Introducing Yourself to Sounds

In the beginning of the course, you should listen to audio recordings of the sounds of the language you are learning.  There should be a section on sounds at the beginning of the audio that goes with your textbook. 

When you listen to these sounds, you should do a few exercises to really familiarize yourself with them:

Associating the Sounds with their Transcriptions

  • First, just listen to the individual sounds being recited a couple of times to get familiar with them.
  • After the first couple of times of just listening, look at the way they are written in your textbook.  Your textbook may show both the letter as it is written in the language and an English transcription of the sound of the letter.
  • NOTE: If the letters are similar to English letters or in an alphabet that is easy to learn quickly, you may not make extensive use of the transcriptions for the sounds.  If the language you are learning has a complex script, your textbook may use English transcription along with the actual letters during the early part of your course.
  • As you listen to the audio and look at how it is written in your textbook, note whether your audio is giving you just the sound of the letter (for example, the sound of the letter “b” in English), the name of the letter (such as how you say the name of the letter “b” in English), or a combination of both sound and name (which may be the same in some languages).
  • Now listen to the recording of the sounds (or letter names) while looking at the letters as they are written.  If you feel ready, try pronouncing some of the sounds as you go along.  You can pause the recording to give yourself time to try each letter. You will come back to pronunciation practice later, right now just try it once or twice. See which sounds seem easy to you and which are challenging.
  • Depending upon the language, your initial audio samples may also have examples of tones. Listen to those examples and see if you can produce them.

A NOTE OF ENCOURAGEMENT: You may find some sounds simply impossible to distinguish by listening practice at first. This is perfectly natural.  It takes time to completely acquire an ear for distinctions between another language’s sounds, especially sounds that do not exist in your native language.  So don’t despair, just keep practicing. Over time the more difficult sounds will come to you.

EXPLORE FURTHER:  Jump ahead in your textbook audio to a section that has dialogue or whole sentences.  Listen to get a sense of how the language sounds when spoken. Listen to the intonation of the speakers, the speed, pauses in sound or breaks between words or sentences, and see if you can recognize any individual sounds based on your initial encounter with the sound system.  Don’t worry if you cannot pick out many individual sounds with certainty. That will come in time.

Starting to Pronounce the Sounds

After you have gotten used to hearing the sounds of your language, you should start practicing them yourself:

  • Go through the list of sounds now and try to pronounce them individually along with the recording. Do this a few times, and note which ones are more difficult for you to reproduce. Take the time to pronounce them individually, pausing the recording if you need to. Go back through the recording a few times just to pronounce those sounds that you found difficult.
  • Now try to go through the list one time without the recording. If you can’t remember some sounds, listen to them again, then go through the list until you at least approximate most of the sounds.  

Now it’s time to start putting sounds together and seeing how they work within words. It is best to do the following activities with just a few sounds at a time then go back and do a few more, so you do not get bogged down practicing too many of them at once.

  • Write down a list of the sounds you are learning in a notebook, or type them in a computer. Now look at the dialogues or vocabulary in your textbook’s first chapter, and try to find one word for each sound that contains that it. Write it down or type it next to the sound that it contains. You should have audio recordings of the vocabulary and dialogues for the first chapter in your book. Listen to the recordings, paying attention to each sound in context when you hear each word you have selected.
  • Now listen to the words again and try to say them along with the recordings. Do this only a few times with the ones that are easier for you to say, and spend more time trying to repeat the words that are more difficult for you. It is good to pause and repeat as many times as you need.
  • When you say the words, enunciate the sounds slowly and very clearly. Try to exaggerate the sounds and distinctions that are new to you. It can seem a bit silly to enunciate so dramatically, but it is very important to train your mouth to make the right motions and shapes at this early stage of learning.

Using a Place of Articulation Chart to Practice Sounds

If you are still unsure how to produce some of the sounds or having a difficult time at this point, you can print out and make use of the diagram linked to below in your conversation sessions to help determine how you should be making the sounds:

  • When discussing a specific sound, have your conversation partner identify the number(s) on this diagram that correspond to the places where the sound is articulated so you can try to imitate them. (For example, to describe the sound of “t” in “Tom”, you could say that positions 16 or 17 on the tongue touch against 4 or 5 right behind the front teeth).
  • NOTE: Your conversation partner may not have thought about the sounds of their language in this way before, so it may take them some time and thought to pin down exactly what they do when they make the sounds, but nevertheless with the chart they should be able to help you with most sounds.

NOTE OF ENCOURAGEMENT: As with listening, you may find that it is almost impossible for you to accurately produce some more difficult sounds when you start out. The activities listed above can help you approximate them more closely, but what will really make you proficient with pronouncing the sounds will simply be time spent studying, speaking, and being exposed to the language. Just do your best from the start to produce the sounds correctly, and with time and effort you will find that they will get easier for you.

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