In this blog post the author makes a convincing case for teaching/studying the cardinal vowel quadrilateral in language learning. Apparently it's taught to actors and in some advanced language courses to improve the accent.

It kind of make sense since when learning physical activities, most people first watch someone else performing the activity, then visualize him- or herself repeating those movements until they are able to perform those automatically.

On the other hand, when learning by ear, the brain pick the vowels and consonants in the mother tongue that are closer to those in the foreign language, instead of alerting that those are really different phonemes. That's why we keep the accent from the mother tongue.

So, I would like to move a step closer to how we learn physical activities and learn from actual x-ray or MRI images the phonemes in a foreign language even when my brain is not able to distinguish them from those in my mother tongue.

Is this way of learning generally recommended?

If so where can I find material to learn in that way?


I am a bit sceptical about the use of MRI images in classrooms. It is true they can dispel some misconceptions about what the speech organs do; this seems to be the lesson from the images of clarinetist Ray Wheeler's while playing. However, these images don't look clear enough to see things such where and how the tongue touches the area behind the teeth, especially the alveolar ridge, which can make a big difference in pronunciation.

Imaging techniques would be useless for the visualisation of tones (e.g. those used in the Chinese language family).

Rejecting MRI imaging or other imaging techniques does not imply that pronunciation is taught or learnt entirely by ear. It is usually sufficient for a teacher to describe how a sound should be pronounced and then let learners practise these sounds. For some tricky sounds, diagrams of the mouth may be helpful, but I have never seen this in practice (neither during language classes for seven languages, nor during teacher training). Examples include the retroflex r, which initially feels strange to speakers of West-Germanic languages, and the Standard Chinese sounds that are rendered as j, q and x in pinyin. I was taught that pinjin j, q and x and pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth; when you look for YouTube videos about pronunciation, you will rarely find videos that tell you this. (At best, they point out that the lips should be spread wide instead of rounded, like this video by YoYo Chinese. Litao's video is one of the very rare videos that mentioning putting the tip of the tongue against the lower teeth for j, q and x.)

In my experience with other learners of Standard Chinese, for example, incorrect pronunciation is typically the result of insufficient attention to it in the classroom.

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