Pronunciation is key to learning a new language. Getting a good grasp of your target language sound system is indeed crucial. And yet, I often see language learners neglecting it big time.
See, when you make yourself at home with your target language’s basic sounds, you feel much more comfortable interacting with native speakers. That puts you in a virtuous circle: the more you speak in your target language, the more you reinforce your overall language skills and speaking confidence.
Thus, the quicker you develop a good grasp on your target language sound system, the faster you will be able to competently speak it (which is probably your goal in the first place). Good pronunciation acts as a catalyzer – it accelerates your language-learning process.
Now, you may ask: if pronunciation is that important, why do people not prioritize it? Well, because they probably are not aware of what I just said above.
Based on my experience in coaching and teaching Portuguese, I see most language learners focusing too much on things like grammar or vocab and too little on their pronunciation and listening skills (yes, those two are inextricably connected–more on that at the end).
Many of us are simply oblivious to the importance of pronunciation in the context of language learning. People even might assume that pronunciation will eventually catch up without us having to deliberately work on it. Big mistake.
As a matter of fact, left to its own devices, a lousy pronunciation is very likely to settle in for good, which will for sure slow down the whole learning-a-new-language project. It might even lead you to give up your learning enterprise altogether.
If anything, I am writing this piece to help you realize how crucial pronunciation is for adult people learning a new language from scratch (people under the age of 15 or so don’t need to think much about these things. They still pretty much get it from sheer exposure to the language, closer to what infants learning their mother tongue do).
I am not saying that you necessarily need to put pronunciation in front of everything else. But you should, at the very least, put it on equal footing with the rest. Pronunciation matters a big deal and you ought to purposefully work on it from day one.
How to work on your pronunciation skills?
There are many ways to go about it – one of them being shadowing. In simple terms, here’s what you do when you “shadow”: play something in your target language (e.g., a podcast show or just turn on the radio) and try to say back the sounds out loud as you hear them (there’ll be some split second delay between the two, of course).
Importantly, when you’re shadowing, depending on your current language skills, you may want to discard semantics altogether and solely focus on the sounds you hear.
Implicit in this type of exercise is that pronunciation is a physical phenomenon – we indeed make language sounds by means of our vocal tract and its sound articulators (vocal cords, palate, tongue, lips, teeth, uvula, and so on) – it is purely a physical thing.
In light of this, you need to realize that several of the sounds present in your target language may not be present in your mother tongue and that you may find yourself at odds to reproduce all those “new” sounds. This is why shadowing is so powerful: it helps you (and your vocal tract) tune into the new sound system.
Before even getting into shadowing, you can start by solely listening and paying close attention to the sounds of your target language. Turn on the radio as often as possible and immerse yourself in sound. These “sonic baths” help you cultivate phonetic awareness regarding your target language. Important stuff!
Now, if you really want to dive into the Portuguese sound system in specific, take a look at this comprehensive course where I break it all down into its basic sound units and help you pronounce each one of them. Learn more about it » Portuguese Sounds.
Before I sign off, I want to stress the idea that your pronunciation and listening skills are profoundly intertwined.
The ability to make a new sound (one that is not present in your mother tongue) entails that you can hear it in the first place – that’s not a given.
I’ll give you my own example. When I first moved to Sweden, it took me a while to really hear four of the Swedish vowel sounds (ö, ä, y, u), all of which are not present in Portuguese.
What happened then is that my brain mapped those vowel sounds onto the closest vowel sounds it knew from before (those present in Portuguese). That’s how our brains work!
See, back then I was one of those language learners that didn’t give much importance to pronunciation… The result was that my Swedish pronunciation was really far off the mark for a long period of time, longer than needed.
It was not before I started to pay close attention to what I was listening to that I really could hear those “new” sounds. Once I was able to hear it, I could also hone in on the Swedish sound system – my pronunciation improved substantially thereafter.
If knew back then what I know today, my Swedish would have flourished much faster (and smoothly).
Finally, I am not advocating for perfect, native-like pronunciation. You are most likely to speak your target language with a foreign accent and that’s perfectly fine and oftentimes charming. Own your foreign accent.
All you need to care about is that your pronunciation is clear enough so that it won’t undermine your speaking confidence and language’s main purpose – communication.