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The Smart Way to Improve Your Pronunciation

By: Giancarlo Di Mizio & Vikey Chen |

“Should I learn grammar?” This is a typical question that I receive from many new students.

It’s a fact that grammar is important. It is the backbone of a language and provides you with the structure to put your messages across. However, grammar shouldn’t be the top priority when you start learning a language.

My advice is to skip grammar at the beginning and come back to it at a later stage.

So, what is the top priority when you learn a new language?

My answer is clear and simple: “pronunciation.”

Your ability to pronounce a language correctly from the beginning is more important than grammar. The aim is not to remove all traces of your native accent, but to improve clarity so you can be better understood in any setting you need to intelligibly and efficiently communicate in.

If you want to have a clearer and more accurate pronunciation, you need to practice speaking the target language to develop new muscle memory. Your muscles can help you remember how to pronounce words.

Why can’t you learn accurate pronunciation by relying on your ear?

Your ear has been trained by your own language all your life, so you need to pull yourself away from using your ear. Your ability to mimic a new language by using your ear and the old muscle memory of your own language is always limited. This approximation is going to get close, but usually it is not the accurate pronunciation.

For example, my student Emma, like many people, struggled with the rolled R in Italian. She tried to imitate the sound, but her tongue, teeth and roof of the month did not make contact where they should. Since all those pronunciation movements of the rolled R take place inside the mouth and out-of-sight, approximations which rely on listening are not good enough, which explains Emma’s struggle.

There are many deaf people that are trained to speak very well through building new muscle memory in the mouth. They can barely hear, but they know how to position all the parts in the mouth and what correct pronunciation feels like. It proves how important developing muscle memory is in language learning.

In order to pronounce the right sound, rather than relying on your listening to imitate it, you should learn how to position your mouth, your teeth and your tongue. You need to be aware of what different parts in your month are doing, and your muscles need to be worked from all angles.

How to build muscle memory to improve your pronunciation?

Sharpening your sense of touch in your mouth helps develop new muscle memory. I always encourage students to pay attention to what accurate pronunciation feels like and memorize that feeling.

That’s why one of the first things I show my students, in our Accent Reduction classes, is a cutaway view of the side of a human face. It is necessary to know what the inside of your mouth and tongue looks like, before learning where all of the different vowel and consonant sounds are positioned.

Going back to our previous example about Emma’s trouble in pronouncing the Italian rolled R, she came to me for advice. Instead of having her listen to my pronunciation carefully, I urged her to watch the movements of my mouth attentively. I also taught her a series of precise steps to say the rolled R naturally: “Relax your tongue; Place the tip of your tongue against the back of your front teeth and close to the roof of your mouth; Blow air through your mouth and activate your vocal cords.”

Emma gave it a try, and she was amazed about her progress.

What is the science behind muscle memory practice?

This method works because it is based on the science of how the shape of your mouth makes the sound different. Shape your mouth and position your tongue differently, you can make a sound that you don't even realize it sounds like something else. Again, ear is not reliable, especially when you learn a language consisting of pronunciations that are totally different from your own language.

Gradually, through muscle memory practice, you use your senses in the mouth more, and you exercise your mouths’ muscles. You can improve your pronunciation through a variety of speech exercises focusing on specific consonants, vowels, stress patterns and intonation. That’s what we do in our classes, and we actually do it more than you believe.

You can definitely retrain the muscles without even hearing yourself. The ability for people to pronounce words correctly depends on a lot of training that doesn't include the ear. Not everyone has perfect pitch as a musician, but everybody is able to feel the mouth. So you should rely on your sense of touch and proprioception where your mouth is, more than your listening.

As you can tell, learning to pronounce clearly involves training the muscles you speak with, so it is more physical training than mental training. If you want to improve your pronunciation, it takes not just language practice but phonetic muscle memory practice.

Practice doesn't always make progress, but the right practice does!

Book a language class with ILC!

We have classes in any world language with online, in-person and hybrid options. Send a DM, email us at:, or simply call 844 503 1237 for more info.

Giancarlo Di Mizio, Education Director at Indy Language Center, is a native Italian and fluent Spanish speaker who grew up in the heart of Rome. He thinks the best thing about his role is creating community and bringing people together speaking each other's languages and experiencing each other's cultures.

Vikey Chen is an education columnist from Hong Kong, and now she calls the US home.

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