I once tutored a Hungarian student. He was in his mid-twenties and had lived in Canada for four years. He was an engineering student. A professor in the linguistics department had arranged the tutoring opportunity. The student told me had expected that after living in Canada for one year his pronunciation would adjust itself to match Canadian pronunciation. However, even after four years, his pronunciation was difficult to understand.
After a few moments hearing him talk, I realized that there were some minor issues in the pronunciation of individual sounds. However, the main difference was due to the melody and stress of his sentences. The first step in helping someone with their pronunciation is making them aware of it. This may be the hardest part because not many people turn their attention to the position their tongue occupies in the mouth and the way their lips move when they say a word. Mispronunciation has become a habit and like any other habit itís hard to break. This student lacked an awareness of how a certain melody or stress pattern is present when speaking English. Melody is not only at play when we speak or read longer pieces of language; melody and stress also exist when we say individual sentences or even words.
We began with practicing individual sentences such as questions and statements. There was a lot of repetition involved in this practice in order to break the monotonous pattern that the student had adopted for his English sentences. The studentís homework was to read out loud materials relevant to his field of study. When we met, he read the text to me, and we analyzed the text together in terms of rising and falling melody, pauses and the pronunciation of individual words. The first few weeks were an awareness-raising process, and progress was slow, but the more we concentrated on the issue at hand, the more the student started to become aware of the difference between his and my pronunciation. He also became aware of the position of his tongue and his lips, and slowly, he started to shift his pronunciation. Thus, when he read an unknown text to me, it became increasingly easier for me to understand and follow him.
Thus, one important aspect of learning language is the melody, stress, pronunciation and accent of a language. Some say this is the hardest part to master and studies have shown that after puberty, it is almost impossible to learn and speak another language without completely losing oneís native accent. However, knowing other languages always helps in the process of learning more. One reason for that is that there are some rules and structures that are common to all languages. Learning different languages and thus being exposed to different manifestations of these principles trains a person to use this knowledge in grasping yet another language.
The first step to improve our pronunciation is to listen very closely. The more we listen, the more we train our ears to perceive the tiny differences in tone and melody of another language. As we try to pronounce what weíve heard, we keep the muscle of our tongue flexible. I myself have felt the clumsiness of my tongue in speaking English after I had spent two months in Germany and had only spoken German. One would think itís surprising to experience a change within so short a time, but it truly seems that what we donít use disappears.
This is even true for very short periods of time, which I have observed and what many teachers call the ďMonday morning syndromeĒ. Just for two and a half days over the weekend, students are out of school and donít engage in the school drill. Some say they didnít speak English at all over the weekend because they spent time with people from their own country and only spoke their mother tongue. As a consequence, every Monday, the studentsí sluggishness in their speech and accuracy is remarkable. One would think that two and a half days of not speaking English shouldnít have a big impact on a studentís ability to speak English, but especially when we are at the beginning of learning a new language, our knowledge, because it is so new and not anchored deeply in our brain, is sensitive and immediately influenced if we disregard it and not practice every day.
So if you are learning English, make sure to read, speak, listen, or write a little bit in English every day!