What is your tongue really doing when you speak Swedish?



One of the trickiest parts of mastering Swedish is the pronunciation. Get it right and not only are you understood, you feel like you're flying. Mispronounce something, however, and you could be met by blank stares that dent your confidence.


Here's an example: long and short vowels. Getting them to sound right is essential for the meaning of a word. For instance, "glas" (with a long "a" as in "calm") means glass. On the other hand, the word "glass" (with a short "a" as in "pass") means ice cream. You definitely don't want to get those two confused, but it happens all the time.


Why?


Well, a lot of it comes down to your own mother tongue. You're used to using your vocal tract in certain ways. In Estill Voice Training we call this an 'attractor state' but you can also think of it as a habit. When you learn a new language, you can find that your usual way of speaking doesn't work or doesn't sound right. And that's because you may have to work against your own habits - especially with your tongue.


Take a look at this image of my tongue taken inside an MRI scanner. Notice how incredibly big it is! Because the tongue completely dominates the mouth space, whatever it does will have a huge impact on the acoustics of the sounds you make as you speak. Making sure that your tongue is in the right place is an important step toward mastering Swedish pronunciation.

Stefan in the MRI

There are very few, if any, Swedish pronunciation courses available. Usually, you learn a bit of pronunciation at the same time as learning grammar and vocabulary, but standard courses rarely give you enough time or tools to develop your Swedish pronunciation muscles.


I'm currently working together with Dr Anneli Beronius Haake at Swedish Made Easy to further develop our award-winning course Speak Like a Swede. We are analysing MRI scans of our own vocal tracts to help explain what the tongue is up to when we tackle Swedish vowel sounds, including unique ones like Å, Ä and Ö.


It's an exciting journey of discovery that offers a fresh perspective on pronunciation. Take a little sneak peak below by following us on the MRI day when we visited the Clinical Imaging Sciences Centre* at the University of Sussex.

*Thank you so much to the amazing staff at CISC!


Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.



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