March 28, 2021

Change Your Default Mouth Position


Change Your Default Mouth Position
With the help of Chompers, "Kira" teaches her students the keys to Russian pronunciation; quite unfairly, Chompers can detach his tongue. Kimberly DiMattia, used with permission

Since the extent of most pronunciation instruction in language courses is "repeat after me," Dr. Kimberly DiMattia fills an important gap in the Russian-language-learning realm. Her website offers a suite of courses and opportunities to make you sound more native.

Kimberly DiMattia is her real name, but her Russian students know her as Kira. She has 16 years of experience teaching Russian language and pronunciation at the college and master class level and a Ph.D in Russian and Second Language Acquisition from Bryn Mawr College. At her website, Learn Russian with Kira, you can find all of her Russian offerings. These include a video course and book, a master class, a Word of the Day video series and podcast, a second podcast on Patreon, a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, Russian sing-alongs on Zoom, and private lessons.

DiMattia believes that pronunciation instruction is important because our "sound-identity" is like "oral clothing... and people make judgments about that." She reminds students in her book that "one of the most profound reasons we have for studying foreign languages" is to "connect with other human beings."

Her main piece of advice for those who do not want to sound totally American in Russian is this: You need to reset your default mouth position, that is, the way your mouth is shaped when you begin to speak. English speakers tend to speak with the tongue retracted into the mouth a bit and against the upper molars. In Russian, the tip of the tongue rests against the bottom teeth. The jaw should be slightly forward and open much less than in English. Russian lips are held apart from the teeth and protruded more than American lips.

Americans also tend to accent nearly every syllable in a word or sentence – or at least it seems so to Russians – perhaps because English words contain secondary stresses. Think “photograph” and “symphony” – both of these words have primary stress on the first syllable but the last syllable is also emphasized, though less so. Russians stress only one syllable, so Americans need to practice deemphasizing stressed syllables.

Kimberly DiMattia
Dr. Kimberly DiMattia. | Kimberly DiMattia, used with permission

Anyone can take DiMattia's self-guided pronunciation course or interactive Zoom master class – even if you just learned the Cyrillic alphabet yesterday. Master class students range from first-year Russian students to teachers of Russian, and the combination of the two is "beautiful and inspiring and powerful," says DiMattia.

The third iteration of DiMattia's master class is currently in progress, with about 20 students. The next one begins on May 20, 2021. The registration deadline is May 19. You can sign up as a student with your Zoom camera on or as an observer with the camera off. The six-session course is currently free except for the cost of materials. If the course time (evening Eastern Time) does not work for you, you can watch the videos asynchronously as an observer. Two types of people will take priority as students in the next master class: those actively taking a high school or college Russian class, and non-natives who are teaching Russian.

Is it really possible for an American or native-English-speaking adult to sound like a Russian? DiMattia says, "I believe it is possible," although there is little research into the matter. A few conditions have to be in place to achieve completely native-level pronunciation. You need:

  1. Pronunciation instruction;
  2. Talent; that is, an ear for what is happening in Russians' mouths and in your own mouth; and
  3. An immersion environment.

But even without an immersion environment, most people, DiMattia believes, can transform the way they sound with the right knowledge and practice.

The purpose of studying pronunciation is not perfection. It is, rather, to walk the path toward fluency and see how far one can get. DiMattia says, "I really believe that there needs to be less shame in language learning." Seeking perfection leads to shame, and shame makes "performing" in a foreign language a psychological challenge. "You need to be relaxed enough to be playful" when practicing a new language, DiMattia says. In her pronunciation book, she writes, "As we become less self-conscious, we find we are able to step further out of our comfort zone, trying out new sounds while we try on a new sound-identity."

Interlanguage
Your goal is the third image, but you have to start with the first one. Every language learner has his/her own "interlanguage." | Kimberly DiMattia, used with permission

In our interview, I asked DiMattia – nicely – what makes an American qualified to teach Russian pronunciation. She responded that students do not ask her this question, but they may be thinking it! Language instruction seems to be the only professional field in which one's ethnicity makes him/her automatically qualified or unqualified.

"Native speakers cannot have traveled the path that non-native speakers must travel towards sounding authentically Russian," DiMattia replied. "And I think, for that reason, we probably need each other."

Her students are on a path, and she can work to get them to where she is, and then native speakers can take them the rest of the way. For this reason, DiMattia uses videos and still images of native speakers' mouth positions in her teaching materials.

What is "Kira" working on herself right now? She says that her "и" ("i") vowel could use some work.

DiMattia encourages teachers of Russian and language professionals to join the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR), which supports current and future scholars of Russian from the US, as well as the educational programs that prepare them. ACTR and Kendall Hunt Publishing Company published her pronunciation coursebook, Unlocking Russian Pronunciation, which is available in print and electronic rental versions. You can also join her Patreon account to support her podcast. All of "Kira's" Russian doings are available at www.learnrussianwithkira.com. She also has a new project, Homework Club with Dr. Di, for anyone who needs accountability or to feel less lonely while doing homework.

Russian Life magazine has a "Survival Russian" column in every issue (which, in our professional opinion, is certainly worth subscribing to). You can also purchase a collection of over 90 "Survival Russian" essays in book form. This book is incredibly useful for any potential traveler to Russia.

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