The main advantage of learning good pronunciation is that it’s probably the easiest way to sound fluent at an upper beginner or intermediate stage, and early effort will continue to help you throughout your language endeavours.
If you’re the outgoing type or are learning primarily to communicate verbally, good pronunciation is a good way to keep people happy conversing with you and get compliments on your skill.
Pronunciation is especially important for languages with very different phonology, such as Vietnamese. This is because the differences are so great as to make mispronunciation a barrier to communication.
If you are learning a tonal language or one with many new sounds, consider paying closer attention to pronunciation.
Pronunciation can be split between sound, syllable, word, and sentence. Every target language has different rules governing these. This is known as the study of phonetics, split between phonology and prosody.
Here are several aspects you will need to look out for in your practice:
Sound inventory: Every language has a set of distinct consonants and vowels.
These sounds can be very different from English (such as tones and click consonants) or only slightly different.
Oral posture: This is the way native speakers tend to hold the muscles in their mouth.
Tone: This is the use of tone to distinguish morphemes.
This means two words can be identical but for their tone and carry completely different meanings.
If your target language is a tonal language you will need to become proficient in order to communicate.
Difficult sound clusters: Different languages have different rules surrounding which sounds can fit into a single syllable.
This means some languages will have clusters of consonants you will find difficult to pronounce.
Stress: Languages have different rules around what syllables are stressed within words, as well as how they are stressed
Connected speech: Words flow together in a way that makes them sound different than if they were spoken individually. Notice how this sentence sounds different in your mind. when. I. type. the. last. part. like. this.
Intonation: This is pitch when used to convey other types of information. The simplest example is rising pitch to indicate a question. Intonation is often used in other ways and these can differ between languages.
Rhythm and tempo: Languages are spoken with a different sense of pace and timing.
The difficulty with learning new sounds is understanding precisely how to make them. If you would like to master the pronunciation of your language, it helps a lot to learn some of the terminology around sounds and parts of the mouth.
Your best tool for learning the sounds of your language is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):
The IPA is a system of writing all the sounds of human language.
Knowing the core sounds associated with your language and familiarity with their IPA symbol is very useful. By googling any IPA symbol, you can find the Wikipedia article describing it, which has a sound file to help you.
There is a Wikipedia entry for the phonology of English to help you:
It’s also important to understand the fundamentals of consonants and vowels.
It can be very easy to think you are producing something correctly. However, careful study of the sounds of your language can reveal differences you were not previously aware of.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on phonetics will be a useful reference later on: