This photo has nothing to do with the post. I just wanted to rub it in certain people's faces that I'm on the beach now! : p
Almost everyone considers words to be the fundamental building blocks of language. This being the case, almost everyone approaches the learning of a second language through words.
It seems to make perfect sense - just keep memorizing words and the grammar rules that govern them, and eventually you’ll learn the language, right?
WRONG- Language is NOT made up of words, it’s made up of sounds.
When you hear speech, you first process the sounds, then you reconstruct these sounds into mental abstractions called “words.” In other words (no pun intended), words are merely figments of our imaginations.
Because words have no physical reality to them, this creates several complications for anyone who centers their foreign language studies exclusively around words. In fact, the main reason why most people struggle at foreign languages is because they focus too much on words and not enough on sounds.
Allow me to explain...
As adult second language learners, our ears and speech organs need a bit of time to develop the sensitivity and motor coordination to process foreign sounds correctly. So when you first try to mimic speech in your target language, you will inevitably hear and pronounce sounds incorrectly.
To make things even worse, you're probably not going to know when you're hearing/pronouncing things incorrectly. As I write in my post on "How to Tune Your Foreign Language Vowel Pronunciation", foreign speech sounds often get magnetized to familiar ones in our perception, so two different sounds will initially sound the exact same to you unless you pay really close attention.
This is why feedback is so important. The very first step to error-elimination is error-awareness, so we need some sort of feedback system to make us aware of the sounds that we are getting wrong.
This was the idea behind Cloud-Tutoring. In my Flow Series Courses, I use Cloud-Tutoring to help my students identify their specific pronunciation weaknesses and provide them with detailed instructions on how to fix them. Had I not pointed these errors out to them, they would have never known they were making them, and once again, without awareness we can't fix our errors.
But you can develop awareness on your own without paying me or anyone else for Cloud-Tutoring.
Maybe I'm shooting myself in the foot for doing this, but Spreading the Flow always takes precedence over money for me, so I'm going to let you in on the technique I personally use to give myself feedback on my own foreign language pronunciation - Flow-verlapping.
If you're one of the minority of people who agree with me on this point, sign up for my newsletter and get a free assessment of your accent in your target language.
If you're not quite convinced, ask yourself this: of all the people you've ever heard fluently speak a adulthood-acquired second-language, how many of them speak with really bad accents?
Dig into the history of all the best language-learners and you'll discover this, they all spoke with good pronunciation ever since the very beginning of their language-studies.
There's a reason for this, but it requires a bit of abstract thinking to understand...
Without a doubt, most foreign language pronunciation errors are vowel pronunciation errors. There are two reasons for this:
- Vowel relationships are the first thing you learn in your first language, so it's more deeply ingrained in your muscle memory and native Flow.
- Vowels simply occur more often than consonants in any given language (that's why they cost more on "Wheel of Fortune!)
As any good Mimic Method student knows, an authentic foreign language accent isn't just a "bonus skill" - it's the most important step in achieving fluency.
That being the case, vowel tuning is one of the most important steps you should take when learning a foreign language. Personally, it's the very first thing I do. Let me show you how I do it...
A Bad accent makes you sound, look, smell, and feel like a jackass
In The Flow Series Courses, I teach foreign language songs syllable-by-syllable. After working through the song-training materials for a lyric, Flow students record themselves singing/rapping the lyric and submit it to my Soundcloud Dropbox for feedback on their pronunciation. Using Soundcloud's timed-comment feature, I then pinpoint each pronunciation error, explain what the error is, then provide step-by-step instructions for fixing it. After providing feedback on over 1,000 submissions to students singing/rapping in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Mandarin, I have identified four errors that account for 80% of the accent Native-English speakers have when speaking other languages. My arch nemesis - Dr. No-Flow - insists on speaking, singing and rapping foreign languages with a horrendous American accent. He recently attempted to jack my swag (as always) and do his own rendition of the Colombian rap song"Somos Pacifico" after watching my video of me rapping the same song. As irritating as this man's tracks are, they do actually make for great Flow case studies. This track is rife with examples of all four of the errors that I cover in this post.
The four errors that so characterize Señor No-Flow's Flow (or lack thereof) can be traced back to four features of "The Flow of English" that are so ingrained in the speech organ motor memory of native-English speakers that most are completely oblivious to their existence.
As deeply ingrained as these habits are, however, they're not hard to fix; it's just a question of awareness. Develop a physical awareness of your errors, and you will eventually phase them out.
In this post, I will review these four errors and provide tips for developing your awareness of them so that you may avoid the fate of No-Flow.
My office while in Cali, Colombia
In my last post, I posted a video of me rapping my first full verse of French
. In accordance with The Mimic Method philosophy
, the purpose of this activity is to train the motor memory in my speech organ so that I can produce French sounds at normal speeds.
Before I could rap in French, however, I needed to familiarize myself with its component sounds, or phonemes
. Every language has its own phonetic menu, or list of possible sounds. In the case of "Standard French
" (you'll hear what I think about the use of the word "standard" later), there are roughly 36 different menus on the item.
This may sound like a lot to digest, until you start to cross off the sounds that already exist in English. Of the 36 French sounds, 27 already exist in English
. From a learning perspective this makes things much easier.
In all of the courses in The Flow Series
, the first unit focuses exclusively on the "Sound System" of the language. The Sound System Primer contains:
• Detailed instructions for articulating each sound of that language's phonetic menu.
• A list of all the common "English Speaker Tendencies" and how to avoid them.
• Drills for developing the motor memory needed to articulate the most difficult sounds.
For the sake of brevity, however, this post is just going to focus on my personal challenges mastering the basic phonemes of French.