Learning New Sounds In A Foreign Language

Last Updated on February 5, 2022 by Estrella

Learning new sounds in a foreign language. Photo by Shopify Partners from Burst.

Have you ever tried learning new sounds in a foreign language? However many times you repeat, it just does not sound quite right. Maybe you blame yourself for not having good ears for language, or that you are too old to learn new sounds. Whatever you believe right now, wait until you read through this blog before you decide. You may change your mind.

This topic actually comes up rather frequently. Just a few days ago, someone asked how he can say the beginning “s” in English without automatically saying “es” the way he would in Spanish. He can hear the difference when other people say it. But when it’s his turn, he would say “es-pecial” without hesitation. How can he change this habit, he asked.

Another scenario is speakers of several Asian languages trying to say the “z” in zip code. The sound does not exist in their languages. They try so hard to imitate “z” that it comes out sounding like “j”. What can they do?

One strategy on learning new sounds

Something I find helpful is to associate the new sound with one that is similar in your native language. Instead of getting stressed out NOT getting the sound right, simply find a sound you know that’s close enough. It’s easier to understand “sip code” than “jip code”. Others can guess your meaning easily.

Back to the example of the Spanish “s” in “special”, I suggested that he associate the beginning English “s” sound with the beginning “s” in the Spanish word “si”. Even if he pronounces the entire “si” in “special”, it’s still easier to guess than “es-pecial”.

At the beginning, just being around the proximity of the sound is good enough. This will ensure that others can understand your meaning. After this step, or maybe simultaneously, add a listening component. Let me explain what I mean.

Get accustomed to the sound first before testing yourself

Before children learn to speak, they listen to those around them. And they imitate. Sounds, words, inflections, pronunciation. Input (listening) before output (speaking). The same with adults learning sounds that do not exist in their native language. Give yourself lots of input first before demanding that you speak correctly. How do you do this?

One way is to take 2 or 3 minutes a day and focus on just one sound. Let’s say you are watching the news. And let’s say you are working on the sound “s” as in the example with the Spanish speaker. For just a couple of minutes, look for words that begin with “s” while you listen. That’s all. If you want to learn this faster, you can do this mini session several times a day. Input first, then output.

If you discovered more ways to learn new sounds in a foreign language, please share them. Email estrellachan@gmail.com.

If you find this article helpful, another article that you may also like is How to understand Fast English Speakers.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email estrellachan@gmail.com

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