Have you ever listened to native speakers of your target language and thought “how are they making that sound!?”
You’re not alone.
One of the most challenging parts of learning a new language is learning the sounds that don’t exist in the language(s) you already know.
But I know some of you out there will want to learn a new sound in a language we don’t offer yet.
So in this article, I’ll go behind the scenes to show you how to do it on your own.
1. Make a list of words you think contain the sound
I’m going to use the ch or g sound in German as an example. People learning German for the first time would probably recognize that “ich,” “bisschen,” and “fertig” share a similar sound, but wouldn’t know exactly what that sound is, or how to pronounce it.
2. Look those words up on Wiktionary to identify the IPA symbol that corresponds with the sound
Wiktionary is the Wikipedia of words in all languages. If you look up a word and scroll to pronunciation, you will find the IPA symbols (universal phonetic symbols that represent sounds) for the sounds that make up each word. Identify the specific symbol that corresponds with your target sound.
In this case, the IPA symbols for bisschen are/ˈbɪsçən/, so the symbol for the ch sound is /ç/.
Repeat this process with the other words in your word list, such as “ich” and “fertig” to ensure you have identified the correct IPA symbol.
3. Look up that IPA symbol on the Wikipedia phonology page to get it’s full name
Once you have determined that you have the correct IPA symbol, you’ll want to look it up on a phonology page.
A phonology page gives you information on the sound system of a language and all of the phonemes (elemental sounds) in that language.
In this example, I would go to the German phonology page, and scroll to consonants.
I would locate the /ç/ symbol and could find it’s name, “voiceless palatal fricative” by using the consonant chart or by clicking through to the individual page for that symbol.
The name tells me that the place of articulation is the palate, and the manner of articulation is fricative.
4. Use the phonology chart to figure out which sounds it is most similar to in your first language, and then use those sounds to reverse engineer the pronunciation
To figure out which sounds in your first language are most similar to your target sound, you’ll want to pull up a phonology chart from your first language.
In this example, I would go to the English phonology page and look for a sound that has a place of articulation similar to the/ç/ sound.
I see that ⟨j⟩ (the y sound in “you”) also has a palatal place of articulation. This means that the same part of the tongue is used to make the ch sound in “bisschen” and the y sound in “you”—only, they are articulated differently.
To pronounce/ç/, the tongue touches the hard palate and makes a fricative noise , whereas the ⟨j⟩ is an approximant, so the tongue doesn’t quite touch the hard palate.
To reverse engineer the/ç/ sound, I would start with the ⟨j⟩ sound that I am familiar with, and slowly lift my tongue to work my way toward a fricative sound.
And this isn’t just a hypothetical example—this is exactly how I learned this sound in German.
5. Guide your tuning with feedback
Once you’ve learned to navigate your mouth to make the sound, you’ll want to use feedback do some fine tuning.
You can do this in three ways:
- Mimic Method expert feedback
- Native Speaker feedback
Your best option would be to take our course and get feedback from an expert who can tell you when you’re mispronouncing something and exactly what you need to do to fix it.
The next best option would be practicing with a native speaker who can give you feedback on how you’re sounding. They’ll know when something just sounds “off.” What they can’t do, however, is give you the technical instructions on how to improve.
Self-feedback—listening to audio samples and trying to tune your pronunciation with your own ear—is the most difficult, because you’re new to the language, so your ear won’t be very reliable.
If you’re going this route, I recommend using Forvo. You enter words that include your target sound, listen to recordings of native speakers pronouncing them, and mimic them repeatedly until you feel like you’re getting it right.
6. Practice that sound in combination with every other sound
Once you’ve mastered the sound on it’s own, you’ll need to practice saying it in all of the various combinations in which you might come across it.
This is where the hard work comes in.
One method of doing this is looking at all of the phonemes (elemental sounds) in the language and go back and forth pairing each one with your target sound. But note that not all of these combinations will exist in your target language.
Another method is to look at a list of the top 500 most frequently used words in your target language and search for all of the ones that include your target sound.
If you can nail those, you should be in pretty good shape.
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Does this all sound too complicated?
Do you happen to be learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, English, or Mandarin?
If yes, you’re in luck! We’ve already done all the dirty work for you. Just download our free pronunciation guides or sign up for one of our premium courses to start mastering the sounds of your target language TODAY!
Which sounds do you want to learn? Let us know in the comments!