Learning Hindi

Hindi Challenges 1: Pronunciation of Dental and Retroflex Letters

Correct pronunciation is the most crucial part of learning any language. So, fittingly, the first two challenges I faced while learning Hindi were with pronunciation.

Articulation is the most fundamental thing you have to get right so you can be understood. For the English speaker, Hindi pronunciation takes time to learn because some of these sounds are new to us.

The first issue I faced was Hindi has 4 different T sounds त थ ट ठ and 4 different D sounds द ध ड ढ.

For the English speaker, they’re difficult to pronounce and hear the difference between at first. I’ve never found any single piece of material that helped me get these pronunciations right, so I’m going to try fix that in this post.

Hindi dental letters.
Hindi retroflex letters.
A lot of people follow me who are learning Urdu too, so here are the Urdu equivalent letters for your reference. Ignore this if you’re only learning Hindi.

What are dental and retroflex sounds?

I got my wife, Manisha Malik, to make this video showing how a native Hindi speakers pronounces dental and retroflex sounds and words.

That’s the same question I had. Dental sounds are pronounced with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth. Retroflex sounds are pronounced with the backside tip of the tongue touching the front roof of the mouth. Study the two tongue placement diagrams below.

How to pronounce Hindi dental and retroflex letters diagram.
The tongue placement for pronouncing dental sounds in Hindi.
The tongue placement for pronouncing retroflex sounds in Hindi.

Now that you can see the correct position of the tongue, there’s just one successful way I’ve found to learn these sounds. YouTube lectures and audio recordings don’t work because they’re one-way communication. They don’t give you any feedback on whether your pronunciation is correct or not. Fancy speech recognition software like Rosetta Stone doesn’t help either.

Learning pronunciation of these retroflex and dental sounds can only be accomplished by practising the tongue placement with a native Hindi speaker sitting in front of you giving you real-time feedback.

Even with a native Hindi speaker sitting there, my progress was slow. In the beginning, I still could not hear the differences between retroflex and dental sounds. I still get it wrong today sometimes. This skill takes a lot of time and practice because the sounds are so similar.

Have your Hindi Guru pronounce the letter, then try it yourself. Do this in a continuous loop. Keep repeating and experimenting with tongue placement until you get it right. It will take time and it will be frustrating, but you will get there.

Even if you can’t get the letter pronunciation 100% correct, I found it easier to pronounce it with a word rather than just the letter alone. Somehow I would more easily get the pronunciation right by saying a full word rather than the letter sound alone. That’s when I discovered to train my tongue to get in the correct positions for pronunciation I could use word lists and pairs. This was the breakthrough I’d been waiting for.

Tip: Out of all the words with the T and D sounds, त and द are by far the most common. If I don’t know the spelling, I just default to those first two and hope for the best.

Dental and retroflex wordlists for practice

The purpose of word lists is to get you familiar with tongue placement while changing between the different letters. Pronounce these words one after the other with your Hindi Guru listening.

You can read downwards to just practice the sound of a single letter and sideways to practice the transition between each letter.

Hindi dental practice words.
Hindi retroflex pratice words.

Dental and retroflex words pairs

These are contrasting words to practice with your Hindu Guru. They move your tongue between retroflex and dental positions. Pronounce them one after the other to get your tongue moving between the two locations. Some of these words purposefully sound very similar to try and help you hear the difference.

Hindi dental and retroflex word pairs.

When practising and learning the pronunciation of these letters, it’s easy to get frustrated. Study these sounds in short bursts over many days. To get these sounds right, I was meeting my Hindi Guru in the morning for 30 minutes every day just to practice these. With time and repetition, they begin to sink into your head and mouth.

The final thing I do whenever I learn a new word with a T or D sound is I find out what T or D letter it is and I note it down so that I pronounce it correctly next time.

If my content has helped you, please leave a comment.

By Karl Rock

Karl Rock, is a Hindi speaking Kiwi ex-pat who take viewers behind the scenes of incredible India and its neighbours. He has visited every state and union territory in India, and its culturally similar neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh, and aims to make others fall in love with India and the subcontinent.

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