By Christian Riesinger
Many learners of a foreign language will likely be familiar with the technique known as shadowing. For those who do not know, shadowing is a technique used to improve your pronunciation and intonation of a foreign language by listening to a native speaker and mimicking the words they speak while reading along. Shadowing is said by many to be a highly effective way to better one’s spoken language. However, there is only one small problem with the technique: it causes you to focus your eyes only on the written words. This may cause many learners to avoid looking at the speaker’s facial movements completely. But why is this important?
In order to make a correct speech sound, one must use the correct places of the mouth (aka articulators) and method of production. While anyone studying language is aware of this fact, not everyone realizes the importance of more subtle movements, such as how wide your mouth is open, or how round your lips are. As it turns out, this makes a huge difference in how native-like our speech sounds. Compare the Japanese vowel う (written in IPA as [ɯ̟]) and the English [u] sound in a word like ‘you’. While the tongue movement is almost exactly the same, the lip positions are very different. When making the Japanese vowel, your lips may be slightly round. However, they are certainly not protruding, and are said to be compressed. But for a native English speaker, the [u] sound must be both rounded and protruding, meaning that the lips come far out from their original position (the lip shape is almost the same as the face one makes when kissing).
In addition to lips rounding and protrusion, English speakers tend to open their jaws wider than Japanese speakers do. If you place your hand under your jaw and do not allow it to move very much, you should not have very much of a problem speaking Japanese. However, this is very difficult for English speakers to do, as they tend to open and close their mouths much more dynamically than Japanese speakers do. Together, these movements of the lips and mouth play a much larger role in English pronunciation than most students are aware of.
So, the question of “how do we learn the correct facial movements when speaking English?” remains. The answer is simple; watch English speakers’ mouths as you listen to them. Try to mimic these movements and use them in your own English (or French, German, or whatever other language you are studying). Shadowing is a great method for accent reduction, and you can find plenty of videos where it is easy to watch someone else’s facial movements as they speak. Do your best to mimic both the sounds and facial movements of native speakers, and then implement it every time you speak that language. We live in the age of digital media like Youtube and Netflix, so do not limit yourself to only listening to English.
Protruded Rounding on the left versus Compressed Rounding on the right.