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How To Learn Sign Language

(Edge #2) The Huge Importance of Phonology in Learning a Language

Hello everyone. Today, I’m going to talk
about language learning key # 2. Number two which is “phonology”. This could be number one but it just so happens
that last time I talked about a kind of a general
study habit: consistency But as far as practical study and practical skills
of the language go, phonology could be number one. I really think that learning the phonology of
a language is one of the most important things It’s the basis of all of your studies
and all of your skills that are to come. The phonology means the system
of sounds of that language So that includes the pronunciation
of the consonants and vowels, but also the stress patterns and
the intonation patterns, that kind of thing. Basically, “pronunciation”.
You can call it that. Same kind of thing. Now, it’s extremely important to learn
the phonological system of each language you learn because it’s really what connects you to that language. It’s the thing that associated with that language. It helps you access your integrated skills,
your synthesized skills in that language So what I mean by that is this if you learn
a foreign language but you use
your native language’s pronunciation, or you use pronunciation that’s quite close to
your native language’s pronunciation, then you’re never going to fully be able
to access that foreign language or access your skills in that foreign language.
Because you’ll always retreat into your native language. That phonological system is associated
with your native language. So you want to stay away from that. You want to stay away from the phonological
system of your own language and as precisely as possible learn the phonological
system of that foreign language that you are studying. In the past before I really figured this out,
I basically had a generic foreign language accent. I would use the same kind of phonology
for all the different languages I learned. It was just like I had a foreign language
accent that wasn’t that precise. So it kind of work but the problem was:
there was some crossover between languages. So when I tried to speak one language, I would sometimes
get mixed up and say words from the other language. Or I would retreat into a language
that I knew how to speak better. Because that phonology is anchored to the other
language, not only the one I’m studying right now. So it’s really important that you keep those languages
you learn as distinct as possible in terms of phonology. So how do you learn the phonology
of a new language that you are studying? Well, first, you have to perceive the phonology,
perceive the sounds of that language. And then, second, you have to learn how to produce
the sounds through imitation. Those are the two things. So let’s focus first on perceiving the sounds. You want to pay attention to the sounds of the language
and the distinctions between all of those sounds. So every beginners language program out there will have
some kind of introduction to the phonology of the language. They usually call it the pronunciation section. and it will show you all of the consonants
all of the vowels in that language. And go through the pronunciation of each one.
May be just the sound and then an example word. So you should of course go through that.
You should repeat after all the sounds. Repeat after those individual words
that they give as examples. But then you don’t want to just go through
the introductory pronunciation section
of that language program. That wouldn’t be enough.
That’s just giving you a quick idea of what sounds exist. But you want to actually hear them over and over,
numerous times until you can perceive them. Right? Until you can hear them and
know which sound is being said. So it’s good to listen to some examples
of the language in action. So you want to hear some radio broadcast
or some TV shows or some interviews. Or somebody’s youtube channel with them talking
just like I’m talking right now. But in the target language that you want to learn. So, when you hear those sound at a natural speed,
then you can start to notice and perceive those sounds that are introduced in that language textbook
or on the language website that you’re learning from. If you don’t take this time to listen and become
familiar with the sounds of that language, then what’s going to happen is you’re going
to start thinking of that language visually. you’re going to start thinking of the language only in
terms of the orthography, in terms of the way it’s written. and you’re going to think of those letters that you see,
the orthography in terms of your own native language’s phonology. So, when you imagine the letters in your head,
you imagine the word that you are trying to say. You’re going to say the sounds as you would
in your native language if it was spelled like that. Here in Japan, there is a big problem with this. Like I have students who learned English but they
learned it from someone who doesn’t really speak English. They learned it from a Japanese teacher
in high school who doesn’t really speak English. They just taught it from the textbook. They teach them
English in the Japanese phonological system. So they can’t even perceive
the native English sounds often. For example, if they read the word ice hockey,
they’ll read it as “ice hoo-o-kay” Or if they see the word birthday cake written in English,
they will read it out loud as “basoo day caykay”. Because they are processing the language
through their own phonological system. Even if I say it… if I say “birthday cake”,
you look at me like “what?” But, if I say “basoo day caykay”, they’ll understand
because they’re not perceiving the English sounds. They’re not perceiving sounds of the word
in the English phonological system. They’re only perceiving it if I say it
in their phonological system. So that’s the problem we want to avoid. So the first thing that you have to do, is to learn
to perceive the sounds before you produce them The second thing you have to do is to learn
to produce those sounds through imitation. So how can you do that? Well the most basic thing
you can do is to get a teacher, or a tutor, someone who will work with you
together closely and monitor you and give you feedback about your pronunciation
to help you to make sure that you are saying
the sounds as precisely as possible. So that you are off to a good start right from
the beginning, that you don’t ingrain any bad habits
of using your own native language’s phonology. So having a teacher or a tutor is the best way
because they can give you that feedback. They can perceive distinctions
in the sounds that you can’t perceive yet. So it’s good to have someone there giving you
feedback in helping you along. But some of you like to study alone,
you don’t like to work with the teacher right away. If you are working alone, if you’re studying by yourself
with the textbook or with some websites, you can do it. I used to do that until the past couple
of years and I was always fairly good with that, because I’m quite an independent learner. But it means that you will have to really monitor yourself
and monitor your own pronunciation. And try to continuously refine it. But you can use language cds
like the cds that come with your textbook. and use that to chorus
or listen and repeat after the CD like you can play a sentence
and then pause it and repeat after it. And try to pronounce it as closely as possible to the CD. You can do that with a lot of YouTube clips too,
like watch some… some YouTube channels or some interviews or TV
shows and play short bits and pause and then repeat after it. And then, when you get a bit better, you can start to
shadow videos or shadow audio cds and that kind of thing. Shadowing means that you try to repeat after it
as they’re speaking in real time. So you kind of speak right after them
and try to follow them. It’s easy to get lost doing that but that’s fine… You just want to be able to
shadow as much as you can. And it’s the basic point is to continuously listen
and produce the sounds at the same time. But it’s often the case that people will do
a kind of hybrid of listen and repeat. And shadowing. Like they’ll shadow as much as they can
but when they get lost, they’ll pause the button. And then try to finish repeating
and then they’ll unpause the button and… try to continue. So that’s …
That’s fine. You just want to continuously … hear native speakers and imitate them and try
to produce the same sounds that they are making
as precisely as you can. So you just need to monitor yourself quite a bit
if you’re doing this through self-study. But it can work. Also don’t forget the stress patterns
and intonation patterns because… even though those usually aren’t the introductory sounds
that you are taught in your language program, those carry a lot of meaning and they also can mean
the difference between one word and another word. Especially the stress patterns.
The stress patterns can create distinctions in meaning. So don’t forget about those,
try to imitate those. Those ones are not really conscious, I mean, the…
It’s difficult to consciously refine them. But you just want to just pay attention
to the overall patterns of intonation. Repeat what you hear and subconsciously,
you’re going to internalise those patterns without really thinking about it, as long as you are
intentionally imitating native speakers or… fluent near-native speakers So that is language learning key number two.
It is “phonology”. Make sure you get the basics
of the phonology down quite well. At the beginning before you start getting into learning
all the grammar and doing a lot of conversation. Get the phonology down from Day One.
It’s very important. it is the key to accessing that language
and not crossing … wires with different languages and
not retreating into your native language. So learn the phonology and that will help you a ton. Alright, this is Paul signing off
and have a good night…

79 Replies to “(Edge #2) The Huge Importance of Phonology in Learning a Language”

  • Oh man, those English lessons in Japanese highschools, makes me cringe whenever I see it in anime or such.

    What I've noticed in lots of progressed language learners is that they make weird hand movements whilst speaking. Don't forget that the whole body takes part in producing speech, it might be helpful to be standing while training phonetics. Those hand movements might also help, they put you in the right "mood" for speaking considerately.

    Shadowing really is hard, I had done it very rarely until my interpreting classes forced me to give it an "intensive try" – turns out to be a matter of practice (of course it's a matter of practice); I tend to use shadowing often, now, and it works well for me, one should try it out for a while before giving up because it's "too difficult" or maybe even "embarrassing". Just saying. 🙂

  • I understand exactly what you're saying – I'm learning Modern Greek at the moment and it can be so difficult to separate the phonology in relation to the alphabetical autography. For instance Beta is written in lower case as v, so when reading aloud it is hard not to say 'vee' instead of 'bee'! But I am trying, so hopefully I will improve.

  • That's why TalktomeinKorean is such a great course, because they really make you focus on pronunciation right from the beginning and their audio materials are really good.

  • Japanese is interesting because they have so few unique sounds in comparison to english. Its syllables are strict and sound fairly similar no matter where they are in the word (with some exceptions), so i can see why english pronunciation would be difficult for a japanese person.

  • True all of this.  I remember having a horribly difficult time with the pronunciation and phonology of Biblical Hebrew when I was studying that.  Since I couldn't pronounce the words, I couldn't discern the words, decline them, or understand the text.  I still recall being taught that the letter "waw/vav" (really common, often attached as a prefix and translated as "and") was pronounced as a "w" and not as a "v".  Between that and not really being able to make the sounds of the aleph or ayin, I was sunk.  Do yourself a favor and learn it right the first time. It's much more difficult trying to un-learn incorrect phonology than to learn it correctly the first time.

  • awesome idea
    separation with phonology!
    different flashcard colors work for me but this is also goooood
    try to speak as native as possible so that languages naturally sound diffrent

  • Had to stop watching after 3:49, that background music stressed me out. I did get the gist of your message though. Thankfully, as I'm learning Vietnamese, the tones are built into the written language. Once you know how to pronounce each vowel (all approx. 78 of them!) and consonants you'll have no trouble pronouncing any Vietnamese word at all.

    NB, each vowel has 5 tones and none, that makes 6 times 13 vowels.

  • This shadowing is really really helpful. I waas studying english for years and I was able to read, to write, even to talk through instant messengers, but I couldn't understand what i heard or speak. When I started to focus on the fonology and used movies and series to do this shadowing thing i suddenly could understand everything, I could grasp many patterns unconsciously. And this evolution ocurred within weeks.

  • I'm learning English and your videos help me a lot. Your videos are awesome. I learned a lot about other languages and cultures.

  • I've taken Spanish phonetics workshops that have helped me a lot and now I'm currently taking a French phonetics class. It does wonders!

  • I'm picking up Spanish again after not having spoken it for many years. I took Spanish classes in high school and college for about 7-8 years, but then I got a job teaching ESL, and I got majorly out of practice. I'm excited, but I'm finding it hard to pick it up again and get myself back into it. I'm realizing I haven't "lost" anything, but it's a matter of getting used to the language again. These videos are helping me a lot and motivating me! Thanks!

  • vietnamese is a nightmare. i had a boyfriend for a while and visited the country. so tried to learn it. I began to read it and learned it so easily if there was an english text acoompaning the vietnamese. But I gave up when I couldnt pronounce khong(no) and vang(yes) couldnt pronounce cam on(thank you) Got native speakers to teach me. I say the word – they say correct. I say it again. they say no. they say it. i hear it differently every time.

  • The joke is when an English person read 10 in French "dix" as "dicks" instead of "dis", and 6 exactly as "six" instead of "cis".

  • Hearing & understanding the phonology of english – no problem at all! 😀
    But producing those sounds (?!) – suddenly i get mute! 😮 blush

  • Really good! I do agree that the student should learn a lot about the phonology of the language, and I would add that the student should learn how to perceive the phonology of their own language too! I think your example with japanese was really great, it happens with portuguese native speakers too (not in the exaclty same way, but, for example, we don't have words that ends in /k/, /p/ or /t/ sounds, and brazilians usually say an /i:/ sound after those consonants). I think it helps a lot the student when they understand why they speak differently and which are the most common sounds in their language. Usually native speakers don't think about their own phonology and language. But I really liked your video!

  • Great advice. As I see it, reading, writing, listening, and speaking are four separate but interrelated parts of learning a language.

    I once supported a customer in France via email. One day i called for simple clarification and learnt that he wrote and read English but barely spoke more comprehend speech well.

    Conversely, I had a customer in Germany that never answered emails but always answered phone and called back promptly. Turned out he couldn't read not write English but spoke and comprehended aurally well.

  • My local accent simplifies by using native phonology for speaking English.Such as unleniting F into P,Th into T etc..

  • I have found that having a physiological description of the sounds of a language helps me. This is not an alternative to what you are saying, but an addition. Shadowing, for example, helps me enormously.

    When I was studying Russian, I had a pronunciation text that gave such descriptions. Hard at first, but I prevailed. I found that when I particularly focused on pronunciation, that after about an hour, my tongue felt like it was balled up in back of my teeth. That was when it really struck me how much further forward in the mouth Russian is spoken. It also alerted me to the fact that I need to focus on a few key sounds which, when I mastered them, helped me to pronounce everything else better. I have searched in vain for something similar for Korean.

    Good video.

  • 4:06 I have had two years of Spanish in high school. One of my professors was from San Diego, but I do not believe that Spanish was her native language. Is this, along with the fact that I learned the language in a classroom environment, why it is hard for me to sound like a native speaker?

  • This makes a lot of sense. when i was learning french and spanish, i did better at reading it that i did understanding. do you help your viewers learn, like live webcasts for beginner levels in a language, then intermidiate and so on? or since you have language loving viewers, perhaps you can form a community for those of us learning the same language to speak to eachother … its just a thought.

  • Written language is not your friend when learning foreign phonetics…I have long said this myself and am happy to hear vindication here. I wonder if a language should be taught without writing at first–would that have better results? So much erroneous pronunciation seems obviously writing-based, if one analyzes it.

  • +langfocus Hello Paul, I heard you mentioned "Indonesia pattern". I was wondering what pattern " you meant? I'm trying to search it but not found any" Indonesia pattern" related to phonology. Mind to tell me what is it?

  • Another great insight, Paul. We as humans do tend to learn using a phonology well known to ourselves.

    BTW you should make videos like these more often 🙂

  • I agree, it is because English was so complicated for me, at least as a Spanish speaker, in terms of phonetics. when I had a huge amount of vocabulary but I could not understand until one day I could understand out of the blue.

  • Sometimes, I get a feeling that until I get a very firm grasp on other languages' phonologies, I only have three phonologies to produce sounds from: English, French, and everything else. The latter of the three seems to encompass all languages that I plan to learn that I never really had an interest in learning until after the fifth grade, despite having learned Spanish in great detail in high school. No offense, but do many languages sound similar and the English and French phonologies are complicated enough to be distinct from the rest, did I learn English and French phonologies early on enough and so I've had them around for longer than everything else, or is it because I didn't learn Spanish, etc. from native speakers?

  • Langfocus , I'm actually doing a study about this and I would really like your help my dissertation topic is " the effects of captioned films on improving the perception of foreign language phrenology " can you suggest any articles or books that I should read to get the necessary info from plz

  • When I learned portuguese I didn't have to learn phonology as much since ive been hearing the sounds literally for years but with french I understand what you mean. If you don't learn the sounds you will recognize the speach with the accents instead of the actual speach

  • True, dear Paul. Thai-language has easy grammar but I will never be very good in pronoumciation, phonetics and sounds, can understand it well but for me difficult to speak precisely.

  • true, phonology is important , for examle: I live in thailand but people speak Lao, difficult because I intermix these languages and accent of my own language will always be heard

  • True, before I started to learn French, English was just a school subject for me, I knew it poorly, and had a typical Russian accent, but it was good for school. Then I just wanted to take a look at French out of the blue, and it was crucial moment in what all languages are about for me. I started to look for materials on Internet, trained to get a good French pronunciation and my obsession with French transferred to English. I dwelled on English pronunciation for a while and got better with English as a whole. The result is, now I can understand almost every word you're saying and I'm able to write this comment. Also I realized why pronunciation DOES matter a long ago. For example, when I speak Russian with an American accent as actors do in Holywood movies, English immediately comes to my head and no paying attention I swift to English. The same with a French accent, so my main rule to begin to learn any language is to find out about phonology and not necessarily to get native speaker's pronunciation but to get the general idea how sounds work in a particular language, thus in the future I can put less amout of efforts to achieve perfect pronunciation.

  • This video, like so many of your YT videos, is loaded with helpful information for foreign-language learners. Thank you for sharing what you know! (Okay, here comes the "but.") I find that using music in the background (or, as in the case of this video, the shared middleground) detracts from the (or, at least, *this*) listener's auditory focus—and, thus, from successful communication on your part. What a welcome relief it was at ca. 8:06 when that distraction stopped: at that point I found that I didn't have to fight to hear what you were saying. And this isn't merely an issue of decibel competition. For example in your recent (2/2/18) video (entitled "Cockney Rhyming Slang"), I found the music (albeit very quiet) to nonetheless be a distracting presence. So I ask (and I say this as someone who spent over four decades teaching in colleges & universities) that you trust in the strength of your instruction to be interesting enough to be able to stand (and be heard!) on its own without any extraneous background sounds. If you do this, I think you will be all the more helpful than you already are; it will certainly help your followers achieve "Edge #4: Focus." Thank you for considering my suggestion.

  • I swear by making a photocopy of the IPA, International Phonetic Alphabet, at the front of a proper English dictionary. and learning these symbols by heart. Langman's dictionary is great. Hire a English tutor who is a NATIVE speaker of the country's English you want to learn. Don't hire a British accent tutor in Canada. Sing along to songs, this is a great way to get rid of an accent. Best of luck.

  • How important do you feel that it is, to pronounce each phoneme in an authentic way in chases wherein neither your own language, nor the language you are learning, makes the distinction?

    For example, many languages have true dentals (T and D pronounced with the tip of the tongue touching the teeth); whereas English speakers normally pronounce them with the tongue touching the alveolar ridge instead. Speakers of e.g. English and Japanese pronounce T and D with a different place of articulation, but ordinarily neither group of speakers will notice the difference. (On the other hand, native speakers of Hindi would consider them to be completely different sounds.) If neither you nor the speakers of the language you are learning are likely to notice the difference, how worthwhile is it to learn to pronounce such phonemes authentically?

    Note that I"m not talking about cases like the Spanish R, where using the English R will lead to a complete inability to pronounce the trill, which is a related but distinct phoneme in Spanish; in order to learn to pronounce the trilled R, as a native English speaker, you definitely do have to adjust your place of articulation. This is not the sort of situation I'm talking about.

  • I think the best way of pronouncing the sounds of the language is immitation + study of the characteristics of each sound.

  • I honestly believe that putting on a stereotypical accent (obviously don't be over the top with it) will greatly aid in proper pronunciation. I used to pronounce French in an Americanized way because I was "too cool" to speak the language properly. I did a study abroad trip to Paris and found that everyone sounded exactly like the stereotype for how French people sounded. I felt like if I tried to replicate it, I might come off as rude or intrusive. It took some time to get over that feeling but I believe that throwing your stereotypical accent of a language onto it when you speak it truly does aid in how authentic it sounds. Now, I love rolling my R's and doing that clearing the back of your throat sound for H's. It's a tremendous feeling when you're confident in your ability to pronounce another language similarly to how natives do.

    Edit: I even put my Alexa on the French language and the wake word HAS to be said as a French person would say "Alexa" > it's more like "uhh- lehx -auhh" but it definitely does not respond to the American pronunciation. The point of my message is to tell you that it is not insensitive to impersonate an accent if you're truly trying to make it sound accurate. Don't be a dick about it. If you are genuine with it, you will receive praise and thanks from native speakers (my experience went as such).

  • Exactly how I learned English as a kid! I used tape recorders in primary school and continually imitated the materials of an American English textbook for starters. The tape was recorded by native speakers. It worked really well for me with the absence of a native English speaker tutor. I am glad that I did this when I was young so I am able to speak English with minimal accent right now. I am also going to use the same method to learn Japanese, Spanish, French, and Russian; plus with the development of technologies I can use dramas, videos, talk shows, etc. to fully master their phonological systems.

  • I’ve always really enjoyed mimicking the phonology of languages I’ve learned because I’m fairly good at it – it makes me sound a lot more fluent than I actually am haha. Though right now I’m learning Spanish, and learning to roll my r’s is a real struggle x_x

  • Now I understand why I can't understand French, despite studying it for three years in high school and getting good grades.

  • My second language is Vietnamese, which is tonal. (My native language is English.) I was married to a Vietnamese woman and had many Vietnamese friends and heard the language. It was not hard for me to understand the concept of the tones. It was a bit harder to learn to use the tones correctly and I'm still not so good at it. Listening? That was tough. After many years, one day I was listening to my friend singing Vietnamese karaoke and something clicked in my brain and suddenly I could hear, as two separate things, both the melody of the song and the tones of the words. Very cool. It was a Gestalt moment.

    Yes, Paul, phonology is very important. It is the difference between learning a language on paper and being able to actually speak and listen to that language. Thank you for sharing your knowledge 🙂

    (btw – I am surprised I have not found a Langfocus video for Vietnamese.)

  • now i know what and where you are doing 🙂 nice one it pays off i see to be fluent in languages 🙂

  • It is a great advice! Anyway, it doesn't always have to be that problematic, specially with languages that have a very different grammar. For instance, it is far easier to learn Euskera from scratch for Spanish people than for any others because of the phonological similarity of both languages – and it is very difficult to mix them, indeed.

  • learning to perceive the sound- is this something that can be done right off the bat when learning? Meaning, If I'm learning Arabic, would I benefit from learning the alphabet before I start listening to how words are pronounced?

  • If you don't know IPA and how to think of you vocal space and muscles when you talk, I would suggest that you learn it. Once you learn all the variables involved in pronunciation and all the distinctions commonly used in languages it becomes much faster to learn a particular language's phonology, and most languages have predictable spelling rules you can get by looking up "<insert language> orthography" on Wikipedia.

    Listening to native speakers is definitely useful for comprehension and probably the only practical way to get a fully native sound (IPA transcriptions are usually only so precise and can occasionally be misleading), but I still think the theoretical approach is under-rated, especially for people who want to learn several languages. Sometimes, theoretical knowledge can be better than listening for helping one pronounce things: I am a native English speaker but, when I was a young child, I pronounced the letter <R>/<r> as [w~β]. People kept trying to teach me by having me imitate them and it didn't work. Eventually I got put in a special "speech" class, and the teacher (presumably a language pathologist) taught me to bend my tongue back to pronounce the retroflex [ɻ] (as well as the "bunched" [ɹˤ] I think, but it was the retroflex one I latched onto) I learned to pronounce it very quickly after she gave me the idea of bending my tongue back; of course, this is probably also because I already knew very well what it sounded like, having grown up surrounded by English speakers.

  • This is interesting since I've always thought of phonology as being far easier to learn than, for example, vocabulary, but not very useful after you can distinguish all the sounds. My argument was this: a) People can understand you even if you have an obvious accent (I can easily understand people who don't pronounce <th> sounds, drop all kinds of syllable final consonants, and pronounce all their vowels and many consonants in slightly different positions than I would.)
    b) You don't have to know EXACTLY how someone pronounced something to know what they said; you just have to be able to recognize and distinguish between all the different sounds that THAT language distinguishes.

    On the other, I personally found that studying Spanish became at least twice as fun to speak when I discovered how different the ways native Spanish speakers REALLY pronounce words (esp. in terms of consonants) is from the Anglicized version I learned in high school. Also, you definitely have a point that it's much more awkward to switch languages mid-speech if you also have to switch phonological systems too. That being said, I sometimes find myself just Spanishizing or Germanizing my pronunciation of English words (and usually their morphology too if there is any) and hoping they're real words. (Thankfully, this often actually works.)

  • There are also websites like the mixxer ( that let you find conversation partners if you're willing to teach your own language at the same time as learning another. That's a much cheaper alternative to finding a teacher, though it may not be as ideal.

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