Learning pronunciation through Wikipedia

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology.

In the area of language phonetics (i.e. what consonant and vowel sounds exist in a particular language), Wikipedia has become useful and maybe accurate enough for beginners. There can certainly be errors, but that’s true for any source of information. When I consider which language to dabble in next–or when I actually start dabbling–I turn to Wikipedia first. I used to go to About World Languages (AWL), but that website seemed to have been hacked a couple of years ago, so I stopped using it. I checked it again just now and it seems to be working. 

Look up a language on either website and scroll down to the “Phonology” (in Wikipedia) or “Sound system” (in AWL) section of the article. If there is no such section, you might have to look for another article. For example, I looked in Wikipedia for “Hindi language” and found an article, but it didn’t include a Phonology section. So I looked up “Hindustani language” and found a Phonology section there. Actually, it was just a link to another article called “Hindustani phonology.” 

Once you find that section, you should see two tables: one for consonants and one for vowels. They are arranged by the area of the mouth where your tongue is most prominent (relatively speaking). For example, you move your tongue forward (toward your teeth) to pronounce /i/ (as in sing) and back (away from the teeth) to pronounce /u/ (as in rule). Likewise, you move your tongue forward to pronounce /d/ but back to pronounce /g/. 

However, the column and row headings of the table use linguistic jargon. If you’ve studied phonetics or phonology before, you probably find that terminology helpful. If not, it won’t help you at all. (Phonetics studies the sounds themselves, and phonology studies the relationship between those sounds. For example, phonetics teaches how you move your mouth to pronounce an “n” in English, while phonology shows that “n” is usually pronounced “ng” before a “k” in English–as in the word “think.” Phonology courses might teach phonetics also, or might require phonetics as a prerequisite.) 

If you are an aspiring polyglot, I recommend you take the time sooner or later to learn phonetics and phonology. You can start with something simple such as a YouTube video series or a “Dummies” book. Likewise, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) could be a useful tool for you sometimes. The IPA uses one letter of the alphabet (or even a “made-up” letter) to represent each possible sound that the mouth, nasal cavity, and throat can make, since practically all known sounds exist in one language or another. The letter “r,” for instance, is pronounced differently in different languages, so the IPA uses a different letter to represent each of those “r” sounds. Phonetics and phonology can be very dry subjects, but are a good time investment. On the other hand, if you only want to learn one or two foreign languages, you can easily get by without learning phonetics, phonology, or the IPA. 

I studied these subjects years ago while earning my TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate at Portland State University. Lately, I’ve had to relearn them and expand my knowledge beyond the basics, in order to use Wikipedia for this purpose. Here’s how: If the column or row header includes a word you don’t know or don’t remember (such as “alveolar” or “fricative”) and you can’t figure its meaning out for yourself, just click on the word you don’t know. Chances are that it has been made into a link that will take you to another page that explains its meaning. (A link in AWL will take you to a Wikipedia article.) Sometimes, the IPA symbol inside the table is a live link to an explanation of the sound. 

If not, you can combine the column and row header for the sound, type that phrase in, and look it up–for example, “voiceless labial fricative” (known as /f/ as in fish). You can even type the words out of order. Type them in the Wikipedia search box and it will describe the sound and how it’s made. Try to figure out what you can and ignore the parts that make no sense to you. Then click the audio link on the right side of the article to hear it pronounced. Listen to it many times and repeat after it a few times, until you figure out how to approximate the sound yourself. Voila: You can now pronounce it well enough to get started. 

Eventually, I recommend having your pronunciation checked by a native speaker or a tutor of that language who has studied phonology or linguistics or who specializes in teaching pronunciation or accent reduction. If necessary, schedule additional sessions to improve your pronunciation, if you want to speak it well and be understood by most native speakers in conversation. 

This Wikipedia approach is what I take. I did this for Vietnamese when I dabbled in it last year (but haven’t had my pronunciation checked yet). The b, d, and g letters are pronounced differently in Vietnamese than in any other language I’d studied. 

Good news for dabblers

After a few rounds of dabbling, either the commitment will come or your interest will disappear.

If you have trouble sticking with one language long enough to get good at it, it might not be as bad as it seems. Learning a language until mastery takes a long time–exactly how long depends on the language and other factors–and this requires commitment. The commitment usually isn’t sufficient in the beginning. Thus, it’s easy to find yourself changing languages frequently. This month you’re studying Italian, the next Russian, and the next Japanese. 

There are unusual individuals who can start a long enterprise from scratch and remain committed from day one, for as long as it takes. Others have a motivation so strong that the commitment comes easily. Yet others have outside support (from a school or parent, for example). But most of us don’t fit these descriptions. What do we do? 

If there’s a language you really want to learn but you are having trouble being committed to it, my advice is to dabble in it. Then dabble in other languages. After that, dabble in this language again, and try to stick with it longer. Then dabble in something else. Always return to this language. After a few rounds, either the commitment will come or your interest in it will disappear. Once the commitment finally arrives, make this language a priority and a habit. Make studying it even a little everyday a part of your life, like eating or sleeping. 

Each time you return to this one language, you’ll no doubt want to review what you studied before and then continue the same textbook, course, or app. By all means do that, but also study from a different course or app at the same time. Why? Because you need to make each round of study a new experience rather than trying to repeat an old one. Mere review is demotivating, but experiencing the language in a new way is invigorating. Furthermore, you might learn that you don’t like your previous course or app as much as you thought you did. 

It is my hope that your dabbling in various languages will lead you to fall in love with at least one of them, and then you’ll be on your way toward commitment. Even with a strong interest in a certain language, it might take several rounds of dabbling in it before you find the strength to maintain a habit and persevere until mastery. 

Sentence build-ups

The point of this method is to make difficult things easy.

One of my favorite methods in learning languages is repeating recordings of native speakers, trying to speak as quickly as they do and copying their intonation, rhythm, and other aspects of their pronunciation. I pause after each sentence of a dialog and repeat it at least three times. If the sentence is too long, I pause it after each clause. Another day, I go through the same dialog again. Eventually, the long sentences that were difficult become relatively easy to say.

I believe this method has helped me immensely in my language learning. Not only does it improve my pronunciation–making it easier for native speakers to understand me–but it also improves my listening skills. The rapid speech of native speakers doesn’t bother me as much because I practice speaking quickly via this method. I believe that everybody learning a foreign language should spend part of their study time repeating after recordings–if conversation is one of their goals. It might even improve a person’s reading skills, especially if they’re a beginner.

They don’t even have to be dialogs. They could be individual sentences, such as those used in an audio phrase book such as Book2 or Language/30. Or you could do it with Glossika. Even the example sentences from the grammar section of your textbook will work, if they are also recorded in an audio file or an audio CD. If they aren’t, maybe you can hire a native speaker to record them for you.

Shadowing is a similar method which other people recommend, but which I haven’t tried. Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as I do, except you don’t pause the recording. Instead, you repeat what you heard while the speaker is still saying the sentence. You try to finish the sentence soon after the speaker did. This requires you to listen and speak at the same time. The technique sounds too stressful for me, which is why I pause the recording and repeat three times instead.

Once you have some practice repeating after recordings in your target language, you can even practice with written sentences. That is, you can use example sentences that you find anywhere–in a grammar book, in a textbook that doesn’t include audio, in a phrase book, or in a written article. With this technique, you start with the long words in the sentence and practice saying them until they are easy to say. Then you take short phrases (prepositional phrases, etc.) and repeat them a few times. Then longer phrases and clauses. Eventually, practice the full sentence until it’s easy. Review these same sentences another day. You may or may not need to build them up again.

I often do these steps in reverse order: First, I do sentence build-ups with the written dialog until I can say every sentence somewhat easily (or at least each long clause within the sentence). Then I repeat after the audio, listening for anything I’ve been saying incorrectly and focusing on correcting my errors. However, this way is risky because you can learn to say things incorrectly and then repeat them incorrectly after the audio. Still, it’s much easier (and less stressful!) to do it this way. Stress makes it harder to retain what you’re learning. If you have to adapt a method to reduce your stress, do so.

Don’t try this method for long periods of time. A few minutes here and there through your day will be much easier and give you better results, I think. If it starts becoming too difficult or you start feeling fatigued, stop. Come back later and try again. What’s difficult the first time might be surprisingly easy later or on another day. In fact, that’s one of the mottos I live by: “Everything is hard before it is easy.”–Goethe

The point of the sentence build-up method is to make difficult things easy. This includes speaking quickly, pronouncing long words, sounding more like native speakers so they understand you better, saying complex sentences, and understanding rapid speech.

Adapting an audiolingual course

Don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. That’s what it means to be an independent learner.

In my previous post, I explained the Audiolingual Method and mentioned some courses that use it (most of them being US Foreign Service Institute [FSI] courses whose copyrights have expired). At the end, I wrote, “In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.”

Before I do so, I want to mention a few trends since the Audiolingual Method fell out of favor. First, a handful of teaching professionals hypothesized that languages are not taught and learned so much as acquired through comprehensible input (CI)–in other words, reading and listening to a language until it becomes familiar. Note that the input has to be comprehensible, meaning that learners understand most of what they hear and read, and can guess the meanings of unknown vocabulary and grammar through context. If the input is too hard, they hunt for something easier.

Preferably, the input should also be compelling. Examples include a story which draws the reader or listener in–or a fascinating non-fiction article. As the evidence allegedly accumulates (I can’t verify this because I don’t read scholarly journals), more teachers accept this approach, but it’s still not widely accepted. Also, even Stephen Krashen (its most famous proponent) admits that he doesn’t practice the comprehensible input approach consistently. In a nutshell, people don’t learn languages, they get used to them, as Olly Richards is fond of saying.

A more popular trend (which was very popular when I was earning my post-bac certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language in the early 1990’s) was called Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). In CLT–which I practiced as I taught English in South Korea for two years and Japan for three years–the teacher creates activities for pairs of students, small groups, and sometimes the whole class to do together. These activities require students to speak with each other in their target language. For example, handouts might require two students to take turns asking and answering each other questions. It took me a long time to figure this out, but I eventually realized that many of these controlled speaking activities were essentially Audiolingual grammar drills in disguise.

The language teaching profession and the international polyglot community have independently reached the same conclusion: Different students favor different approaches to learning. Although research has discredited the “learning styles” and “learning strategies” paradigms, eclecticism is still widely favored. In other words, teachers are urged to teach the same material in a variety of ways until most of their students understand or can use new grammar and vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the polyglot community recommends that independent learners try a variety of courses and methods until they find one(s) they’re comfortable with–and these courses/methods vary over time and from language to language. In other words, a method that worked well for you when you were a beginner might not work well for you as an intermediate student. Likewise, a technique that worked well for learning Spanish might not work well for Russian or Japanese. Experiment, watch YouTube videos in order to learn new methods, expand your horizons, leave your comfort zone–and you will become a better language learner.

With this background of knowledge, what are some ways that audiolingual courses can be adapted by independent learners in order to take advantage of these trends? First, don’t feel constrained to learn a course in the way the author intended. You don’t have to do every exercise in each chapter. You don’t have to memorize every word or understand every grammatical point or pronounce everything perfectly before continuing to the next chapter. Experiment. Change up your methods from time to time. Memorize only words that you are likely to use in conversation.

Recently, I studied from John DeFrancis’ Mandarin Chinese textbooks–but in my own way. The textbooks put the dialog first, but I chose to study other parts of the chapter first (vocabulary and sentence build-ups) and then the dialog. The textbooks and audio were meant to be studied together, but I studied the textbooks first before the audio (because the audio is spoken quickly). The textbooks teach a limited vocabulary in each chapter. I didn’t memorize those words, but looked up words in the dictionary that I wanted to know, memorized those words instead, and made my own sentences using the grammar drills in the textbook with the words I looked up in the dictionary. Also, DeFrancis’ textbooks came in pairs: one textbook using the Latin alphabet (pinyin) and an identical textbook using Chinese characters. I alternated between the two textbooks in a way which made sense to me. All of these adaptations made the course easier and more interesting to me.

In the past, I used the Beginning Japanese audiolingual textbook by Jorden and Chaplin. My focus was mostly on repeating after the audio in order to get used to speaking Japanese at native speed. I also used the audio for listening practice (after reading through the chapter). By simply reading and listening to the dialogs and drills, I received a lot of comprehensible input at native speed. Granted, it’s not compelling input, but it is comprehensible for beginners. My point is, it’s not necessary to speak to benefit from audiolingual courses. You can just read and listen, then just listen.

I also studied the FSI German Basic course. But in this case, my focus was on the dialogs rather than the drills. I printed out a chapter’s dialog, kept it on my desk, and occasionally mumbled a sentence or two until they became easy to say. I resumed my work and later studied another sentence or two. I brought the papers with me to the microwave and studied them while my lunch was cooking. I did not try to study whole chapters, but merely practiced sentences from the dialog to improve my speaking fluency (fluidity).

Although I only studied a few chapters of each of these courses–never finishing any of them–they all helped me to learn these languages. The key was to select a strategy for studying each course rather than feeling obligated to do everything as designed. For example, instead of doing a grammar drill, you can just repeat the correct answers. In the process, you’ll encounter the same grammatical form in many sentences, and this will make the grammar easier to learn.

Another thing you can try is studying a course together with another learner or tutor or language exchange partner (even over Skype, if necessary). In this case, you can create communicative (CLT) activities together. For example, you can take turns asking and answering each other’s questions in order to practice the grammar and vocabulary in the audiolingual course.

As an independent learner, you can decide if and how you will adapt each course, and you can quit at any time and use a different course or method. That’s what it means to be independent. Go be independent!

What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.

My story, part two

I had three dreams to chase after

A TV miniseries changed my life. When I graduated from college with a BA in French, I was planning to return to Oregon, earn a teaching certificate, and teach French to high school students in my home state. What changed my mind was remembering something I watched on TV back when I was in junior high school (also called middle school). It was called Shogun. Starring Richard Chamberlin, and based on a novel by James Clavell, it covered a turning point in medieval Japanese history as witnessed by an English captain who was shipwrecked there. The movie portrayed the Japanese culture as exotic and the locals kept everything clean and organized, despite its barbaric aspects during that time period. As a teenager, I had never heard of manga, J-Pop, etc., though maybe we had a little anime on TV. Most of my impressions of Japan were from that miniseries, but it was enough to make me want to go there and see what the Japanese culture was like today.

I forgot to mention that I had had another dream since junior high, and that was to be a translator or interpreter. I interviewed a multilingual translator for Career Day. He read newspapers in several European languages every day in order to maintain his languages at a high level. In college, I used a short school break to fly to Monterrey, California to visit Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey (which went by a different name back then). MIIS has a two-year Master’s degree program in Conference Interpretation which I wanted to learn more about. Frankly, I didn’t want the lifestyle of an interpreter (working evenings and weekends, concentrating for hours, being social, etc.), but I did want the intellectual challenge of simultaneously interpreting from Japanese to English. Also, after mastering Japanese, I would have had to study in a Japanese university for a year or two before I was ready to enter MIIS, so the whole plan would have cost me too much money. Nonetheless, the dream was very strong when I graduated from college.

I still wanted to teach a foreign language. That meant I had three dreams to chase after (teaching, mastering Japanese for interpreter school, and experiencing Japanese culture). The obvious solution was to teach English in Japan. The problem was that teaching jobs in Japan were competitive, so I went to Busan, South Korea first for teaching experience for a year, then started my Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Portland State University. I ran out of money and was itching to go overseas again, so I quit PSU after a year, but I had earned enough credits for a post-bac certificate. The program was offered by the Applied Linguistics department, so many of my classes were in linguistics. After one more year of teaching in South Korea (this time, in a small town called Gunsan), I landed a job at a junior college in Nagoya, Japan, where I taught for three years.

Things went wrong in Japan. First, my Japanese was progressing too slowly. I had to speak English all day. I only knew textbook Japanese, not colloquial speech–much less the Nagoya dialect. When I went out to Japanese bars in the evening, I couldn’t understand what anyone said. So, I usually went out to westernized bars and restaurants instead, or I bought a bento on the way home and studied Japanese reading at home. Second, I thought I was losing my hearing, and I was only in my twenties! It was only after returning to the US that I found out that it was because of ear wax buildup, and I wasn’t really losing my hearing. Third, I was still homesick for my family and for the variety of restaurants and groceries in Portland. Discouraged, I returned home and started my current career in IT. I knew that I would only be able to find part-time work as an ESL teacher in Portland, so I gave up on teaching. But computers were another interest of mine, so my career change worked out all right.

In the next installments of “My story,” I’ll go into more detail about my life and teaching experiences in Korea and Japan.

Give longer answers

If you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner

When practicing conversation in another language, if you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner. For example, if someone asks, “Where do you want to travel?”, and you just answer, “France” or “I want to travel to France,” you’ll never reach intermediate proficiency in speaking. Get used to volunteering extra information, and your proficiency will grow quickly.

The most obvious way to add information is to give reasons for your answers. “France because I love the French language, and everyone says Paris is wonderful.”

Another way is to compare two things. “Either France or Mexico. In France, I can practice my French, but in Mexico, I can get more sun. I can’t decide.” In fact, a good exercise is to compare two or more things as a conversation topic. For example, you can compare two countries you’ve visited or two cities you’ve lived in. You can compare schools you attended or homes you lived in. You can compare yourself with your siblings or with your parents. You can compare sports you like or foods you cook. This will stretch your language skills and will help you to reach the intermediate level much faster.

You can lengthen your answers by giving specific examples. “I want to travel to Paris and see the cathedrals there. Especially, I want to see Notre Dame before I die.”

You can also lengthen your answers by telling a story. “I want to go to France again. I went to Paris as a teenager and loved it. My family traveled there for a weekend. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Now I want to see more of France.”

In summary, whether you talk to yourself or practice conversation with someone else, always get in the practice of giving longer and longer answers. If you practice by talking to yourself first, you can look up words in a dictionary as you speak. This way, you can learn specific vocabulary you need rather than the general vocabulary taught in textbooks. If you also study and practice grammar, you can go from beginner to low-intermediate level quickly.