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Just Ask Alex: August 2013 Edition Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 in Just Ask Alex, Language Learning

alexbudIf you’re new here, let us introduce Alex Rawlings, a 21-year-old average guy, who just so happens to have taught himself more languages than we can count on our fingers! Alex believes anyone is capable of such a feat, and provides advice in his blog. We’re taking it one step further: on the last Monday of every month, Alex will be answering YOUR language learning questions. Have a question for Alex? Tweet us @TLILanguages or connect with us on Facebook using #JustAskAlex.

This month we’ll be discussing two recurring questions: how to improve your pronunciation and how to organize your language learning and fit it into your day.

How to improve your pronunciation:

Having a good accent is something that language learners either worry about too much or too little. The truth is that the correct attitude lies somewhere in between.

Your pronunciation is important, but it is not the end of the world if there are some sounds you just can’t get your tongue around. As I am about to explain, there are two other things that you can definitely work on that are far more important for making yourself understood.

The first is stress. This is important in every single language I have studied, especially in languages like Russian and Greek, where it can be the difference between two entirely unrelated words, and therefore two very different outcomes! (Greek speakers will know the difference a little stress mark can make in a word like ‘soft’…)

As in English, all words have one syllable emphasised more than the rest of the word. In some languages like Spanish, Italian or Greek, this is made clear by accents ( ´ ), but in others like German or Russian, you have to really listen for it when learning new words. To always be understood, make sure you have properly learnt where the stress falls in each word.

For example: in English what is the difference between an ‘órange tree’ and an ‘orange trée’? One is a tree that grows oranges (the órange tree) and the other is a tree that is orange (the orange trée). You need to pronounce words in the way that native speakers are used to hearing them. That way they will be able to correctly interpret what it is that you’re saying.

The second thing is related to stress, although on a slightly larger scale: intonation. This is which words you should be emphasising in the context of an entire sentence, whether your sentences should go up or down if you’re asking a question, passing a judgement, or making a remark. This is particularly important in a language like Russian. Because that is really hard to explain in writing, make sure you watch the video above to see what I mean!

Some languages ‘swallow’ personal pronouns (I/you/he/she/we etc.) and you only really hear them tagged onto the front of verbs, which is especially noticeable in Yiddish. Others, like English and French, give them a bit more priority, and you can hear them clearly in each sentence. Some languages (like Spanish, Italian and Serbian) leave them out entirely, and bring them back only when making a really emphatic point about who is doing something. That’s something you’ll really have to listen out for to get a feel for it.

But don’t feel that attempting pronunciation is forever ‘out of bounds’ for non-native language learners. Many people do get really convincing accents, especially after several years of studying. Once you’re making good progress with stress and intonation, that is something you will want to turn your attention to.

Remember that there are very few sounds in your new language that are exactly the same as the ones you’re familiar with from your own. For example, some English speakers really struggle with umlauts in German, and think it’s just a spelling rule, when in fact the sounds are produced in completely different parts of the mouth.

Listen to a recording of your language from a podcast, YouTube video, or the radio with no text to distract you. Then record yourself saying exactly what you heard, and play both the original and your version back to yourself. Listen carefully: are your ‘u’s as sharp as theirs? Are their gutterals really as throaty as yours? And if you’re an English speaker, how do they pronounce their ‘a’s? Many foreign language speakers mishear the English ‘a’ as an ‘e’ sound, and the Russian visa authorities even transliterate a name like ‘Carol’ as ‘Kerol’ in passports. The ‘a’ sound can be a bit darker and a bit throatier in languages other than in English.

Pronunciation is very important, and something that you can work on. Did you know that a surprisingly large number of Russian children cannot roll their ‘r’s, and that this is considered a speech impediment in the Russian speaking world? With some voice coaching and instructions on where to place their tongue, they quickly learn how to produce what can be a very alien sound to English speakers, which they even forget they once couldn’t make.


How to organise your language learning:

We live in the age of the Internet, which for a language learner, is your best friend and worst enemy at the same time. On the one hand you suddenly have access to a world of top class resources, but on the other there is a real danger that with one stray click you could spend hours lost in a maze of cat videos, memes, and ‘virality’, as Lizzie Davey described well in a recent post for my blog on procrastination. Add this to your already busy schedule, and dedicating enough time to see results with your language learning can turn into a real struggle.

But how much really is enough? And how can you develop the personal discipline to make sure that the time that you are putting in isn’t going to waste?

At school I was never very good with time management. I was quite lazy in a lot of respects, and I had a whole manual of excuses up my sleeve to avoid handing in homework on time. But when I started studying at Oxford, it quickly became clear that that wasn’t going to fly. With several essays each week, lectures, huge reading lists, translations, grammar classes, and of course, the pressing need to keep improving your spoken proficiency for a grilling oral exam all at the end of it, all while keeping my other languages ticking over as well, the way that I have managed to stay on top of all this is actually by making to do lists, and giving myself big red satisfying ticks when I’ve completed something.

When you’re really pressed for time, your language learning doesn’t have to be a burden on everything else going on. Ideally you only want to study 3-4 days a week, with days off in between to let everything sink in. And studying doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at a desk with a grammar book, ploughing through one chapter at a time.

I aim for an hour to an hour and a half each study day, split up into some time in the morning, the afternoon, and just before going to bed. The morning is normally 20-30 minutes of reviewing what I have already studied, the afternoon can be 30-45 minutes of covering new material, and the evening is again 20-30 minutes of doing a bit of both. And of course, I give myself huge red ticks afterwards. Keep up that kind of pace for a few weeks, and you’ll amaze yourself at how quickly you’re picking up your new language.

It’s also important to motivate yourself with goals, working out exactly what you’d like to achieve, and reminding yourself of how much progress you are making on the way. I talked about this in more depth here.

You might find that you have to sacrifice some things to fit learning a new language into your new schedule, but at no point should it be that life changing. Turn the TV off, unplug your Internet, make a nice cup of tea (yes I am British), and sit down on the sofa with your books for a bit. You may find it just as relaxing as watching a soap opera or refreshing the BBC news homepage to see if anything has happened yet.

Remember: learning a language is not always easy, but it’s definitely doable – especially when you set the pace. Write your goals up on a calendar, stick your study schedule on the fridge, and find those moments that you could use to be on your way to becoming a polyglot.

Good luck with your language learning!

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About the Author: Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!


  1. Caro:

    Hey, thanks so much for this video! I think is very useful! Now that I´m learning dutch sometimes I feel frustrated because think that I´m not doing it good but now that I can speak a little bit with natives I feel finally my effort. To me is easily write that speak…so I will try to loose my fears and starting speaking once!

    Thanks! XO

  2. silverdiamond1:

    Thank you for the time management and your optimism , I myself find difficult to control my time, but so fare I speak 5 languages and want to include Korean as well. I am satisfied with Transparent Language 100 percently.

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