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-- Destiny Yarbro, College Student
Fossils In Your Brain? How to
Master Pronunciation From The Get-Go
by Nathalie V. Fairbanks
One of my German students asked me a question that really startled, if not
"Why don't you pronounce the "r" in "der" properly? Were you raised in the
boonies or something? My former German teacher always said "der" differently."
After thinking about it for a minute, I responded: "Was your German teacher a
native speaker?" He obviously wasn't.
What was this student's problem? He had done what many of us do quite
unconsciously: we read words of a foreign language just as we would read our
It's so easy to forget that the way words are spelled and written have their
very own rules in each language. Just listening to the alphabet song in each
language will open your ears to how different the same letter sounds in
The vowels are the most obvious. An "o" in Norwegian sounds like a "u" in
German, and sounds like a "ou" in French. Some of the sounds in each alphabet
simply have no counterpart in any language.
Our need to hold on to something we know makes us deaf to these differences,
even the ones that are blatant. You see a word, you hear a native pronounce it,
and still decide that you'll keep pronouncing it your way, because that's how
it's spelled. Show that native speaker how her language is pronounced!! The
chances are, the native speaker got it right.
The other trouble spot is your language class. Your well-meaning language
teacher has you repeat and read from Day 1. Since you don't know intuitively
what the language sounds like, you'll draw on your native language and make
assumptions on how words are pronounced. Do that a few times for basic words,
and the mistakes will stick.
Pronunciation habits are very hard to correct. Linguists call that
"fossilization," and for once have found an adequate and descriptive term for
what happens. You have a pronunciation fossil in your brain!
You just can't take the letters at "face value," as it will throw you for
a loop every time. Depending on the letter combination and where in the word the
letter appears, it will sound different. I know that may sound weird. However,
don't get me started on English pronunciation rules. Who made THEM up?
Instead of trying to memorize all the sounds of letters and letter combinations,
listen closely to a recording of a text, and trust that the native speaker is
doing it right. It's funny how sometimes we have a need to rationalize that if
in one word, a letter sounds a certain way, it MUST be the same way in some
other word. Nope, it doesn't! Again, English speakers, you're sitting in a glass
If you are a beginner, I would recommend you NEVER pronounce anything that
you haven't listened to about 50 times. You want to train your ear to hear
how a native speaker pronounces letters and letter combinations before you
transfer your native language habits onto your new language.
In case you're looking for the pronunciation of just one word, you can always
check out your dictionary. However, if you're not a master of the phonetic
alphabet, you might as well guess! What I like are the online dictionaries
which have a little sound file next to each word. Search for English - Spanish
(or your language here) dictionary on Google. Electronic dictionaries work, too.
You can play the word a few times and repeat it, which is much better than
The bottom line is, before opening your mouth, open your ears and make room
for a new set of rules as to which sound matches which letter. You then
won't have to go through an excavation or fossil extraction later on!
© 2009 Nathalie V. Fairbanks
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