Imagine you’re back in high school French class.
You sit at your desk, anxiously awaiting the results of your recent exam. When the teacher comes by and hands you your test, you rejoice—A+!
You feel pride in having memorized all of the verb charts and grammar rules. You can now speak French, you think.
Later that day, as you’re walking down the hall, you see the new French exchange student and excitedly say, “Bonjour!”
But then she responds. You see her lips moving and you hear the sounds coming out of her mouth, but you have no idea what she’s saying.
“Okay,” you think, mildly panicked. ”Just say something…anything….use your words”.
But you freeze.
You thought you spoke French. What gives?
Conventional wisdom says you should learn languages by eye.
That’s why you spend so much time in high school language class learning the visual elements of language—spelling and reading.
But your goal isn’t to become an expert speller, is it?
No. If you’re anything like me, your goal is to have real conversations with real people.
That’s why I like to focus on pronunciation and hearing (the building blocks of speaking and listening.)
At The Mimic Method, we call this “learning by ear”, but really it’s about training both your ear and mouth to process and properly produce the sounds of your target language.
I recently stood in front of a large crowd at a Polyglot gathering in Bratislava. Early in my presentation, I stopped and asked the audience “who here knows what a preposition is?”
Hands shot up all over the crowd as proud participants were eager to demonstrate their grammatical knowledge.
But a minute later, I asked “who can describe the difference in pronunciation between the words ‘to’ and ‘do’?”
People shifted uncomfortably in their seats as I watched them mouth the words ‘to’ and ‘do’ over and over, unable to answer this fairly simple question.
The truth is, we’ve all spent so much time focusing on things like spelling and grammar that we’ve completely ignored our mouths—the thing that’s doing the talking in the first place.
In phonetics, the mouth is referred to as ‘the speech organ’. But I like to think of it as ‘the speech instrument’.
First, you must learn to move your body to manipulate the instrument.
On your first day of guitar lessons, for example, you wouldn’t expect your teacher to dive deep into musical theory. You would first learn how to move your fingers to make the desired sounds.
Just like studying music theory and learning to read sheet music isn’t how you learn to play guitar, studying grammar theory and learning to read in your target language isn’t how you learn to speak its sounds.
So the first day of any language class should really be learning how to use your mouth to make the sounds of your target language, not learning to read and spell things before you can even hear and pronounce the sounds.
Because at the end of the day, your goal is to use your mouth to communicate and connect with people.
And you should never be ignorant of what happens in your mouth.
How to use your tongue to make vowel sounds
To demonstrate how you can bring awareness to the movements of your mouth, I’ll show you how to move your tongue to make vowel sounds.
First, understand that a vowel is a speech sound that leaves your mouth unobstructed and unrestricted. If your tongue or lips get in the way, that’s a consonant.
We make different vowel sounds by changing the shape of our tongues and lips, and changing the airflow through our mouth and nose.
Here’s how to use your tongue to make different vowel sounds:
- STEP 1: Find a quiet place. Or if you’re like me, find a public place and embrace the crazy looks strangers give you.
- STEP 2: Say “ahhh” like you’re going to the dentist. This should be the vowel sound in the words ‘hot’ and ‘not’. Notice how your tongue is in the far bottom and back of your mouth. It might be helpful to look in a mirror, especially if this is the first time you’ve ever brought awareness to your tongue position.
- STEP 3: Now, transition from saying “ahhh” to saying “oooh”. This is the vowel sound in ‘who’ and ‘sue’. Try to keep your jaw in a fixed position and focus just on moving your tongue to make the new sound. Notice how you raise your tongue when you transition from “ahhh” to “oooh”. Yours will now be at the top and back of your mouth.
- STEP 4: From the “oooh” position, slowly push your tongue forward until you are making an “eeee” sound. This is the vowel sound in the words ‘feet’ and ‘seat’. Notice how your tongue is now at the top, front of your mouth.
You’ve known how to unconsciously pronounce these vowels your whole life, but now you have an awareness of the tongue movements necessary to make these sounds.
This means that you can now listen to the vowel sounds in your target language and start to figure out what tongue position you need to produce those sounds.
Every language has its own unique vowel sounds that differ in varying degrees from the sounds of other languages. And even though they’re often written with the same letters, the tongue and lip position of each vowel sound is hardly ever the exact same between languages.
Try mimicking a native speaker and hitting their exact same tongue positions. The more you practice, the more nuanced control you will have over your subtler tongue movements.
Whenever someone speaks with an accent, they’re simply not matching the exact tongue and lip positions of native speakers. To speak with a perfect accent, all you really need to do is mimic the positions of native speakers’ mouths.
But, you might ask, are such small differences in tongue position really that important? Even if you speak with an accent, people will understand you, right? Actually, a tiny difference can often drastically change the meaning of a word.
Compare the “i” sound in the words “sit” and “bit”, and the “ee” sound in “feet” and “beet”. This is a very slight but important difference that causes trouble for many English learners. Because what happens when you pronounce the words “sheet” and “beach” with an “i” sound?!
These small but important differences in sounds exist in all languages. In French for example, if you have trouble hear the difference between the similar vowel sounds in “dessous” and “dessus”, you won’t be able distinguish between the basic words “below” and “above”.
In German, it’s all too easy to say that it’s really “schwul” out instead of “schwül”—and you’ve just called the weather “gay”, not “humid”.
In Hungarian, if you try to toast to someone’s health, or “egészségedre”, pronounce one “e” sound slightly differently and you’re really saying “to your entire ass”!
“Goo-goo, gah-gah” isn’t just a bunch of random, useless sounds. When babies are babbling, this is all they’re doing–practicing mimicking the sounds of the language they hear around them, and learning to differentiate between similar sounds.
And babies seem to be pretty good at picking up languages—much better than anyone who’s ever struggled through a theoretical, writing-focused language class.
So why don’t we try training our mouths too? At The Mimic Method, that’s exactly what we do.
Sign up for one of our premium language courses or get our FREE vowel tuning charts!