Learning a language is hard. You have to consider thousands of new words, countless new grammatical relations, and then derivations and inflections of words based on where they are in a sentence or how they’re used. Simply put, it is a complex task. For those who enjoy learning new languages, that’s part of the thrill. In a lot of ways, it’s like building a puzzle or solving a math problem, and the exhilaration that comes from the experience is well worth it. But there is one part of the equation that does not have to be as difficult as it sometimes seems: pronunciation.
When I began learning Mandarin, one of the things that stood out early on was that the pronunciation of pinyin (which is used to show phonological forms of characters, which the characters themselves don’t communicate) is not as straightforward as it looks. It’s an ingenious system, and it works very well, but the pronunciation of the symbols of pinyin is not the same as the pronunciation of the corresponding English letters. This is a point I emphasize because many people have a hard time realizing it. But if you want to speak Mandarin well, it is essential to be intimate with its sound system.
This goes for all languages. Below are four reasons to take the time to develop a deep understanding of the sounds of your target language.
1. The sounds of your native language and the sounds of your target language are not the same.
It was a full 10 years into my Spanish studies when I learned the sound system of Spanish. Of course, I knew the most salient differences: “r” is a short, non-retroflex sound; “rr” is something that takes a while to master, but is doable; “ll” is a “y” sound in English; “j” is like an English “h”; “z” never buzzes, but is soft like “s”; and all vowels have one sound, unlike in English. But what I didn’t realize is that if we take the letters of Spanish (which I will here; though not strictly phonological in nature, I would argue that the letters of a language are taken to be the sounds of a language by most learners) and compare them to the letters of English, only a solid four letters have direct correspondences between the languages. Four letters! And, on top of that, the correspondences given above are wrong in some cases (like in the case of the letter “j” in Spanish being like the English “h”). The truth is, even though these languages both use a Latin-derived alphabet, the letters are not used to represent the same sounds in each system. This is because the people who have applied each alphabet to each language over the centuries have had their own way of going about it. So while Spanish “r” and English “r” are not the same, neither are Spanish “d” and English “d”.
This applies to every language on Earth. No two sound systems are the same, and this is key to learning a new language. In language learning, not more than a few lessons should pass before you have the language’s sound system dialed in and ready to go when working with the language. This doesn’t mean that your pronunciation will be perfect, but your learning (among other things) will be greatly improved by your knowledge of the phonology of your target language.
2. Discriminating sounds = distinguishing words = more effective learning.
If, for all those years, I had known the difference between certain sounds of Spanish and English, I have no doubt that my learning would have been more effective. When you hear a word, your mind tries to decode it. You hear salient aspects of the word, and you use these to figure out which phonemes are its constituents, and, therefore, which word it is. But if you don’t fully understand the sound system of the language, it will be very difficult to glean this information. We have difficulty hearing new languages because we use the linguistically relevant features of the sounds of our language to try to discriminate sounds in the new language. This is part of what I call our L1 Filter, and it’s powerful. When we step out of our native sound system, and into the new one, this can have a huge impact on comprehension, which will have a huge impact on every other aspect of your language learning and use.
3. Understanding different sounds = better pronunciation.
Through understanding the new and complex sounds of your target language, you will in turn learn to pronounce those sounds yourself. And when you do this, it opens up new levels in your language learning. First, you will, as hinted at above, be able to remember words and phrases better, because you will be “filing” them correctly in your brain. Second, when you are speaking with others, you will have an advantage in what I call the “language default” of any conversation. It’s no secret to those who have spent time learning a language that some people have no patience for learners of the language. As soon as they pick up on a foreign accent, they want to speak in your native language (if they can) or they may even “dumb down” their speech (if they don’t know your native language). The first happens all the time to native English speakers all over the world; the second is more prevalent for learners of English. By pronouncing your target language better, you will convince your interlocutors that you are competent enough in the language to hold a conversation. This means extra practice for you, and that means more learning. And third, the people you speak with will simply understand you better. This leads to less,”what was that?” and more “xiè xie nǐ”.
4. The sound system is part of the language.
I am a believer in learning a language thoroughly, and as correctly as possible. I understand that some people find themselves in positions where they just need a few phrases to get by, but even then, I stand behind an approach that is holistic and profound. The better you speak a foreign language, in any setting, the more enjoyable the experience can be; and the better you know a foreign language, the better you understand the world and yourself. Therefore, in learning a language, don’t settle for trying to mimic the sounds of the new tongue without actually studying them. I have seen advanced language learners who control quite a bit of grammar, and have a very good vocabulary, who have neglected to learn the pronunciation of their chosen language. Frankly, it’s an easy fix that makes you more approachable, more comprehensible, and more a part of the world the language is spoken in.
Don’t settle for less when learning a new language, especially when it comes to the sound system. Take a risk, do the work to learn it, and I promise, your experience will be as different as night from day. Whenever you hear someone speaking a language that is non-native for them, pay attention to the ease of communication, your concept of them, and how much they and those around them are enjoying the conversation. Chances are, the better the pronunciation, the better the whole affair. Enhance your learning by first learning the sounds, then take that knowledge and use it to make your communication in the language an agreeable experience. In doing so, your depth of knowledge of the language will increase greatly, making your learning of the tongue positively less hard than it was before.