As second language learners, our ears and speech organs need a bit of time to process foreign sounds. So when you first try to mimic speech in your target language, you will hear and pronounce sounds wrong.
To make things worse, you’re probably not going to know when you’re doing this.
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 first step to improving is awareness. So we need some sort of feedback system to make us aware of the sounds that we are getting wrong.
In my Flow Series Courses, I help my students identify their specific pronunciation weaknesses. Most of the time, they would have never known they were making them.
But you can still develop awareness of your mistakes without my help. Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot here for doing this. But educating people always takes precedence over money for me.
I’m going to let you in on the technique I use to give myself feedback on my own foreign language pronunciation – Flow-verlapping.
Sound is NOT a Mystery
I always get impatient when people explain linguistic concepts in vague terms.
“No…you see Spanish sort of has like a more choppy feel, and Portuguese…you know… has more like a swingy, sing-songy feel!”
Great, now how the hell is this gonna help me learn Spanish or Portuguese?
If your language teacher shrugs his shoulders on this, then what he’s saying is that he personally doesn’t know how to explain it. Once you understand the physiology of speech, you will be in a better position to figure it out for yourself.
Assonance vs. Dissonance
In poetry, assonance refers to the repetition of similar vowel sounds (e.g. “Hey Jack, that cat’s hat is black”). Assonance is a major part of my teaching. The best way to learn and distinguish new sounds is to hear them repeated in different words.
- Assonance is when two assonant sounds are in unison (i.e. at the same time), they resonate with one another to create a louder and fuller sound.
- Dissonance is when two sounds clash with one another. This clash or tension is most clear when the two dissonant sounds occur in unison.
Assonance and dissonance are more clear in tonal music than in speech, but the same principles still apply. Our goal is to figure out how to use this dynamic to give ourselves feedback on our pronunciation.
Assonance/Dissonance as a Feedback Tool
When you pronounce something wrong on your own, the error might not be that obvious to you.
If you listen to your pronunciation on top of the native speech you’re trying to mimic, the dynamic of assonance and dissonance will show you errors.
This tells me that the sounds are assonant, or at least close enough to each other to create that fullness effect. When I hear this fullness, I know that I am making these sounds right; this is my positive feedback.
Even if you are unfamiliar with a language, you should be able to hear where the errors occurred by the sudden change from assonance to dissonance.
In the moments that I make these errors, the fullness of assonance is replaced by a different clash. This loss of fullness and presence of tension is my negative feedback. When I hear it, I know that I am making these sounds wrong.
I call this feedback technique of mimicking native speech and then listening to your recording in unison with the original Flow-verlapping.
Flow-verlapping is an extremely effective technique for developing an awareness of your pronunciation errors.
Here’s how you can do it on your own.
How to Flow-verlap with Audacity
Below, I review the steps with some notes.
- Choose some audio and import it. Remember the goal here is not to memorize words but to mimic sounds exactly. Things don’t always sound the way you write them. And speech sound isn’t just phonemes, it’s rhythm and intonation too. To flow-verlap, you will need to focus on these elements.
- Repeat the original audio track several times. Repetition helps us practice the sound to mimic exactly and sync up our mimicry.
- Record yourself mimicking in sync with the native speech. When you do this, make sure you use headphones so that you can better hear the nuances and get a cleaner recording.
- Playback both your recording and the original at the same time to listen for discrepancies. Learn to appreciate the “fullness” of unison so that you can identify its absence. Play around with the “gain” controls to help you compare better.
- Download native speech audio for free at rhinospike.com
- Start with slower tempos so that you can really listen to the nuances of the sound
- Really take the time to practice and memorize the pacing of the phrase as best you can before you start to flow-verlap. If your timing is off the flow-verlap won’t work.
- Start with shorter phrases and build up to longer phrases as your mimicry skills increase
- It’s better practice when you do NOT know the meaning or word boundaries of a phrase, as this forces you focus more on the sounds and flow.
Actually, I do most of my flow-verlapping practice with song lyrics rather than regular speech. The musical meter of speech makes it a lot easier for me to synchronize my sounds with the native speakers (and it’s more fun).
If you want even more tips on how to teach yourself song lyrics, read my post “How I taught myself to rap in 4 languages I don’t speak using Audacity.”
The Limitations of Flow-verlapping
Flow-verlapping is a powerful technique for giving yourself feedback on your pronunciation and flow. But it has it’s limitations.
Flow-verlapping is only good for building an awareness of your errors. It can’t tell you how you should go about fixing them. Knowing that part requires knowledge of phonetics.
In future posts, I plan on providing you all with some resources to help you build this knowledge on your own. In the meantime, I suggest you start by learning “How to Tune Your Foreign Language Vowel Pronunciation.”
Furthermore, you can’t 100% rely on your own ear to hear dissonance with foreign language sounds. It takes time to develop so there’s still a good chance you will be completely unaware of some errors.
As much as I have trained my ear, even I can’t rely on myself to hear sounds in a new language. After I hone my flow as much as I can through flow-verlapping, I send my tracks to native speaker friends to point out the sounds that sound “funny” to them.
They won’t necessarily have the phonetic knowledge to give me precise instructions. But as long as I have the awareness, I can use my own theoretical knowledge to figure out what I’m doing wrong. But really, you save yourself a lot of trouble by just trying my Flow Courses (Hehe I gotcha with the “Screw Idahosa” bit didn’t I!)