefit of this method is that you’re able to really measure your language progress. When you listen back to yourself in 3 or 6 months, you’ll be able to see how much you’ve improved.
4. Practice Individual Sounds
One of the main strengths of the Pimsleur Method and a key to accurate pronunciation is the backward breakdown of new vocabulary, called “back chaining.” A native speaker pronounces the last syllable of a new word, the learner repeats it, then the speaker continues, working backward from the end of the word to the beginning.
Practicing individual sounds involves specific movements of the tongue, your lips, your teeth, and more. Often, we’re not used to making our mouth move in the way we need to in our second language.
So practice them. This is great for building the physical aspects of speech and pronunciation. And you’ll be able to feel it. When I was learning French, I remember my mouth would actually sometimes get sore after long study sessions. That’s a good sign because it means the muscles are developing.
How you can practice the individual sounds:
- Observe how natives use their mouth for certain sounds and imitate them. Use a mirror to see how your mouth moves. Pay particular attention to your tongue and lips.
- Watch videos on YouTube to learn individual sounds that you have trouble with (for example, this one on how to pronounce “r” in French)
Keep practicing. With time, you’ll build the muscle memory you need to sound more like a native speaker.
5. Conversation with Native Speakers
Take your practice to the next level by chatting with a native speaker. You can organize a meetup or have a conversation with a practice partner online. There are tons of free exchange applications that make contact easier. Some of my favorites include:
You can also even find speakers in language learning groups on Facebook, the comments on YouTube videos, and Reddit communities. Here are some extra tips to have a successful online language exchange.
6. Hire a Tutor
I don’t necessarily recommend that you take in-person language classes or hire a tutor (which is perhaps a bit ironic as a language tutor myself). But if you really want to improve particular aspects of pronunciation, a tutor could be worth it.
A professional tutor can guide your pronunciation and help you notice issues that you may not have otherwise. They also give you constant feedback on your progress and can model better pronunciation.
I encourage you to try improving your pronunciation on your own or with your favorite online language learning tools. But if you think you need some extra help, a tutor could be a good option for you.
7. Forget English
One of the reasons that pronunciation in other languages is difficult is because we often try to learn it using English as our basis.
For example, the Brazilian currency is called the “Real”. If you are a native English speaker like me, you’ll see that word and pronounce it in a way that rhymes with “teal” or “seal”. If you’re North American, the initial “r” will be a hard “r” sound like in the word “rat”.
But Portuguese isn’t English. To pronounce it properly I need to forget English. The “r” in Portuguese sounds more like an “h” in English. And the “–al” at the end makes a “w” sound in Portuguese.
So we actually pronounce “real” more like “heow”, rhyming with the sound a cat makes: “meow”.
That seems strange but only if you’re thinking with English rules. Don’t. Think by the rules of the language you’re learning. Try to forget English.
Again, You Don’t Have To Be Perfect
Learning a new language can bring up a bunch of our insecurities. We might be afraid of looking silly or dumb when we can’t really say what we want to or when someone doesn’t understand us.
My best advice on how to improve pronunciation is to try to shift your attitude. Think about it like this: you’re learning. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re not going to be great at the start but, with practice, you’ll get better.
Your goal shouldn’t be perfect pronunciation or to sound like a native speaker. If you get there, great… but don’t worry if you don’t. As a learner, your goal should just be for others to understand you. And you can get there with deliberate practice.
Compare Pimsleur to the Competition
Most language apps neglect the all-important aspect of pronunciation. Pimsleur courses emphasize and teach it well. See for yourself by test-driving a Free Lesson today.
Any more ideas for practicing pronunciation? Share them in the comments!