I roll my tongue across the front of my teeth and stretch my mouth wide into a smile, but then pucker my lips as if going in for a kiss. My embouchure is set. I slowly, steadily blow out a stream of air over the top of my flute, producing a rich, melodic sound. My fingers run up and down a B flat scale.
This routine is common to me after playing flute for more than 20 years, but at one point, it was a struggle to always produce the exact note or hit the correct fingering on quick sixteenth notes.
The tools and techniques I learned from my years in high school band have stuck with me — and now I adapt those same skills to help me on my adult journey to being bilingual.
From years perfecting how to shape my mouth to move from low to high notes, learning how to control minute mouth muscles has become second nature.
This skill has been extremely helpful while learning Spanish as an adult.
For native English speakers, for example, the mouth generally opens larger and wider than needed for many other languages, so learning to form the mouth to the correct shape is beneficial. No matter which language you are mastering, being able to mimic the needed mouth shape will help produce the right sound.
Focus on the sound and shape together.
Is the mouth supposed to be wide like a smile? Open in surprise? Or small like a kiss? The same sound in the throat combined with a different mouth shape will produce a different overall sound. If you find yourself struggling with a certain new letter sound, such as the ö in German or the ñ in Spanish, try to find videos of native speakers using those sounds and mimic the mouth shape.
When learning to play the flute, I had to do tongue exercises, repeating “ta, ta, ta, ta, ta” or “ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ka” for minutes on end.
With this same idea in mind, when working on a new pronunciation in your target language, focus on where the tongue is placed in the mouth.
The “th” for example is quite difficult for English learners, so one trick is to place your tongue between the teeth to practice the sound. Of course, native speakers keep the teeth slightly open and the tongue just escapes for a millisecond, but for new English speakers, accentuating the tongue placement is very helpful.
If after adjusting your mouth shape, you are still struggling with a new sound, ask a native speaker where their tongue is placed when they make the sound.
Often times, you will need to really force the tongue in the correct placement to learn it as muscle memory.
Eventually, with the combination of the tongue in the right location and the mouth shape formed, that hidden sound will arrive.
This brings us to the part most people dislike in both learning a musical instrument and perfecting a new language — repeat, repeat, repeat.
One of the essential elements of playing an instrument is to play scales and arpeggios religiously. The rote repetition of the scales helps the mind and fingers connect when playing an actual song.
When it comes to languages, the more you speak out loud on your own, the more quickly you will get the new sounds and words to form when you speak with others.
And remember, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect.
Some people find themselves trapped in a pattern of mistakes that they have integrated into their speaking because they kept practicing incorrectly without paying attention to the error.
This is where a trusted listener is beneficial. Having someone catch a mistake early on will help you as you continue to perfect your patterns. For example, in Spanish I used to say “gracias para” when the phrase is always “gracias por,” so once I learned the correct combination, I was able to apply this correct phrase in many new situations.
Once you have the correct phrases, say them out loud to yourself, even if you feel ridiculous.
If you are getting ready in the morning or driving to work — any time you find yourself alone — repeat the new correct phrases over and over again until they become part of your speaking vocabulary. And, yes, it is important to hear them out loud.
When I started to play the flute back when I was 12, I played simple songs. Over time and with hours of dedicated practice, I was able to finally play more complicated songs like Claude Bolling music. If I had tried playing Bolling back when I was 12 , I would have failed, told myself I was no good at this music thing, and probably quit.
This same chain-reaction happens with many adult language learners. We try to communicate in our target language at the same rate and complexity as our native language.
Then we fail. Feel stupid. Quit.
Don’t give up now! What you need to do is simply go back to the basics.
Think about how babies learn their native language. We first speak about food and the bathroom — necessities. Eventually, we’re able to talk about feelings and desires. And as adults, we articulate abstract ideas about spirituality or time travel or quantum physics.
The same process needs to happen with your new language.
Master the necessities first, then move on to more complicated topics with more complex vocabulary.
When learning a new song, I play at a much slower tempo than the final speed I want to play. In this way, I ensure that I have the correct finger placement, mouth shape, and tongue movement.
Slowly, steadily — I master the needed skills. And when I finally speed up, I don’t make simple errors.
Use this same rule when it comes to how fast you speak.
S l o o o w D o w n.
You may feel foolish speaking slower than you want to, but I guarantee — by slowing down, you will make less mistakes. By giving your brain time to catch up with your mouth, you’ll be able to conjugate verbs or move the pronoun or add in that tricky subject.
Speaking more slowly in your target language will help you master the basics and improve your confidence.
Speak slowly to perfect your language, and eventually you will be able to speed up and feel more like your own self in the new language.
Of course, all that flute practice over the years was not just for me. The end goal was always to perform. And, to be honest, after all the practice hours, there wasn’t one time that I nailed a piece to perfection.
I always made mistakes up on stage, but my teachers always told me —
“Keep going. Don’t stop. No one notices but you. Keep playing. And smile.”
The same is true when it comes to having conversations with native speakers of your target language.
During conversations, you are performing everything you have practiced up until this point. All the drills and repetition come into play.
And you will make mistakes, but keep going.
Most native speakers are more interested in what you are trying to communicate than in fixing your mistakes.
Occasionally, you will have to repeat yourself, go slower, or ask the other person to do the same.
But even in the middle of all of these “mistakes,” you are communicating.
You are speaking.
You are doing everything you have practiced!
Keep up the performance, finish the conversation, and end with a smile.
Learning a new language takes as much time as learning a musical instrument.
When I was in school, I would practice flute between 10 to 12 hours a week.
If you think you don’t have 10 hours to practice speaking, split it up.
For 15 minutes, speak out loud to yourself. You can do this while taking a shower or getting ready in the morning. If you commute or have a lunch break, listen to a podcast and repeat new phrases for 30 minutes. Then, before going to bed, record a journal and read it aloud to catch your own mistakes.
As long as we look for the opportunities daily, we can practice speaking an hour in our target language.
Like any new skill, if you really want to master it — you will.
If we make time for music, we can make time for language.
Practice. Play. Repeat.