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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

Challenge Yourself to Pronounce These Foreign Phonemes [Audio]

To learn a language well, focus first on speech sounds

One of the biggest challenges of learning a new language is hearing and reproducing unfamiliar sounds. Often teachers focus on vocabulary and practicing simple sentences. But new research suggests people could master languages more rapidly by practicing pronunciation first.

This strategy can help in identifying the subtle distinctions between similar phonemes, or speech sounds, across languages. For example, below are 10 sibilant (sounds such as s, sh, ch, zh) syllables from English, French, Russian and Hungarian. Click each one to hear how it is pronounced, then try to reproduce the sound yourself.

Syllable

Language

Pronunciation

Sue

English

Su

French

Sous

French

Shoe

English

Шу

Russian

Щу

Russian

Chew

English

Tyu

Hungarian

Gyu

Hungarian

Jew

English

 

Emphasizing phonetics first may also help learners achieve fluency faster. This approach makes a big difference when students face daunting terms like the complex vocabulary below. Tap on a word to hear its pronunciation and see if you can repeat it yourself.

Word

Language

Meaning

Pronunciation

eichhörnchen

German

squirrel

streichholzschächtelchen

German

matchbox

höchstgeschwindigkeitsbegrenzung

German

maximum speed limit

écureuil

French

squirrel

sovramagnificentissimamente

Italian

extremely magnificent

превысокомногорассмотрительствующий

Russian, 19th century bureaucratic

a very polite form of addressing clerks, like your excellency or your highness

fényképezőgép

Hungarian

camera

This article was originally published with the title "How To Teach Old Ears New Tricks."

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