A Complete Guide to Language Learning. Part 1: Learning Pronunciation

The Perfect Video for Foreign Language Learning

I have always been passionate about language learning. My native language is Russian, and I speak English and French fluently. I also have experience with more languages, including Japanese, Spanish, German, and Chinese! (check my certificates)

Since I first started learning foreign languages, I have been thinking a lot about one question: what is the best way to learn a foreign language? Is it a book, an audio recording, a video course, or lessons with a native speaker?

Although you can indeed learn very fast with a professional teacher, this comes with one major drawback—private lessons are expensive. While group classes are much cheaper, students spend much of their time listening to the mistakes of fellow students.

If you want to learn a foreign language on your own, learning materials can be divided in 3 categories:

  1. Text
  2. Audio + Text
  3. Video + Text

I experimented with each of these options and found that video combined with text is the best tool to quickly learn a foreign language. However, finding the right video can be challenging. A video for language learning should have:

  • Professional, high-quality sound and video
  • Slow-paced speech for beginners and quicker dialogue for more advanced students
  • Good articulation with each and every word pronounced very clearly
  • Exclusively native-speaker actors
  • All dialogues taking place only in the foreign language so the language learner isn't torn unnecessarily between two languages
  • Subtitles for every dialogue
  • Translation of all dialogues
  • Phonetic transcription of the text, because in languages like English or Japanese, it can be unclear how to pronounce unfamiliar words
  • No distractions such as background noise or background music
  • Actors' voices recorded at the same time as the video rather than using voice dubbing
  • Focus on the most popular words of the language to help language learners get prepared for real communication situations as quickly as possible

I couldn't find any existing course that met all the above criteria, so I decided to create a website, Project Modelino, to help people find good language-learning video materials for free. However, I was still not satisfied with the available courses, so I began to create pronunciation courses myself.

Now that we have discussed what to use for language learning, isn't it time to discuss how to learn a language? Not yet! Before that, we need to talk about something much more important, something that determines whether you will succeed or fail in learning a language: motivation.

Motivation + Regular Practice = Success!

You might have seen this formula for success before. It is no secret that with regular practice and strong motivation you can achieve almost everything in any aspect of your life: business, sports, science, you name it! Language learning is no exception. So, before you start doing any of the exercises described below, ask yourself the following questions:

  • "Why do I want to learn this language?"
  • "Is it really important for me to learn this language?"
  • "What am I going to do when I achieve some fluency in this language?"

If your answer starts with, "Well, I don't know...", then forget it—you don't really need a foreign language. But if you can speak for at least five minutes answering these questions, and are able to convince your listener that you cannot live without this language—that's another story! Welcome to the club of foreign language lovers!

Another crucial part of the formula is regular practice. By regular, I mean at least one hour, EVERY day. Why is it so important? Well, any foreign language is very unnatural for your brain. If you have already tried to learn a foreign language, you may have noticed it is difficult to learn new words at first. Your brain will reject the new language unless you prove to it that this is something you really need—something you will be using on a regular basis. And that takes regular intensive practice.

I want you to always repeat this magical formula to yourself:

Motivation + Regular Practice = Success

This is an absolute prerequisite for everything that follows. This is also why most of us didn't succeed in learning languages in school—at least one part of the formula was missing.


A Special State for Language Learning: The High-Performance State

If you want to succeed in an activity, you need to be mentally and physically prepared for it. For example, if you want to play a sport that requires fast reactions, such as tennis, you should be alert, your muscles should be warmed up, and your mind should be free and open to anything that could happen around you. Other activities, such as meditation, for example, may require a different set of body parameters. Each of these sets may be called a state.

You will also need to get into a special state to help you learn foreign languages easily and quickly. Consider this quote from John Grinder, one of the co-creators of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP):

So, when you learn another language... Strictly speaking, no two languages are translatable. You can't translate from another language into your own. You can certainly operate in one and in the other. But straight translation, no. It's not real. So if all you are offered is a cubicle and a pair of earphones, you are driven to translate. That's the most effective way to not learn.

What you need is a separate reality. What you need is a state which is so dissociated from English, or whatever languages you speak, that when you hear that language—your native language—spoken externally, or you trigger an internal auditory loop in yourself, in English, it sounds like gibberish. If you can do that, then you can create a place for this new world to grow because initially it's very fragile.

There is a strong tendency, especially for us westerners, to fall back on understanding. Confusion is a state to be escaped from. I mean, that's really a travesty. Confusion is an indication you are about to learn something if you stay with it. I mean, if you weren't confused, you wouldn't be learning anything new.

Now you may have some questions:

  1. What are the precise characteristics of this high-performance state?
  2. How can you achieve this state?

The answer to the first question is simple. Just like in tennis, you should feel physically comfortable, warmed up, and free of unnecessary tension. Mentally, you should be self-confident, full of energy, enthusiastic , alert, and open to anything you can hear or see. You should also be positive about any mistakes. Who cares if you make mistakes? This is part of the learning process!

So how can you achieve this high-performance state? There are several options. Let's consider tennis again: if you play tennis well, you have reached this state multiple times in your life—you reached it each time you played a match. However, playing a tennis match before each language lesson is pretty inconvenient, considering most people do not have a tennis court in their backyard.

Fortunately, there is another option: you can play special games or exercises designed to help you achieve this state very quickly. These games are easy to do from home and don't require expensive equipment. For example, you can try the Alphabet Game, which is quite simple to play at home.

For best results with language-learning videos, I recommend you do all the exercises described below in this high-performance state. This is a very powerful technique that will help in your language learning and in other aspects of your life too!

Now that we have discussed what to use to learn a language and which state will help you achieve success, let's talk about how to get started. I recommend you start with pronunciation.


How Can You Learn Pronunciation?

I often compare language learning—especially learning pronunciation—to learning how to play an instrument (like the flute) or sport (like tennis).

Let's consider learning to play the flute. The teacher usually starts by showing their student how to hold and blow into the flute, and how to form the lips to produce sounds. Then the student imitates all of that. We could say that the teacher serves as a model for the student, and that the student copies the behavior of the model. There is a lot of repetition here. With these repetitive movements, the body (fingers, hands, lips) gets used to this unfamiliar activity and eventually the student produces a good sound.

Now let's consider learning to play tennis. The same principle applies here—the teacher demonstrates the right way to hold the racket and the right way to hit the ball, and the student copies the movements of the teacher. Again, repetition, and lots of it. Of course, in the beginning the student's movements will be awkward. But with time, practice, and strong motivation, the muscles and the brain will adapt to this activity, and the student will be able to hit the ball correctly.

Learning a foreign language is no different! You carefully watch how a native speaker pronounces a sound or word, and then you imitate them. You form your lips the same way the native speaker does, and you do your best to produce the same sound as he or she does. That's all there is to it!

Think about it—young children do not read descriptions of speech organs' movements, they do not watch animated parts of the head, and yet they still somehow manage to learn how to pronounce all these sounds. In many ways, you are in a better position than young children. Your nervous system is developed, you know what you are doing, you can concentrate more, and you can use phonetic transcription to help you learn the strange or unfamiliar sounds of the new language.


Sound: The Primary Substance of Any Language

When you read the descriptions of the exercises below, please note one important principle: new language patterns—from sounds to words to phrases—should never be learned just from reading text. Instead, they should be learned either from video or audio. Why? Well, think about learning a foreign language as similar to learning music.

In music, the primary substance we learn is sound. Its visual representation (notation) is secondary and should be treated as such. The same concept applies to languages. The spoken language appeared long before the written language, and this priority should be respected during language learning.

If you are not convinced yet, try this experiment. Say the following phrase out loud: "I say". Next, watch these three short clips from the British TV series "Jeeves and Wooster":

  1. "I say" (1)
  2. "I say" (2)
  3. "I say" (3)

Now compare how YOU pronounced this phrase and how Hugh Laurie pronounced it. I bet your intonation wasn't the same! In this particular example, the same phrase has three different meanings:

  1. "I say" (1) = "Wow! That's amazing!"
  2. "I say" (2) = "Excuse me!"
  3. "I say" (3) = "Come on! You don't really mean it!"

Imagine if you were learning English from a textbook. You would never have guessed or learned these intonations correctly. Of course, you can use audio to learn intonations, but this still leaves out part of the picture. With audio you can hear how native speakers pronounce words and phrases. With video, however, you can also see in which situations a word or phrase may be used. Video also shows how native speakers pronounce words and phrases, including non-verbal behavior. This makes video the best material to learn a language. Every bit of linguistic information is preserved in its original form. You would never get as much information from audio recordings or text. It is just not possible!

So always try to use video, or at least audio, when you learn something new in a language. This approach will save you time during your studies, because you will learn the language the way it is really spoken by native speakers—rather than the way you guess it is spoken when you read foreign text. This way, you will not have to relearn things in the future that you initially learned incorrectly.


Pronunciation Exercises

I have compiled a list of exercises that you can do while watching video materials. You do not have to do ALL of these exercises. I suggest you choose those that will help you progress faster. The best set of exercises will be different for every student.

The exercises described are modified excerpts from my book about language learning, "Quick Foreign Language Learning: From English to Japanese" (published in Russian). These exercises can be divided into three categories, with three exercises inside each category. The most important exercises are highlighted in bold.

  1. Passive learning exercises
    • 1-A. Passive watching of video
    • 1-B. Passive reading of phonetic transcription
    • 1-C. Passive reading of foreign text
  2. Active learning exercises
    • 2-A. Active watching of video
    • 2-B. Active reading of phonetic transcription
    • 2-C. Active reading of foreign text
  3. Consolidation exercises
    • 3-A. Autonomous speaking
    • 3-B. Autonomous reading of phonetic transcription
    • 3-C. Autonomous reading of foreign text


1. Passive Learning Exercises

The following three exercises enable passive learning. This means that you do not actively repeat what the native speaker says, neither externally (out loud) nor internally (with micro-muscle movements of your speech organs). These exercises are suitable if you are new to language learning or if a particular word or phrase is too complicated or fast for your level.

1-A. Passive watching of video

Instruction: watch the video without subtitles.

If you have done the active learning exercises described below, you can do this exercise with audio only—it will be passive listening. In this case, you can practice during housework or other daily activities that don't require much attention. You may need software that can extract audio from video files.

1-B. Passive reading of phonetic transcription

Instruction: listen to the video soundtrack while simultaneously scanning the phonetic transcription with your eyes.

This exercise helps you make out some unfamiliar sounds of the language you are learning. This makes it easier for you to copy these sounds while performing active learning exercises.

1-C. Passive reading of foreign text

Instruction: listen to the video soundtrack while simultaneously scanning the foreign text with your eyes.

This exercise will help you start learning how to read in a foreign language.


2. Active Learning Exercises

If you already have some experience with language learning and know how to achieve a high-performance state, then you can skip passive learning and start with the following exercises.

2-A. Active watching of video

Instruction: watch the video without subtitles while simultaneously copying the native speaker.

This exercise, together with Exercise 2-C, is of utmost importance. There are several options for how to perform this exercise. If you are a beginner, you can copy the native speaker by pausing the video after each word or short phrase and repeating what you have just heard.

Alternatively, you can start copying the native speaker as soon as they start speaking. This means that there will be a delay (a little less than a second) between your voice and the native speaker's voice. I recommend that you speak out loud; however, you can also speak quietly without vibration of vocal cords as long as your speech organs still perform the same movements as if you were speaking out loud.

A crucial point here—you should not know which word will be pronounced when you start listening to the native speaker. All you should pronounce is a precise reproduction of what you just heard.

Sometimes professional voice-over actors use this technique as well.

Watch a demonstration by Mike Rowe.

2-B. Active reading of phonetic transcription

Instruction: listen to the video soundtrack and scan the phonetic transcription with your eyes while simultaneously copying the native speaker.

This exercise may help people with less-developed ears. Some people are able to easily reproduce sounds they hear, either by nature or by training (in the case of musicians, for example). If this is your case, you can skip this exercise—especially if the phonetic structure of the language you are learning is very similar to your native language.

2-C. Active reading of foreign text

Instruction: listen to the video soundtrack and scan the foreign text with your eyes while simultaneously copying the native speaker.

This exercise is very important. It will help you learn to read in a foreign language. The same principle described in Exercise 2-A applies here—you should wait for the native speaker to pronounce the word before reading it yourself! When you read the word, you only reproduce precisely what you have just heard. Here you can also either read the words during the pauses or you can read them simultaneously with the native speaker with a slight delay.


3. Consolidation Exercises

The exercises from the previous category are called active learning, but still your brain needs an additional step. This step will allow to consolidate everything that you learned by copying the native speaker. You should start speaking and reading on your own.

3-A. Autonomous speaking

If you practice the exercises from the previous categories regularly, at some point you may find yourself pronouncing the words or phrases you learned before—even when doing a completely different activity during the day.

The same thing happens when you learn to play tennis. After a while, your body starts to reproduce the patterns that you learned during your lessons. This is a good sign of progress.

You can also do this consciously. Remember which words or phrases you have been learning, and start saying them out loud. Imitate the native speaker as precisely as your memory allows.

If you know the meaning of the words or phrases you learned, you can also imagine yourself in a situation where saying this word would be appropriate, and practice saying it in this imaginary situation. You can do this with your partner or teacher as well. This exercise is just as important as Exercises 2-A and 2-C.

3-B. Autonomous reading of phonetic transcription

In this exercise, you read out loud the phonetic transcription of the words you learned earlier. You can make a printout of this transcription or upload it to your phone for practice even when you do not have a computer nearby. Again, do your best to imitate the native speaker as precisely as you can. This will help you to develop long-term memory of the sounds of the language you are learning.

3-C. Autonomous reading of foreign text

This exercise is also very important. You will read the foreign text by yourself, which helps to consolidate the reading skills that you began developing with Exercise 2-C.


Pronunciation Player

You may be eager to start practicing now that you have read about these exercises. To help you learn pronunciation, we designed a special software called Pronunciation Player. It has several unique features:

  • Slow-motion playback with stretched natural-sounding audio
  • Display of several types of subtitles, including word spelling and phonetic transcription, with all subtitles possible to turn on and off separately
  • Option to set pause length before and after each video clip
  • Option to repeat each video clip as many times as desired

We also recorded pronunciation courses for the most popular languages. All our courses are designed to meet the requirements for perfect language-learning videos, including:

  • High-quality sound and video
  • Slow speech rate for beginners
  • Clear articulation
  • Emphasis on the most frequently used words


What About the Meanings of Words?

You might have noticed that none of the exercises described above require you to learn words' meanings. Why? Does this mean you will be learning foreign words without knowing their meanings? Well, yes! That's the trick. Do you remember how language learning is similar to learning a musical instrument or a sport? These pronunciation exercises have analogs in those activities too.

For example, in sports, these exercises are like stretching or general conditioning exercises. During a tennis match, you will not lie on the floor to stretch your thigh muscles. Nevertheless, such exercises are very important if you want to succeed. All professional athletes include them in their training program.

In music, these pronunciation exercises are like learning scales or playing on mouthpiece in the case of some wind instruments. Nobody will ever play on mouthpiece in a band or orchestra; however, mouthpiece exercises are essential for beginners and even professional musicians sometimes use them.

The same thing goes when performing the pronunciation exercises. Yes, they may seem boring at first. They may look strange too—we are learning a language, but there is no communication whatsoever! But believe me, this apparent boredom will pay off later! I suggest you forget about words' meanings for now. Save your time and energy. The best way to learn the meaning of words is through watching real communication among native speakers. This will be the next step on your journey of learning a new language...


© Timur Baytukalov, 2014-2024