How important is good pronunciation in language learning?

How important is proper pronunciation early in  the language learning process? If you ask me, the answer is VITAL.  Mispronouncing phonemes in your target language right off the bat is one of  the biggest mistakes I think learners can make.

There are basically 2 schools of thought on this topic that I have seen:

  • You don’t need perfect pronunciation from the beginning. You really just have to be somewhat close. With time, you’ll pick up pronunciation and with enough exposure and practice, your accent in that language will start to improve. No big deal. Focus on grammar and vocab from the beginning.
  • Focus on pronunciation intensively before even looking at vocab or grammar. If you start with bad pronunciation, it will fossilize and be VERY difficult to change later once your muscle memory has been some what shaped in the target language. Your level will almost always be judged by how thick your accent is. Good, solid correct pronunciation from the start will make you sound more serious about learning the language as well as make you sound less like a total beginner.

Ok, I think (based on my introduction) which school of thought I support. Put me down for the latter. I haven’t always been in that category but I have a story that helped convince me and I would like to share it with you:

I was attending one of my bi-weekly German Meetup groups and I started a conversation with a woman sitting next to me and was astounded by two things:

1.  Her fluency (as far as ease of speaking and prosody) was fantastic.  There was no hesitation and no question that she knew the German language quite well.

2.  Her pronunciation was AWFUL.  I mean terrible.  She sounded like a 5th grader who had stumbled upon a German book and just started reading it with American English pronunciation.  Truly some of the worst German pronunciation I’ve ever heard.

This swirled around in my head and even though I had moved on to another German speaker, I kept tabs on her conversations to see how she was perceived by some of the natives in the group.  This was a Meetup for “conversational level and up” and I would say at least 3 native speakers (that I heard) told her that she would be better suited for the “beginner’s” Meetup group.  I also heard them talk amongst themselves about how poor her German was.

Keep in mind here that she spoke fluent, grammatical, advanced vocabulary type German.  She WAS advanced.  Her vocab and grammar levels were above mine, yet I got many compliments and my German level and invites to more advanced Meetups, while she got advised about the beginner group.  All because of her accent.

Now, without any phoneme training and focus on pronunciation, she probably noticed almost no difference between her pronunciation and everyone else’s.   At this point it would probably be very difficult (if not almost impossible) to re-train her pronunciation.  Her ear was never trained in the sounds of the language.  She imitated as best she could from the beginning, but obviously no one corrected her or worked with her on some of the finer points of pronunciation in the language (like the German R and the umlauts).  Did anyone have any trouble at all understanding her?  No, not at all.  It’s just that no one could get past her pronunciation.

Are we all starting to see the importance of pronunciation?  I didn’t before that night but I definitely did afterwards.

How much emphasis do you put on pronunciation work at the beginning of learning a new language.  Let me know in the comments below.