Cracking Tough Phonemes

Depending on your choice of language(s), there comes a time in which there is a certain sound that your mouth simply cannot manage…or so it seems.

Perhaps you may have heard of science (however questionable) that says that your mouth is fully formed by a certain age, and if you don’t collect a sound before then, then your chances of learning it are hopeless…

Well, here’s the thing: hopeless barely ever exists in any case, and if you have been struggling with a certain phoneme, this post will save you!

Here are some of the more troubling phonemes, in no particular order of difficulty (even if I were to rank them, it would be very meaningless indeed):

(1)    Swedish “sj-“ sound (discovery of the week: the Flemish “g” sound resembles this sound closely, although the same cannot be said of the “g” sound in Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands)

(2)    Portuguese nasal vowels (ã, õ) and “m” at the end of words, which functions as “ng” in English, only pronounced nasally.

(3)    A host of other Portuguese vowels (áâàéêíóôúü)

(4)    Polish nasal vowels (ą, ę)

(5)    German “ch” sound, typified by the word “Ich”

(6)    Russian “ы” sound

(7)    Learning the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian

(8)    Dutch “ui” sound

(9)    The “th” sound for many non-native English speakers (sound also appears in Greek)

(10) Welsh “ll” sound

(11) Greenlandic (oh boy…), “q”, “rl” and “ll”.

(12) The swallowing of consonants at the end of words in Greenlandic. Danish carries a similar system in its phonology.

(13)Some may have trouble with any variety of guttural “kh” sound. Interestingly Hebrew is the one language best known for this, but similar founds appear in Dutch, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Swedish, Polish, and Greenlandic roughly qualify for things that sound similarly. (This is an abbreviated list, so feel free to add more in the comments…)

(14) On top of that, there are the various ways in which the letter “r” is pronounced and rolled in languages around the world. I’ve heard that there is even a training course at the University of Heidelberg that teaches you how to roll r’s properly in various languages, which, I gather, are the more commonly studied European ones.

You think that it might be too late to change your accent, yet alone learn a new sound…but thankfully I had a music teacher in high school who told the following story:

At one point he invited Buddhist monks to perform their chants for the school audience. Afterwards, he asked them if they could teach him, but they said that they could only do so if he were to initiate into their order.

Now, my teacher was dead-set on learning how to replicate this sound, and so he practiced it endlessly in the car, and on stairwells, the same way that I practiced the Danish stød during my adventure over the course of the past year. At one point, it just…stuck…he found himself able to replicate this chanting voice and became well-known throughout the school for using this Buddhist monk chant to imitate a Martian voice—one highly reminiscent of a cartoon character.

This brings me to one of four possibly ways I found to get over a sound I was struggling with..

(1)    Shower technique

 

This is exactly what my teacher did. This is what I did with two sounds in particular: the Swedish “sj” sound, which I sometimes still botch (although rarely) and at other times it comes out almost perfectly (and a handful of times flawlessly), and…well, the stød…that glottal stop you might have heard about…the Danish’s language’s signature move, as it were…

 

Just try and try and try it, and then it may stick. Not guaranteed to work every time, but sometimes if you feel that little else may work, sheer repetition will do you wonders, and the more often you do it the more likely you’ll be able to do it.

 

(2)    Singing technique

 

I mastered the pronunciation of two languages with singing. One of these was Russian, which I learned as a college student but then forgot after years of relative/complete disuse. The massive amount of mp3’s I gathered enabled me to learn songs, and when I sung along with them, it worked wonders for my accent reduction.

 

Last year the Ramat Gan chamber choir (from Israel) visited Heidelberg. Many of the members spoke with Israeli accents when I spoke to them, but when they were singing American gospel songs, the accents completely disappeared…as if by magic!

 

I similarly adjusted to Greenlandic pronunciation with songs as well. Only a few days ago was I teaching somebody some Greenlandic love lingo and he was struggling with the “rl” sound (as I remember doing). I could have tried to learn it by repeating it over and over again, but I did feel that singing Greenlandic songs made it that much easier for me to learn this sound—and trust me, I’ve seen people burst into laughter upon hearing these sounds only once—just to give you an idea of how foreign they may be for some Westerners.

 

(3)    Immersion technique

 

Familiarizing yourself with the rhythms of a language may extend to some sounds as well. Thanks largely to having Duolingo repeat Portuguese words to me very often, the nasal vowels were not particularly strange (neither were the rest of the members of the Portuguese “vowel zoo”, for that matter). Living in Poland and being surrounded by the language meant that the nasal vowels in that language just grew on me, and I have since noticed them in English spoken with a Polish accent (very easy to notice if you listen for it).

 

This shouldn’t encourage you to learn by osmosis. That won’t do you any good.

 

The truth of the matter is this: surrounding yourself with the language will only do you good if that is your target language.

 

(4)    Get help from a friend

 

My list above was largely geared towards sounds that would be hard for English speakers. There are some sounds that may be awkward for native speakers of other languages (Norwegian “å” comes to mind). The “repeat after me” technique is used as a standard among language teachers and may be just the thing you need. Just don’t feel too discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. Your friend may very well tell you after a few tries that you said it just like a native!

 

That, and you may get an interesting trick about how to “unlock” a certain sound that you may have been struggling with a lot. (Elsewhere on this blog I detailed my rather naïve anatomy of the “stød” but also of the Greenlandic “q” sound).

 

There may also be other sounds that may exist in your native language, but you are unaware of it. For example, one of my professors, himself from Russia, told me that the “ы” sound exists in some English dialects in the word “milk”. I have also heard that the Dutch “ui” sound also exists in some English dialects as well.

 

 

In any case, a final sentence before I dismiss this class: never, ever, ever give up. And don’t let “science” about language learning tell you what you can or can’t do.

 

Just do it.

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