A question from one of our regular listeners, Shazad Enam.
Shazad wants to know how to improve pronunciation and fluency. Is there any way of doing that easily?
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Martin Parrott answers:
Easily, I don’t know. I don’t think there are easy ways to learn languages – I don’t think people who promise sudden ‘quick fix’ methods are to be believed. We learn slowly, and we learn by working hard.
As far as pronunciation is concerned, the most important thing is listening! I think, often we try and pronounce things correctly before we can really hear what the differences are. How do we check out whether we’re doing that?
I think we need to record ourselves and we need to record what it is we’re repeating and listening to. So, the most useful thing perhaps is to listen to the radio with a tape recorder, to record a little bit of the radio, and then to say it ourselves, and to compare how we’ve said it, with the way it was said on the radio, in the language we’re learning.
It’s a slow process. We need to spend a lot of time rehearsing. I remember when I was learning, for instance, for hours and hours as I was walking or cycling, or whatever – I was trying to produce those sounds, difficult sounds that I was learning.
The more we do that, the more we pick up when we hear them. And of course the other thing about pronunciation is, as we improve our pronunciation, that also improves our comprehension. As we learn to make these distinction between similar sounds, we start hearing them – and that makes understanding easier.
Spelling is a problem
One of the biggest problems in English is that the spelling gets in the way because there are so many ways of spelling the same sound. Also because letters may be written and not pronounced and because letters may be written and pronounced in a very unexpected way. When we learn to read, that can interfere with our pronunciation, and can cause problems in itself.
Is there a difference between pronunciation and fluency?
They’re quite different. Pronunciation is getting the sounds right, and of course it’s also getting the intonation and the rhythm right – it’s not just individual sounds, it’s pushing them all together.
Fluency perhaps overlaps there a little bit. Fluency is saying things easily. Being fluent is more a question of being confident in the vocabulary, and how to put the words together in the grammar – being confident in that - …and just being confident in your ability to express yourself and having a go.
It’s those psychological factors much more than whether you can get your tongue around the individual sounds. In fact people whose pronunciation is poor, but who speak fluently and put it together and get it out reasonably quickly, are usually easier to understand than people who’re taking a lot of trouble over their pronunciation and therefore are slowing themselves down, and speaking one word at a time.
One piece of advice
When you’re speaking, don’t think about the individual sounds and getting those right. Think about groups of words, and think about meaningful groups of words, and getting those out as quickly and as smoothly as you can.
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