This is a interview mainly on phonetics that you can also find on Vlad’s blog
I am Italian, and I come fromRome. I was born in a monolingual household and Italian was the only language I had been speaking until the age of 13. I lived inSpainfor about 6 months and I currently live inFrance. During all these years, while acquiring a mainly science based education (I hold a degree in Electronic Engineering), I have been developing a huge passion for languages. I have been “breathing” them in for more than 17 years now. Although I spent most of my life inRome, I have always managed to create an environment around me where I could listen, read, speak and write the languages that I have been learning over the years. Currently, I am a private language tutor here inParis(I give lessons both on-line and in person) and I am studying at ISIT in order to become a conference interpreter.
Why did you choose to learn foreign languages and what was the first foreign language you’ve learned?
My family has always put culture to the forefront. My house has always been full of books, and this “cultural turmoil” around me fostered an intellectual curiosity that was channeled towards languages at the ripe age of 13. It was mainly thanks to my grandma and later to my aunt that I started learning languages. I remember that well before learning Latin at high school my grandma had me study it in downtime, while on vacation at the beach house. If from one side my grandma created the background, it was my aunt who sparked my interest for languages by giving me my first book in English. I have never stopped learning languages since then. The very first language I came into contact with was English, followed by French. Two years later, I started learning German as a self-taught learner, at the age of 13. After the first difficulties, I came up with the method that I still use for acquiring languages.
How many languages do you speak and what does it mean for you to really speak a language?
As you yourself know, the term “to speak” is rather unclear and vague, but in general I am not the kind of guy who “dabbles” with languages: once I decide that I am going to start a certain language on day X, I never stop actively learning it, until I reach a level where I can keep fluency. I am very demanding of myself when it comes to “level”, and according to my humble opinion, “really speaking a language” means that one is able to enjoy the language in all its aspects, ranging from reading a book without worries to watching a movie and understanding what is going on, to interacting with native speakers. I think that one interesting test one can do to determine where he/she stands in terms of language proficiency (both active and passive) is to take part at a dinner (or lunch) with native speakers. It is a great opportunity to not only interact, but also witness the interaction among native speakers. I often have lunch with my girlfriend’s parents here inFrance, and I have come to realize what it means to really “breath” a foreign language in all its aspects. The puns, the cultural and historic references. It is amazing to witness how native speakers manipulate their language. In order to fully grasp all these aspects, books are not enough: one needs people, places and situations.
Which one was the most difficult one and why?
On the spur of the moment, I would say Chinese. But I would add Russian and Swedish. Every language is a world apart and poses various difficulties depending on our mother tongue. As a “Westerner”, Chinese poses a number of problems: in the first stage of learning, the most obvious are Chinese characters and tones (which are made to be even more difficult by traditional study methods which I find didn’t adapt to the Internet revolution). The worst, though, is yet to come, and one is confronted with serious issues when first venturing into the real language. Chinese, in fact, hides a growing complexity, that unfolds as long as we progress into the language and this becomes evident when it comes to speaking idiomatic Chinese in a live and real context. To make a long story short, we often can’t apply a direct translation from our own language into Chinese (as we normally and unconsciously do with most of European languages). One should learn to express himself all over again, and, if necessary to learn certain expressions by heart.
* The issue of acquiring tones: the majority of the students who are confronted with tones tend to learn them the “traditional way”. They are told there are 4 tones, and they are shown graphics of how the tones are supposed to be pronounced. It seems logical to start this way – one builds the capacity to pronounce a given language by deciphering the “bricks” that make up words and sentences. Imagine, though, to learn Italian, Spanish or French by starting to learn to utter every single syllable this way. The brain would spend a considerable amount of energy concentrating on the pieces, losing “the bigger picture”, and one would end up pronouncing a sentence robotically, far from the smoothness native speakers speak their language with. Very often, the difference is stressed between “tonal” and “non-tonal” languages, but it is not difficult to prove that the majority of languages (if not all) possess tones. What I suggest to all those who are about to tackle Chinese (and an entire post will be dedicated to this issue on my blog) or any other tonal language is to consider phrases, and try to focus on how the whole sentence sounds, rather than its single constituents. In other words, it is a “top-down” rather than the traditional “bottom up” approach.
As far as Russian is concerned, the main problem I encountered is the memorisation of new words and the extremely complex structure: it is nota n exaggeration to say that Russian is one of the most complex languages in the world from whatever perspective one might look at it, even from a slavic language speaker one.
And finally, Swedish is the language that posed the most problems in terms of pronunciation: the way the Swedish language is “sung” is rather elusive and needs special care and attention. I remember I gave little importance to it at the beginning, and this lack of accuracy showed up some years later, when, thanks to the feedback I got from the Internet, I realized that something was wrong in the way I uttered phrases. Obviously, it is much more challenging to close this gap and that’s the main reason why I’ll never get tired of stressing how important it is to acquire good pronunciation since the very beginning.
In general, if you start learning a new language, do you consider pronunciation important?
Yes I do. Pronunciation is an integral part of the language, it plays a huge role in communication, in building an empathy with your interlocutor, as well as creating a virtuous, motivational circle: native speakers’s surprise at your pronunciation is an enormous boost for improving yourself and keep learning the language.
The most critical moment for pronunciation always takes place at the beginning: learning how to “listen to” the sounds and reproduce them correctly and gradually is key to a good pronunciation. “A good start is half the battle” – they say.
Do you consciously concentrate and learn how to pronounce new sounds, especially vowels, or do you do it by feel?
Until a few years ago, I used to rely exclusively on my ears. I have always stressed the importance of creating a link between the sound and the corresponding word. I find it very useful to read and listen, especially at the beginning. Once this link is established, I only need to hear the sound, without having to read the text. Starting to produce those sounds myself “closes the circle”, thus providing the last piece of information I need in order to finally “hear” what I wasn’t able to hear before by simply listening.
Recently, however, I started to approach pronunciation and intonation more methodically. The language which I paid more attention to in terms of pronunciation is Chinese. It was the first time that I worked on pronunciation in a conscious, pragmatic way, and that’s where the idea of my “Phonetic Analysis” came from, which I am now applying to Japanese.
Do you relate the sounds of a language that you study to something you already know or try to develop a completely new sound register for it?
I think that, one way or another, we can always start from a point of reference, something we already know. What I try to do when I tackle new sounds is not taking anything for granted, and ask for native speakers’ advice as soon as possible. Being given feedback is always important. However, as you learn more languages you build an even bigger repertoire of sounds, and everything becomes easier.
How do you go about learning vowels that do not exist in any of the languages you already know?
I have always approached the study of vowels “the traditional way”: by listening and repeating, possibly asking to a native speaker for feedback and correction. This “static” aspect of vowels, though, has never posed big problems.
I find the “dynamic” aspect of vowels to be the most difficult to both understand and produce. Without going to much into detail (which you can find on my blog and on a series of videos I published on the Internet), a “vocal shift” happens in every language, something which is never taken into account in language courses or by teachers. The main reason of for this omission is probably the fact that the dynamics of a sentence is a rather complex matter not only to understand, but also to represent and, finally, to reproduce. Many deem it as “a waste of time”. When one starts learning, say, Italian, they are said that there are 5 vowels, but it is never stressed that every vowel is “sung” in a different way according to its position within the word and the sentence. This “vowel shift” is the main concept for grasping the intonation of every language. I take care of this aspect since the very beginning with the “Phonetic Analysis” mentioned earlier. It is often stressed how important it is to listen, but I think that one should learn how to do that. It is an important starting point, from which one can absorb the way a give language sounds.
If you find a new sound that you didn’t hear before, do you immediately recognize it, or does it happen often that some sounds have to be introduced to you as completely new, because you didn’t notice them before?
I don’t necessarily recognize a sound straight away. I can spot it as a new sound, of course, but it doesn’t bother me that much if I can’t “hear” it. What I try to do is reproducing it in order to “close the circle”. This recognition has its foundation in the mirror neurons, which is the main reason why the listening procedure consists of numerous steps: listening, listening again, and then repeating, and listening once again, according to a feedback scheme.
If you try to reproduce a new sound, do you consciously try finding the correct position of the tongue/vocal chords or do it by feel and concentrate purely on the sound?
To be honest, I never focused on vocal chords or the position of my tongue when uttering a sound. As I said before, I find the sound-word association to be much more efficient, both in retaining the word and the way it is pronounced. That is why I tend to always listen AND read a text at the same time. I focus exclusively on sounds only at a later stage, when the mind “sees” the image of the letter whenever it hears a given sound. I think that one of the secrets to acquiring good pronunciation is not to be in a rush to understand everything immediately, but to let the brain absorb sounds and words as long as we venture into “the language maze”.
Doesn’t the visual image of the letter in your mind interfere with a sound from a language you already know?
No, it generally doesn’t. This is probably due to the fact that I always try to learn one language at a time, and treat them as stand-alone entities. When I “think” and read “in” a given language, it seems like the brain uses only the area where that language is stored, and this prevents interference with other languages. This doesn’t mean that I never experience interference between languages, but this doesn’t seem to involve the sound-word link that I develop by listening and reading at the same time.
Can you hear all the new sounds immediately?
I “do” hear them, that is, my brain realizes that it is being confronted with a new sound, but it takes time to fully grasp the complexity of the sound itself. By “fully grasp” I mean that one also needs to be able to produce a given sound in order to fully understand how and why it sounds that way. For some sounds this “realization” might take a long time.
What makes a sound difficult for you? Is it the fact that it is so distant that you maybe even didn’t notice that it is different or is it the fact that you need a lot of “new movement” of your speech organs?
From my personal experience, I find certain consonants or clusters of consonants difficult when you need to use the tongue or the facial muscles (and the teeth) in a way you have never done before, so it mainly relies on using new organs (structures), so to say. As for the vowels, once again, it is the “new” usage of certain structures such as the glottis that makes things hard (the Arabic “ain” or the german “glottis stroke” come to mind).
How about correction? Do you rely on yourself or others to correct your pronunciation?
Being corrected is a key factor for acquiring a native-like accent. The 4 main pillars my strategy hinges on are: flexibility, attention, curiosity and a big smile. In order to speak like a native speaker one not only needs to distinguish the sounds, but also to be flexible. You should always wonder if what you produce with your mouth does actually corresponds to what you hear. That’s why it is important to be curious and flexible, other than reacting positively to possible criticism and/or judgment on the part of a native speaker. Asking somebody to evaluate our intonation and pronunciation can lead to disappointment if we set the bar too high. When we hear something we didn’t expect to hear, the best thing is always to consider the feedback extremely valuable, and a starting point for improvement. Positive mentality is key not only to acquiring a good accent in a language, but also to improving the way we lead our life in general. It is always great to react with a big, radiant smile… and move on.
What about the most difficult vowel that you encountered and why?
Again, I don’t recall having problems with reproducing vowels statically, but I did find some problems in figuring out the right configuration of tones when uttering a sentence. I have never formally learned Arabic, but I did try to utter the vowel “ain” a couple of times, and the result was not very pleasing. I think that I’ll give it my full attention if I decide to learn Arabic one day.
How about consonants?
Consonants are mechanical sounds by nature: intonation mainly relies on vowels. This simplifies things, because consonants do not “shift” in a sentence, they are always produced the same way. I learn them according to the aforementioned “feedback scheme”: I listen and repeat, I record my own voice and ask for a native speaker’s advice. And then I repeat again.
In general, I find consonants easier than vowels. There are obviously exceptions. A glaring example of how the sheer mechanical production of a consonant can be complicated is the “r”. It varies wildly from language to language. It posed some problems with Dutch. I finally realized the difference between the dutch “r” and American “r” after posting my Dutch video in Youtube. Before then, I thought it was basically the same sound, while in fact it is slightly different, and the difference lies on a somewhat different position of the tongue. It is the demonstration that one can always improve, even after getting the sound wrong for years. The key word here is without a doubt flexibility.
What was the most difficult consonant that you encountered? Why?
I remember trying to pronounce the czech “Ř” while on the car with Richard. I tried to copy his Czech R, but I found it rather difficult. Then he patiently explained to me how to put my tongue and how to use my teeth and I felt like I was improving. I think my brain “heard”, or “saw” the sound, but I also feel like the only way to fully grasp it is to try… and try again. As of now, I am not sure at all that I picked up the sound right, but I am “on the right track” and I hope to get a convincing Czech R if I was to learn this beautiful language in the future. Needless to say, it always takes time for the brain to absorb, understand and reproduce a sound due to their phonetic complexity.
You often talk about “sentence accent”, it is a complicated issue, but could you in general describe what it is, why it is important and how you learn it?
It is indeed a complex issue to deal with and describe, but it is fascinating and it is worth going into details. In the last year I have been wondering why it is so difficult for an adult to sound like a native speaker in a foreign language. I wondered what happens in our brain that impairs the quality of our oral production and if there is a way to “soften” this problem, if not to solve it.
Almost each and everyone of us knows the concept of “stress” within a word. The sentence accent is a less studied and known aspect of a language, and it is often only discussed in very specific academic publications . Every sentence has sentence accent, that means that the voice “falls” on one or more important words, that is why it is called “stress”: some words are the pillars a sentence hinges on and they condition they way all the vowels are “sung”.
To make a long story short, every language has its its “musicality”: the voice raises, falls, stops. All this relies on vowels, which are pronounced with different heights (tones) and lengths (short or long vowels). As said before, tones can be applied to non tonal languages. Let’s consider the following sentence in Italian:
Mā chě stāi fācěndó?
But what are you doing?
What on hearth are you doing?
It seems that adamantly concentrating on the single syllables is folly: the system is too complex to be efficiently acquired on conscious way. In this regard, the “Phonetic Analysis” offers the main guidelines on how to understand how a sentence sounds. I use special markers to identify the main blocks within a speech, and I use other markers within the block to explain how to “sing” the block itself.
It is much easier to do it than to explain it, and it is a very pragmatic way to roughly represent how a sentence sounds. The first step towards reproducing a sentence is to figure out how it is produced.
In other words, through this “analysis” one becomes aware of what it means to “sing” a sentence correctly. It is an important starting point, to which I add a lot of listening at a lager stage: quantity + quality is always guarantee for success.
On a final note, I’d like to add that I don’t like selling miracles. It is a fact that most of the learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation. But this doesn’t mean that it is not feasible. It only needs a lucky mix of ingredients, such attention, concentration, patience. And above all, faith. You have to believe in something if you want to reach it. An old Japanese saying goes: “A thousand mile track always starts by a first step”.
As far as learning new languages is concerned, my short-term goal is to speak fluent Japanese. As for language learning in general, I am trying to collect all these ideas on this complex topic (plus many more that I have written down but not published yet) in a structured form, that might be useful to the my readers