If you’ve ever used or heard of programs like Rossetta Stone or Pimsleur, then you’re probably already familiar with the general concept of language parroting. Here I mean the act of listening and repeating in a mechanical manner. The content, often presented in short, controlled bursts, is spoken in a clear and even tone at a speed that non-native speakers (generally beginners) can follow along with. The idea being that, in the pauses provided by the particular program, the learner will perfectly mimic the sounds they’ve just heard, producing a fully comprehensible phrase or sentence.
In reality, however, the sounds produced by the learner continuously fail to hit the mark. Perhaps not for every word, or even every phrase, but at least some… and especially with tonal languages like Chinese. The problem isn’t generally the speed with which the sentence is being produced (although that might play a part), but rather that as non-native speakers we are unable to actually hear or produce the target language sounds as they should be spoken. Why can’t we hear or say the correct sounds, you might ask? We’ve got to thank our brains for that one.
In the field of psycholinguistics–the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humas to acquire, use and comprehend language–research has found that from a very, very young age our brains simply start to tune out sounds that don’t exist in our mother tongue. Subtle pitch changes, differences in voice onset time, and the difference between aspirated and unaspirated sounds, while natural and automatic for a two-year-old, require time and practice to differentiate for non-natives. If this is the case, than why do so many programs insist on having learners parrot the sounds that are being spoken?
Generally speaking, it’s because language parroting is just the kind of practice that we need to reproduce the sounds we hear. The problem, however, is that these types of programs fail to take parroting to the next level. Or rather, they’ve neglected the most crucial element–actual feedback! For language parroting to be truly effective, the learner needs to know where and why they are making the mistakes they are making, and how to fix them. This is something that most programs today are still unable to do.
But before we give up hope and accept the fact that we’ll “never sound like a native speaker,” let’s take a look a few ways that we can improve on parroting, and thus improve pronunciation in our target language.
- Find a language teacher or a language exchange partner: Setting aside the general benefits of actually learning and practicing your target language, a language coach will help pinpoint the areas that “don’t sound right” and hopefully make you practice them over and over again. Being aware of mistakes is the first step in being able to overcome them. Without feedback from someone else you might never know that your fourth tone doesn’t fall low enough, or that your pronunciation of chū and qū sound identical.
- Actually ask for feedback: Once you’ve found a language teacher or language partner, you need to make it explicitly clear that you want to know your mistakes every time they occur. Okay, maybe not every single time, but at least when you are focusing on pronunciation. Have your teacher design drills that focus on your trouble areas, and be open to the idea of correction. You have to be receptive and willing to receive feedback if you want to make changes.
- Watch others speak: If you can, try to do more than just listen to the sounds being produced by native speakers–actually watch how they are producing them. So often the difference between a correct and incorrect sound lies in the positioning of the mouth. Watch what a native speaker does with their lips when they say chū and qū. How are they different? Not sure why your shì doesn’t sound just right? Ask about the position of the tongue. Is it in a fixed position, and if so, where?
- Assess your own speech: After you’ve watched how others make the target language sounds, it’s time to see if you’re doing the same thing, so bust out a mirror and watch yourself speak. Is your mouth making the same shape that the native speaker’s is? Think about the positioning of your tongue and practice it over and over again. Rather than just following along to an audio track, try actually recording yourself and listening to that. Where does it sound the same? Where does it sound different?