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?


2 Answers 2


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.


No, this would not work unless you can use such things both for the speaker and the learner(the learner would also have to be continuously x-rayed).

It's not practical and really offers not much of a benefit. Once one learns the basics of speech production then it is more about immersion and practice than anything else. Nothing will really speed up the process in any magical way. The fact that children learn languages without x-rays shows they are not needed. A little thought shows they offer nothing.

What makes people not sound native is not missing x-rays but because they won't let go of their own natural habits of vocalization. They try to use their own native ways to pronounce what they hear and it will sound wrong in another language, usually.

The only way around this, really, is immersion. The differences are too minute to matter and it is a bigger deal than just the vocal apparatus but wrapped up in culture. Rather than taking a route that has no direct benefit(you'll get nothing out of the x-ray process except possibly cancer and maybe you will realize you can shift your vowles and consonants different to sound more like a native. If you immerse using the same time you'll learn more overall.

It's actually better to have all the resources necessary and the to take the optimal steps needed. E.g., if you have basic vocab down but can't get in to immersion in some way then you'll be stuck until you do.

People love to try to find quick fixes but usually those things are actually slowing one down. What really slows them down is not actually having a good path of learning that is constantly providing them with the right level of difficulty for where they are at.

It would be better to use AI to train people fast than to have a bunch of people have to get cancer just to see that they don't understand their throat that well. (one is infinitely more efficient than the other)

  • Please consider adding references to some academic sources on this matter. There must be some surveys, research papers etc. I feel that your logic and argument is accurate (+1 for that), but other users may not be convinced by statements that are not backed up. This is general rule not only on this site, and one should have a good reason to step off this. Apr 11, 2023 at 16:25
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine One does not need a taxi to go down a road. All this straight forward every day experience. If you cannot use a tool in an appropriate manner it cannot be used appropriately. Just seeing MRI images of someone or yourself speaking will do nothing to improve an understanding UNLESS you can spend time to understand *precisely*(not sorta or you think or you think you think) what is going on. Practice makes perfect and the only way such a method would work is if you could use it on a daily basis and compare and contrast. Apr 12, 2023 at 5:54
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine Because you can't have a personal MRI to play with to actually learn to use to understand how vocal production works and because the alternative is much quicker, such as simply playing with a 3D virtual model of the vocal tract and learning IPA, and using the other time for more useful practice, it is not a practical method. It has some merit in the abstract since of "seeing" the throat while you and others make sounds to compare it is really not necessary and may actually slow things down if one doesn't learn to internalize how to make the sounds they hear. Apr 12, 2023 at 5:56
  • @BeBraveBeLikeUkraine Asking for research on this matter is pointless as you are likely not to find anything extensive precisely because it doesn't offer much for the time/cost. Basically my weeks worth of studying the vocal production through vocal singing and learning how IPA works taught me what months of having a personal MRI and subjects to get data on. You move your tongue, your jaw, and tension your muscles and make sounds... it's that simple. Learn to play around with it. With practice you will learn to control the ability to produce a more variety of sound and start to hear more. Apr 12, 2023 at 6:00

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