As many readers can testify from their own experience with taking a foreign language in high school or college, one of the toughest things about learning a foreign language is being able to speak it. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Discounting the problems of class size and psychological factors such as shyness, this article is about what any learner of any age can and should do to improve his or her oral facility with the foreign language he or she is studying.
I advise non-native speakers of English to read Dr. Seuss – aloud and often. By reading Dr. Seuss carefully, placing the stress on the proper syllables, one is almost forced into the rhythm of standard American English. The same is true for learning any language. Some readers will recall that many forms of stuttering are treated by singing and gradually transferring the rhythm into non-melodic speech. To use Spanish as an example I am thoroughly acquainted with as a professor of that language and its literature, reading Spanish poetry aloud or singing songs really does work to reduce a foreign accent and improve a learner’s facility – and confidence – for regular conversation. Facility is related to but not identical with fluency and refers to the ease with which one, as a beginner, pronounces words and phrases and as an intermediate level speaker, is able to articulate whole sentences and as an advanced or superior level speaker, is able to sustain discourse in a native or near-native manner.
Each language has its own musicality, known as prosody, whether in prose or poetry, but it is poetry and music where each language’s particular music is most recognizable. Shakespeare’s preferred rhythm was the iambic pentameter, a stress pattern that is quite close to the rhythm of conversational English. In Spanish, the eight-syllable line with a stress on the next to the last syllable was the form used in medieval Spain by the juglares, or troubadours, who sang of legends and great deeds. This form is still used today in much of the popular music in Spanish, most notably in Mexican Corridos.
Of course, the old fashioned tape recorder is a good way to record oneself or record a native speaker reading the selection that the learner is to imitate. Beyond that, there are sophisticated voice recognition features in many language-learning software programs, such as Rosetta Stone and Instant Immersion Spanish, Deluxe Version. The only disadvantage such programs have for addressing pronunciation in the long run is that they provide practice and comparison with native pronunciation of words and phrases instead of whole sentences or short paragraphs. That is why it is important to go beyond such programs and launch into the real world of a language’s musicality by finding songs and poetry to practice with.