Azar Deen Asks:
Hi all. I’m learning a new language, but I really want to make my pronunciation match that of a native speaker. Are there any apps or websites that can help me?
Learning a language is a tremendous challenge. Believe me, I know. I’ve been where you are.
I remember every misspoken word. Every puzzled glance from a shopkeeper when they didn’t understand what it was I said. Every stifled giggle when I said, “Tengo 23 anos” (trust me, the difference between años and anos is huge, and incredibly embarrassing).
An important part of learning a language is pronunciation. But here’s the thing – learning how to pronounce words is very hard, and it’s a long process that requires you actually speak the language. But are there any technological shortcuts to becoming a master-speaker of your chosen language? Well, kind of.
If there’s one particular service that’s radically changed how languages are taught or learned, it’s Duolingo, thanks to the fact that it forces you to speak a particular language from day one, and teaches you grammar rules without the painful rote memorization you had to deal with in high school.
Believe me, we’re big fans of Duolingo at MakeUseOf.
One of the great strengths of Duolingo is that it teaches all facets of the language – from speaking, to reading, to writing. Everything is covered. In fact, Duolingo is one of the few language learning products that actively assesses one’s pronunciation ability, whilst simultaneously providing an audio clip of a word or sentence to base your attempt from.
It seems a bit obvious, but as a starting step, it can’t be faulted.
Elsewhere on the Internet
I was disappointed at the lack of dedicated accent-learning sites and web applications available. That’s hardly surprising however. Accurately distinguishing between accents is something that humans struggle with. I can imagine an algorithm running on an EC2 box having similar difficulties. Undeterred, I looked elsewhere.
On Udemy, I came across “American Accent Training for IT professionals“, which teaches the reader the technical facets of the American English dialect, and instructs on using it in an everyday scenario. Although a tad dry (and rather niche), I couldn’t fault it on technical details. It’s also a steal at $99.
If you’re looking for something free, head over to YouTube. There’s an incredible amount of content on offer. My eye was immediately caught by the lessons offered by “Learn English With Let’s Talk”. These explained in detail the vowel and consonant sounds of American English, with the videos presented by an engaging and delightfully effervescent presenter
It’s worth noting that a sizable amount of the YouTube videos I found were aimed at audiences from the Indian subcontinent, particularly IT professionals.
But that’s English. What about other languages? Well, as a Francophone, I was interested to see what was available in my second language. I was somewhat disappointed, both in quantity, and what there was being limited in terms of structured learning and continuity.
Your mileage, as always, will vary.
Hit The App Store
Unsurprisingly, there are some apps on Apple and Google’s respective app stores that promise to teach you how to speak with a particular accent. These are very much a mixed bag, and I’d encourage you to approach the majority of them with a healthy dose of scepticism.
On Android, there’s American English Conversation (free, ad-supported). With over 100,000 downloads, it must be good. Right?
Well, not really. This app doesn’t have any conversation to speak of. Rather, it has audio clips and transcripts from Voice of America’s Learning English series. These are good, don’t get me wrong. But repeating a script isn’t really learning an accent, and it’s a bit shady to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own, unique product.
Slightly more promising is The Accent Kit for Android (free, with in-app purchases). Interestingly, this isn’t aimed at language learners, but rather thespians looking to learn a new dialect for the stage. It comes with two accents pre-installed, namely a Cornish male and female accent. Other accents – mostly from the UK and US – are available to purchase. Each costs £1.19, or the local equivalent. Of all the apps I looked at, this was the one that was most substantive, although the lack of third-party assessments is a bit of a bummer
This approach taken by The Accent Kit is one of practice and memorizing of the vowel and consonant sounds that make an accent, along with the speaking of large texts to self-asses one’s ability. This feels, for the most part, more scientific and practical than the approach taken by American English Conversation.
Surprisingly, there’s very little on the iOS app store in this regard. A search for an iOS accent trainer brought up apps of dubious quality, flagrant app store spam, and one’s that were “for entertainment purposes only”. Hardly the type of stuff that inspires confidence. Certainly not the type of stuff that should find its way to the hallowed pages of MakeUseOf.
I tried American Accent! by DJ International (free). This supposedly can detect whether you’re speaking in an American accent, but when I tested it with my natural Northern English accent, it confidently declared that I sounded 75% American.
But when my New Jersey native partner gave it a stab, she was told she mispronounced the words “just” and “leave”, was an “American wannabe”, and could only “pass for an American from time to time”.
If you’re going to learn another accent, you’re probably going to have to look elsewhere. Especially if you’re learning a language other than English. French, German, Russian and Spanish are all poorly represented on the main app stores.
Learn From An Expert
Benny Lewis is a legend in language learning circles. Despite once describing himself as “terrible at languages”, he has gone on to learn over 12 different tongues to a varying proficiency, including ones considered extremely challenging, like Modern Arabic. What’s his secret? Well, it’s surprisingly obvious.
He learns through immersion. First, he starts off by learning a handful of key phrases and vocabulary, and then applies them in the real world immediately, expanding his linguistic repertoire through practice, trial and error. His method has transformed thousands into confident speakers of second languages. Trust me, he knows his stuff. Just check out his TED talk.
In this latest (and highly recommended) book, Fluent In Three Months ($14.77 on Amazon), he addresses the issue of pronunciation and fluency.
Lewis argues that it’s incredibly difficult to speak a language to a “native” standard. He notes that fluency, and speaking a language to a native standard are not the same. You can be fluent in a second language, but still speak it with an accent, have gaps in your vocabulary, or occasionally mangle some grammatical construct.
But with respect to pronunciation, Lewis makes the point of noting that you are a victim of the first language you speak. All the pronunciation rules that are endemic to your native tongue will ultimately influence the way you speak a second language. For example, in English we don’t tend to roll our r’s, whilst French does. Want to stand out as an Anglophone when speaking French? Say “fromage” with a hard ‘r’.
So, what can remedy this? Benny Lewis insists practice makes perfect.
With time, your accent can “naturally” diminish, however this doesn’t happen organically for a lot of people. Sometimes you need to be more active and… simply practise them repeatedly until you get it right.
So, where do you go from there? Well, you have a few options, none of which require you to leave your home country.
Meetup is a great place to find face-to-face language learning groups in your town. These are often packed with native speakers, eager to help others. In the area surrounding my hometown of Liverpool, for instance, there are groups to learn Italian and French, and even language exchanges. Also worth considering are these 6 Meetup.com-like sites.
If you’re a fan of Reddit, consider checking out one of the language exchange subreddits. There are three that are mostly identical, namely /r/language_exchange, /r/languageexchange, and /r/exchanginglanguages. Another great subreddit to find Redditors of a certain national origin is /r/penpals. These subreddits are also rather pleasant and altruistic, unlike other parts of Reddit. If you’re not sure how to get started with Reddit, why not check out our guide.
Finally, one website I’m rather fond of is iTalki, which is a bit like the OK Cupid of languages. It pairs you with a language partner based on the language you’re trying to learn. If you need inspiration, check out these 18 other sites that complement iTalki nicely.
Let’s not also forget the powerful effect that immersion can have on one’s attempt to learn a language. In Fluent In 3 Months, Benny Lewis gives an example of an American who learned Japanese from his home in Ohio, simply by consuming as much Japanese language video, music and content he possibly could. It follows that if you want to learn a language, it helps to have as much exposure to it as possible.
Of course, you can find music and videos in a particular language with just a bit of searching on YouTube. As always, Google is your friend.
Learning A Language Isn’t Hard
I’m serious. It’s estimated that half of the world is functionally multilingual, speaking two or more languages. You can join them. Whilst you might not ever reach the point where you can pass as a native speaker, you can certainly come close.