People who speak languages other than English are sometimes impressed by how well I and other linguists pronounce words or names in their language, even if we don’t speak a word of it. But it’s not magic: Here are seven basic principles that linguists use to fake-pronounce foreign languages but that anyone can apply. They won’t make you sound completely fluent, but you’ll sound a lot better than the average English speaker.
1. Pronounce ALL the letters. English (and a few other languages like French and Gaelic) often has silent letters at the ends of words, but most languages don’t. Unless you know you’re dealing with one of the silent-letter languages, you should pronounce that “e” or “h” at the end of the word and all the other letters too.
2. When someone says a word or phrase to you, try to repeat it with exactly the same intonation as they said it. Instead of making it into a question because you’re not sure if you’re right or lingering on syllables you’re less certain about, try to mimic them as precisely as possible. Not only will you seem more confident this way, but this will make you sound much better at tone languages and languages with non-English-y intonation styles.
3. De-English your vowels. English has a weird vowel system because of the Great Vowel Shift, but for any other unfamiliar language your best option is to pronounce the vowels as in Spanish or Italian. This basically means to pronounce “i” like “ee” in see, “e” like “ay” in play, “a” like “a” in la, “o” like “o” in go, and “u” like “oo” in too.
You won’t always be right with this vowel system, but it will reduce your odds of being wrong from about 99% to about 30%. Bonus points if you can stop pronouncing the subtle w and y sounds that typically show up at the ends of English vowels but aren’t very common in other languages.
4. Pronounce all of the vowels fully. Instead of reducing them to schwa, the faint sound that’s the first vowel in “potato” or the last vowel in “sofa,” go for the Spanish/Italian vowels mentioned above. Reducing unstressed vowels to schwa is something that English does and most languages don’t.
5. Pronounce the r like a tap, instead of like English r. A tap (also called a flap) is the sound the dd makes in ladder and the tt makes in latter, if you speak American or Canadian English. Many more languages have an r that sounds like a tap than an English-style bunched/retroflex r, (e.g. Spanish, Japanese).
6. Look up the language if you know you’re going to be in contact with it. Most languages have Wikipedia articles about them, with titles like Turkish language or Russian phonology. You may even be able to find a few guides on YouTube, such as this one on j, q, and x in Mandarin. Figure out what any accents or special characters sound like, and if letters in certain positions are likely to be silent. Also check vowels and the following standard Roman letters which often have different sounds: c, g, j, x, q, h, ch, kh, and any other consonant with h.
If you’re going to be travelling to a country where a particular language is spoken, or even if you just often meet people who have names from a certain language, it’s worth spending a few minutes figuring out which letters correspond to which sounds by muttering under your breath in private, in order to sound like a pro later in public. Even without learning a whole new script, you can get a leg up by learning how to pronounce the Roman letters normally used to transliterate it. Again, Wikipedia has this information for most languages.
7. For maximum ability to fake any language, learn a whole lot of non-English sounds. Spend some quality time in a phonetics class, with a clickable chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), or even with a beatboxing tutorial, and actually figure out how to pronounce most of the sounds English doesn’t have. I’d recommend wrapping your tongue around IPA /x/ and /q/ to start with, as they’re found in many languages and fairly easy to figure out for English speakers, but you can also pick sounds found in a particular language that’s relevant to you. This step definitely takes the most up-front investment, but it pays off in improving your ability to hear and reproduce words and names from a wide variety of languages.
A version of this post appeared on All Things Linguistic.