In your quest to make lasting changes to your English pronunciation, picture yourself slowly pushing your lips into a circle shape, while your tongue struggles to stretch out a strange sound, possibly while sounding like a baby cow. Does this image make you cringe?
If your answer is yes, then I’d say your reaction is pretty normal.
However, if you want to improve your English pronunciation skills, things have to get a little weird before they can get better.
What do I mean by weird?
I mean be prepared to make some strange faces or funny sounds as you train your tongue and lips to coordinate together in a new way. Know that this is a normal part of the process.
Your tongue, your lips and your jaw are known as your ‘articulators.’ They have been working together since you were a baby to create the rhythm and sounds of your native language. Speaking in your native language feels as natural as walking.
You don’t even think about what is happening in your mouth when you speak because your articulators have been hitting the same targets in your mouth for years, like a well-coordinated dance routine.
Except, if you want to change your pronunciation, you have to change the targets in your mouth that your articulators know so well. There are now new targets for your articulators to aim for.
You are now asking them to change the ‘dance’ routine. They have to learn new steps to an entirely different rhythm. What used to feel normal and natural to your tongue now feels awkward and clumsy. Your jaw is either open too wide or too closed. Suddenly, your lips are in the way. How is that even possible, you might wonder?
Like any skill worth learning, changing your English pronunciation means you have to step out of your comfort zone.
You have to be ok with feeling a little silly as your articulators wrestle with this new routine.
You may be expected to make a sound that isn’t in your native language. Your tongue may refuse to cooperate at first. It may stubbornly cling to the old dance steps. You are an intelligent, accomplished adult and yet your tongue simply won’t listen to you. You may have to trick it into submission. This is when things can get a little weird — and that’s OK.
More than likely, your instructor is right there with you making the same faces and sounds as you, guiding you to the new target — the new step in the dance routine. When things get weird and you’re making funny faces and repeating odd sounds over and over again, guess what? Learning is happening.
Working on your pronunciation skills means you have to turn your attention to the inside of your mouth — in a way you haven’t had to do since before you can remember. You’re not just making a funny face. You’re learning how to manipulate sound by making tiny adjustments in your mouth.
You’re developing an awareness of the muscles in your tongue. That’s right, your tongue is not one giant muscle. It’s made of eight muscles to be exact. There are eleven muscles in your lips helping you speak. Eleven! All of them need to coordinate together and when you ask them to learn a new routine it’s not always going to be pretty.
Do you think amazing dancers just show up to their opening night and stun you with their coordination and grace by putting in a little polite effort at rehearsal? Heck, no!
There was a lot of stumbling and flopping about and repeating difficult steps over and over again until they got it right. They had to think hard about every little movement. They had to train their muscles to move in a controlled and specific way. It took concentration. It wasn’t always pretty and graceful. They had to look fairly awkward before they could make it look easy.
Give in to the process
I’m not sharing this reality to scare you away. Some people shy away from English pronunciation training because they are worried they might not be able to change or they might feel ‘too weird’ changing how they sound.
Rest assured that most of the time you will look and sound like a completely normal human being when working on your English pronunciation. But when your articulators need a little extra help, embrace the funny faces and strange noises you might make. Lean into it, as they say. In fact, have fun with it.
If you think you sound like a baby cow, don’t give up. It’s only temporary, it’s completely normal, and it’s all a part of the process. Know that these are signs of real change. You absolutely can improve your English pronunciation, and better still, the more you practice , the more graceful and natural you will sound.
Above all else, remember that you are not alone. Your instructor is making funny faces and strange sounds every day — for a living. We’re kind of weird like that.