Language Learning Trick: Don’t Focus Too Much On Pronunciation

As a language learner, what should you focus on the master a language the fastest? Vocabulary? Grammar? Phrases? Pronounciation? Reading? Speaking? Listening? Writing?

There are many choices

New research has shown that you learn a language faster if you abandon the attempt to perfect your accent.

Murray J. Munro, a professor of linguistics at Simon Fraser University in Canada, says that we shouldn’t focus our language learning efforts on trying to sound like a native. Practicing pronunciation is still important, but not in order to sound like a native, but in order to be understood clearly. In fact, you can speak with a heavy foreign accent but still have a very comprehensible pronounciation. Think for example of German immigrants with a heavy German accent – but oftentimes you can understand them clearly.

As Annie Murphy Paul wrote in the article How To Speak Like A Native – The surprising truth about learning a foreign language: accent isn’t the most important thing:

[You should] focus less attention on individual vowels and consonants, and more attention to the “macro” aspects of language, such as general speaking habits, volume, stress, and rhythm.A study by Derwing and colleagues showed that this approach can work. The investigators divided subjects into three groups: the first received foreign language instruction with no particular focus on pronunciation; the second received instruction with a focus on pronouncing the individual segments of language; and the third received “global” pronunciation instruction on the general way the foreign tongue should sound. After 12 weeks of classes, the students were asked to tell a story in their new language, and their efforts were rated by native-speaking listeners. Only the global group, the listeners reported, showed significant improvement in comprehensibility and fluency.

The intelligibility principle may be behind the acknowledged effectiveness of immersion-learning programs: when we immerse ourselves in a foreign language, particularly as spoken by natives, we’re picking up more than specific vocabulary words: we’re getting the gist of how the language is spoken, and our own attempts reflect this expansive awareness. Few of us have the time or money to engage in complete immersion, but a good tip is to limit your conversational practice with other native English speakers. The speech of second language learners, research shows, tends to “converge” toward a version of the foreign tongue that is more like the speakers’ native language. Instead, seek out someone who grew up talking the way you want to talk, and practice, practice, practice. You won’t sound perfectly like a native, but the natives will understand you perfectly well.


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