Reasons Why a Pronunciation Tutor Doesn't Help

You know your pronunciation needs help, but if your pronunciation tutor is only telling you where you're going wrong, you're not going to improve.

It's easy to fall into a trap with this. Looking for tutors to help with your pronunciation may not be the right solution you are looking for. Most of the problems lie with whether the tutor can actually help you or not.

If you have one, your tutor should be helping you with getting your allophones correct, for example with very useful tips like: "voice/devoice this set of consonants", "more palatalisation on this letter", "make this vowel more centralized", "this tone should be higher pitched in this environment". When you do have someone like this, the experience can be amazing!

Otherwise, there are many things you can do on your own that will set yourself up for success in pronunciation.

Remember that letters of the alphabet are a lossy format: they are fuzzy approximations of what the sounds are in real life. The letter {r} is different from language to language, from Europe to Africa to Asia there are more than 20 different ways to pronounce it. And this is true for every letter in the alphabet from {a} to {z}.

Change your mindset with the tips I lay out in this article, along with the different layers of pronunciation that exist in each language. Learn about place of articulation in the mouth with the help of the international phonetic alphabet (IPA), learn to make the sounds of each IPA symbol and know its name so you can recall and hit those sounds again and again anytime you need them in the future.

Learn How to Become "Antifragile" in Language Learning

In this eponymous book that I highly recommend, the author of Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces us to the concept of antifragility as opposed to resilience and fragility.

Antifragility is easily understood as the difference between machines and biology: machines and robots break down over time with the more stress and wear and tear that they endure. However, biological beings (including humans) become stronger under the same conditions. Machines are fragile, and humans are antifragile.

But it seems most humans would rather just be resilient than antifragile. They prefer to live in a world of comfort, relaxation, or maybe at most, just doing enough to get by.

The life decisions that I've made retrospectively show a pattern of antifragility which have lead to some measure of success (being an entrepreneur in a foreign language as an immigrant in a small Asian country without access to capital or credit). I seem to have placed myself in avoidable, adverse conditions, over and over again throughout my life. You can read about this in an upcoming article where I discuss how I thrived despite adversity. I didn't know about antifragility until I read the book, but I embrace the concept because it works.

The idea of being antifragile is simply jumping in the deep end, having no backup plan whatsoever, and figuring out a way to survive. If you use this approach to learning a language, I ensure you that you can and will get fluent. If you apply this practice to other areas of your life, you may feel like cursing yourself, but you should emerge wildly successful if you keep at it.

Most of us do not have the conditions for such an antifragile environment in learning languages. Even if you were to travel to a foreign location, you may not have enough time away to acquire fluency and you may like keeping yourself in a protected bubble of comfort. And that's fine, because it depends on what you personally want to achieve.

But Glossika can provide you with the tools to become antifragile. And that is simply awareness.

Becoming aware of pronunciation and structures in a foreign language is the most important step you can make. With awareness comes the ability to acquire new ways of saying things without deliberately memorising them.

The Effect of Teachers and Tutors

1. Telling the Student What's Wrong with Pronunciation Changes Nothing

One of the first problems I sought to solve in 2010 when I started researching the problem was pronunciation. Through many tests and trials, we found that by telling students where their pronunciation needed improving had no effect on results.

In fact, most teachers I've talked to feel blue in the face repeating the same pronunciation mistakes to students, week after week, year after year. Telling them doesn't help them improve.

Furthermore, it seems that the previous teachers and tutors of these students had told them similar things. Most language teachers and tutors who have no background in linguistics are only aware of one aspect of pronunciation: the dictionary pronunciation (phonemic) which leads to hypercorrective forms of pronunciation. I've even heard English teachers with real qualifications tell me that phonetic pronunciations are "lazy". I have no idea what kind of linguistic training they got to come to this conclusion but this can be outright misleading.

The student knowing that they're making pronunciation mistakes puts them into a vicious cycle. They wish to seek out ever more teachers and tutors to fix the mistakes rather than focusing on self-discovery. Or they simply give up and walk away.

Seeking teachers and tutors to fix your pronunciation is fragile.

Self-discovery and awareness leads to success. And this is antifragile. Finding a tutor to help you increase your self-awareness can be an awarding way to lead you to antifragility too.

2. Teachers and Tutors Wrongly Accuse Pronunciation

Dictionary pronunciation doesn't account for allophones. Allophones are those things that include flaps and glottal stops, common among all speakers of English, but lacking from any English dictionary on pronunciation, because they do not have letters of their own in the English language. All languages have this phenomenon. The third tone change in Mandarin is an allophone, not written in the dictionary. The unstressed vowels and voicing changes in Russian are allophones that are never marked in any dictionary. Linguists have a name for dictionary pronunciation: phonemic. And now let's give a name to what linguists call phonetic: "common pronunciation".

Phonemic is simply the least number of sounds (common denominator) necessary so that no word can be ambiguously confused with another word. For example, Korean has both the sounds [r, l], but only one letter {ㄹ} to describe them since every word produces either [r] or [l] in exactly the same conditions: roughly [r] between vowels and [l] elsewhere. In other words, these two sounds don't help you identify a different meaning, but in English they do and that's why we need 2 letters and not just one. But teaching you to pronounce the Korean letter {ㄹ} as [r] 100% of the time is completely WRONG, just as teaching you to pronounce English {t} as [t] 100% of the time is also WRONG.

The example I mentioned above with qualified English teachers who teach abroad, will actually teach students a dictionary pronunciation in class (like [t] 100% of the time) and minutes later have a fluent conversation with another English teacher using what they themselves call "lazy pronunciation". For example, the word "better" which like Korean, uses a flap between the vowels.

When pressed as to why teachers do this, they tell me they always speak "lazy". But if you always speak a certain way, and the whole population always speaks that way, then why are you calling it "lazy", when maybe that really is your real pronunciation, not to mention the fact that the scientific term has nothing to do with laziness and is called "phonetic"?

The problem with language pedagogy is that everybody possesses a language as their own and since it's inside of us, we think we know it best. It's similar to what doctors face because everybody has a body of their own. A teacher telling a linguist that they consider phonetic pronunciation lazy is the same as a patient telling their doctor "Well my grandma always told me drinking hot soup was the best cure." To which the doctor can only laugh and say, we have scientific studies that say otherwise.

The Pronunciation Solution

The Immigrant Child: A Successful Case Study

There can only be an antifragile solution to this problem. You get stronger and you get better through micro stressors.

Let's take a look at the average primary school child who shows up as an immigrant in a new classroom faced with a new language. Given three to six months, not only will the immigrant child be speaking the language of the classroom, but will also have hardly any accent.

Micro stressors manifest in a variety of ways. First, the first attempts at speaking mean that there is always some interaction. Whether it's wanting, needing, or getting something, the other children make an effort to understand what's being asked and almost always respond with the correct way to say it. The immigrant child has now internalised this successful formula for learning how to say something. By saying something wrong, but at least getting to be understood almost always elicits the correct way. The child only need to repeat this pattern within a couple days for it to stick indefinitely.

The second kind of micro stressor is just the desire to be accepted by another group. Such as being involved in a game or sport activity or play. The interaction of the other children, the social cues, and the expected behaviour are all indications of what it means to be accepted by the group. Finally, speaking like the others is a positive feedback loop. But sometimes this leads to the third kind of micro stressor.

The third is the inevitable laughter that children are prone to when they hear something absurd. This is a very strong stressor for the immigrant child. The child will put in more effort to listen to oneself and compare that with what others say. This very point is building awareness in how others perceive your actions and style of speaking.

The Adult Solution

Adults are much less likely to behave as matter-of-factly as children do, and much less likely to laugh out loud when they hear something absurd. Most adults simply ignore such things and move along with life.

But we can pay close attention to the micro facial expressions of the people we're talking to and become self-aware that we said something in an unexpected way. We can back up, and repeat what we said and fix the tone or some other allophone to get it right, and change the micro facial expressions that we experience from others.

It's important for adult learners to develop the ability to mimic the people they want to sound like, and become aware of how they sound. By knowing in advance how many allophones exist in common pronunciation, they're less likely to sound too foreign. This is a small, secondary solution that we offer via Glossika training, but not the most important.

It's also a rather important thing to realise that adults are much more prone to life-long foreign accent syndrome. It's no secret that famous people like Einstein, Kissinger, Ayn Rand, and Rachmaninoff spoke with heavy accents until old age despite mastery of the English language.

To get real feedback, surround yourself with the children who speak that language and see how they react to how you speak!

1. The importance of fluency

I've been in the situation innumerable times where a waiter or civil servant with limited English ability attempts communicate in English, but instead of a full sentence, just manages to come out with a single word. The single word is often hard to understand without context, because you can't be sure if they're asking about you, or whether they're offering something or what. In the context of a full sentence, everything becomes much clearer.

Most people with limited language ability like to communicate with nouns, and nouns are worse than verbs. Verbs are very clear about the action, and you can always point to the nouns you're referring to if you don't know the word. Very few nouns, such as those meant in an exchange make sense: "menu?" works: "yes, please". But other nouns I've encountered recently from government workers: "desk?" "signature?" "3 number?" are just nonsense... Are you asking me for my signature? Am I supposed to sign here? Or where? You want me to go to another desk? What do you mean "desk"? Do you want me to "sign at desk number 3"?

Of course speaking their language clears things up right away, but you need something to fall back on when this is not possible.

When you're trying to communicate with somebody in just a random encounter, forget even the confines of a service conversation, things become much more difficult if you communicate with single words. The other person has to guess through your pronunciation, and further figure out whether you're asking something or just saying something. This often leads to confusion and frustration. If you're trying to speak their language, they might not be able to tell because of your accent, and assume you were speaking English (and thus using an English filter over all your words) and simply didn't understand what it was you were saying. This is because whatever you were saying in their language simply didn't register as or sound like their language at all.

Putting what you're saying into the context of full sentences makes it much easier for the listener to have a conversation with you.

2. Pronunciation Plateaus

As an adult learner, and I assume a non-expert in the science of phonology, there is only so much you can do with your pronunciation. Getting close enough is often as good as you'll ever get. Maybe with luck you will sound closer and closer to a native speaker after years of active awareness and adjusting your tongue positions and pitch ever so slightly.

Again, the same issue arises. No matter how much effort you make in making a better accent or pronunciation in your target language, you're better off spending your time focusing on full sentence fluency. People cannot understand what you're saying with a very small data set. As soon as it flows at full sentence normal speed, people now have a communicative objective with you.

For all the amount of time you spend comparing your voice with native speakers, you'd save so much more time by just speaking more full sentences. Because the more you speak, the more interactions you can now have, and the more real-life stressors you will experience that will naturally improve your pronunciation.

You don't need a piece of software or a tutor telling you you're wrong in a hundred ways. That's only going to lead to your frustration. Focus on saying the whole sentence, then with time adjust each word within the context of the sentence as you gain fluency until it sounds exactly how a native speaker says it.

Look for natural stressors. This is the antifragile way for language success.

🔥 What Glossika Offers

For most of the languages on Glossika, you can find International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions, which show common pronunciations (phonetic transcriptions with allophones).

Read More: What is International Phonetic Alphabet and Should I Learn it?

Since Glossika focuses training via spaced repetition audio, we recommend referring to transcriptions when new sentences are introduced (at the end of each session). There is actually no need to keep looking at the screen when you're getting review reps. This has a lot of helpful benefits:

  1. It forces you to focus on the cadence of the sentence
  2. It forces you to focus on what's being said
  3. It reduces reliance on the written word which in turn increases overall fluency.

Sign up on Glossika now and start your audio training for free:

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