Between you and your goal of achieving conversational fluency in a language, there is a jungle.
This jungle is vast, dark and mysterious. There are many ways to get lost in this jungle.
Most language learners who go in to the jungle never make it to the other side, because they take the wrong paths.
The traditional paths of learning by eye dead end before you reach conversational fluency.
But the path that we’ve charted, The Mimic Method Path, does take you to conversational fluency.
If you take it all the way, you will be able to truly connect with the native speakers on their level, in their slang, with their accent.
I wrote a post on how The Mimic Method makes more sense than the traditional approach from a logical perspective.
But in the end it doesn’t matter how much logical sense this post makes. What really matters is what’s proven to work.
That’s why we started our new case study – two monolingual twin brothers competing to learn Spanish before they turn 30 (read intro post here).
In this post, I explain what they did for their first step on their path to Spanish fluency – Learning the 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish.
There are three steps to learning sounds in a foreign language:
- Learn how to see them
- Learn how to hear them
- Learn how to pronounce them
Let’s go over each:
How to See Sounds in a Foreign Language
When I say “see sounds,” I’m not talking about spelling.
Learning to spell before you can hear or pronounce is a bad idea. I’ve seen it hold back countless language learners from understanding and speaking clearly.
It’s way better to learn sound by ear (quite obvious when you think about it), and using your eyes to help you visualize pronunciation.
There are two types of speech sounds – vowels and consonants.
Vowels are created when you’re not doing anything to block the airflow through the mouth.
In this case, what affects the sound the most is the position of the tongue in the mouth.
For example, what makes the words “seat” and “sit” different from each other is the position of the tongue during the articulation of the vowel. In “sit” your tongue is in a lower position.
At first, it is difficult to feel this difference, because we never think about the physicality of our mouths when we speak.
That’s why, in the Mimic Method, you use Vowel Charts to visualize your tongue position. The chart below shows the tongue position for the 5 vowels of Spanish, relative to the English vowels that most learners confuse them with.
The Tublin twins reviewed these differences in our Master Class – The 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish.
Then they learned about the Spanish consonants, which are made by blocking airflow at some point in the mouth.
To visualize this, they used diagrams of the mouth like the one below.
Many people see charts and diagrams like these and get scared. They feel like they just walked into a PHD Seminar on phonetics, or a medical school lecture.
But learning the how your mouth works is easy, important for learning languages fast, and actually quite fun and engaging.
By the third day in their mission, the Tublin twins had to review all my lectures on Spanish pronunciation and answer some technical questions to test their knowledge.
Look at how much they learned in just a few days:
Once they were able to see the 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish, their next job was to hear the sounds.
How to Hear Sounds in a Foreign Language
When you hear sounds from a foreign language for the first time, they will sound very jumbled.
This is because your brain hasn’t learned to “distinguish” these sounds from one another. To your brain, foreign language sounds are like stuck together strings of spaghetti.
But with a little bit of ear-training, your ears can separate the sounds of a language just as easily as your fingers can separate the strands of spaghetti.
Best way to do this is to listen to the words, spoken by native speakers, organized by Elemental Sounds.
For this, the Tublin twins used the practice audio in our elemental Sounds master class, in conjunctions with the visualization charts, to make distinctions.
At first, sounds like the single r and the double r (known as alveolar tap and alveolar trill respectively) sounded the same. But then they distinguished the sounds in their ears, and they had the “aha!” moment.
From that point forward, Spanish sounded completely different. As Bryan said: “Now when I hear Spanish in the street, I’m thinking about their tongue position!”
Now they can visualize the pronunciation, and hear the sounds in their own unique way. So the final point on the triangle is to pronounce these sounds exact same as natives do.
How to Feel Sounds in a Foreign Language
Speaking is such an everyday aspect of our lives, we tend to forget that it’s all physical.
Everything you say, and everything you ever hear anyone else say, can be broken down into a series of physical movements in the mouth.
These movements are subtle and precise, which makes them hard to learn at first.
But think back to the first time you learned to tie your shoes, or to hold a pencil. It was really awkward and difficult at first.
Moving your fingers with such precision takes practice. But eventually you get the “feel” for it. And once you got the feel, you got it forever, and it becomes automatic.
It’s the same thing for pronunciation, except instead of it being your fingers, it’s your mouth.
We had the Tublin twins record themselves pronouncing 39 words (one word per Elemental Sound) as a diagnostic assessment.
They both mispronounced 4 sounds each, so we told them to go back and review the visualizations, practice audio, and speech tutorials.
Now that they narrowed their focus from 39 sounds to 4, they could devote more attention to the details of each sound.
Then a day later, they submitted their resubmissions, and got all but one sound correct.
And that’s great – you only need to cross the 90% threshold to be ready to move onto the next section. Usually, that last 10% works itself out on its own after more exposure and practice.
Here’s the video of them correcting their own errors:
Learning Spanish Pronunciation is fun
In just a week’s time, the Tublin twins learned how to see, hear and feel the 39 Elemental Sounds of Spanish.
Though we spoke on our interview calls, most of what they learned they learned on their own, using the lectures, practice audio and pronunciation tutorials from our Elemental Sounds Master Class.
This early focus on sound was not what the Tublins were expecting. Most people expect to learn vocabulary and spelling their first week of studying a foreign language.
But if you observe toddlers learning to speak, it doesn’t seem so strange. Sure, they don’t use vowel charts and diagrams to learn how to “see’ the sounds, but they certainly learn how to hear and feel the sounds of the language before doing anything else with it.
And just like babies, the Tublins seemed to have fun with it. Listen to their feedback on the Elemental Sounds Master Class:
Learning the Elemental Sounds is the very first step on The Mimic Method path through the jungle of language learning.
If you want to give this step a try, download our free Elemental Sounds checklist for Spanish, French, German or Portuguese.
Then if you want to learn how to fully see, hear and feel these sounds, register for our Master Class.
In the meantime, stay tuned next week when we talk about the next step the Tublins take on their path to Spanish conversational fluency – combining the Elemental Sounds into syllables.