Today I’m taking some time to work on the Falar component of my language mission to learn Brazilian Portuguese, working on my pronunciation of vowel sounds especially.
First: My thoughts on the importance of getting the sounds right.
People like to tell me this is too ambitious, but I don’t want a foreign accent. Ultimately, I want to sound exactly like a native Brazilian and I believe this is possible. I’ve always loved music and singing, and internalizing some of the ideas from Language is Music and The Mimic Method has really helped me start coming up with a concrete plan for pronunciation work.
More than being inherently time-dependent (eg. your accent slowly improves with exposure over a number of years), I think accent reduction depends almost entirely on the methodology you use while studying.
But why don’t I want an accent? (Especially when amused, attractive men keep saying things to me like “your accent is so cute” ) Well, first and foremost, for me it’s almost a matter of respect. It’s respecting the language and culture enough to want to assimilate in a way, similar to how when I visit another culture, I try to abide by different cultural expectations there as much as I comfortably can. This “respect” as I call it is not required in order to communicate, but I feel it will enhance the level of my interactions here. My connections will be stronger and less guarded when I don’t scream “outsider” with every syllable I pronounce.
This desire for “authenticity” is similar to how a singer must feel, I’m sure, while concentrating on a piece. If you were in an opera performing Rossini, of course you’d want to focus on every aspect of the performance, you’d want perfect pronunciation as well as perfect pitch and tone, and in some way, by striving for this, you honor the composer and the audience.
From a more practical perspective, I’ve been feeling more and more that speaking and listening are connected in incredibly complicated ways. I used to believe it was a bit more linear: listen enough, and slowly you will start to speak. Now I feel it’s more like listen a bit, try to speak, and the process of trying to speak will help you to listen better, which will help you to try to speak more, which will help you to listen better, etc. If it’s true that these two processes influence each other so heavily, errors in one process would surely interfere with the other. Therefore, it’s extremely important to me to eliminate pronunciation errors early on, to help with my understanding as well as speaking.
Second: Training the muscle machine.
When I’m asking a native to help me with with pronunciation, I always say “where exactly do you put your tongue?” Human speech is based on vibrating different volumes of air in different parts of your mouth and nose. In this sense, reproducing the sounds of another language is a problem of physics that can be conquered through developing awareness of how we currently use our mouths and tongues. I have the same “machinery” that native speakers do, I just need to change the way I’m using it.
Reproducing the sounds of Brazilian Portuguese
I’ve been venturing into linguistics resources (dundundun…) to get a better understanding of where to position my tongue. I wanted to share a few ideas I learned that I found helpful. First, a couple language experts recommended developing “vowel awareness.” For me, this means understanding more how I make vowel sounds in English and learning a bit about the terminology for this so I can find resources online more easily. I started with a couple exercises on different types of vowels:
FRONT vowel to BACK vowel: practice switching between “eeee” and “oooo,” trying not to move any parts of your mouth which you don’t have to. Your tongue will move forward for “eeee” (FRONT vowel) and backward for “oooo” (BACK vowel).
OPEN vowel to CLOSED vowel: practice switching from “oooo” to “aaah.” Your tongue (and jaw) will move down for “aaah” (OPEN vowel) and up for “oooo” (CLOSED vowel).
Apparently, every other vowel sound can be mapped on a 2 dimensional spectrum between these extremes, more or less. Fascinating for me, given my typical engineer’s fetish for diagrams, figures, infographics etc., were the vowel charts I found online, which visually map vowel sounds in languages based on their Front/Back Open/Closed characteristics.
The symbols on the chart are phonemes from IPA, which you can listen to and practice with this clickable chart with mp3 sounds. As you can see below, the vowel chart for Portguese has sounds mapped in slightly different parts of the mouth:
I’m really excited to use these charts as a guide to improve my Portuguese pronunciation! For example, if there’s a Portuguese vowel and I notice it’s more or less between two familiar English vowel sounds on the chart, I can alternate between these sounds and try to get closer to something in the middle.
I also found this great pronunciation site for Brazilian Portuguese complete with vowel sounds, nasal sounds, diphthongs, and tone mp3s. I’ve been listening to the sounds, trying to mimic them and figure out what’s going on with my tongue.
Sometimes, I even touch my tongue with my finger before switching to another vowel to verify that yes, it has to move back to do that. It’s funny, but I guess I don’t always have a good idea of where the hell my tongue is in my mouth at any given moment.
Eventually, my plan is to record myself saying most of the things featured at the site above and ask a native speaker to point out my mistakes. Simultaneously, following this week’s Mimicking Mini-Goals (yukyukyuk) I’ll be working on learning the song Marinheiro só, focusing on the rhythm and pronunciation and ultimately recording myself singing that as well.
The free audio program Audacity lets you import songs, slow them down (to help with pronunciation!), and record your own tracks as well. If I have success, perhaps I’ll be able to post my result here.
So now I’m off to make like a parrot at that pronunciation website. What about you, have you ever found an especially good resource or framework for improving pronunciation?
Happy studying, and beijos.