Click here if you can pronounce the sounds in Tamil!
Click here if you can pronounce the sounds in any other South INDIAN language!
Click here if you can pronounce the sounds in any other South ASIAN language!
Malayalam has a bunch of sounds that many English-speakers cannot naturally pronounce (unless they are actually from South Asia!). Most of these sounds are found in most or many South Asian languages; yet, people from outside South Asia need a somewhat detailed explanation of these sounds to figure out how to make them. So here goes...!
All right, first of all:
/Ka/ and /Kha/
The second sound is aspirated. This means that it is pronounced with a sort of "h" sound.
Try to say the word "car." Notice how you pronounce it with a sort of "kh" sound. That is the "aspirated" sound.
Similarly, all of these consonants are "aspirated": /gha/ /chha/ /jha/ /Tha/ /Dha/ /bha/ (and possibly /pha/).
So, for example, to pronounce /gha/, just try repeating "guh-hah" fast enough to get rid of the "uh" sound. Did I lose you?...Wait a minute...Where did you just get...uh...lost? OK, let me explain it more clearly:
1) Repeat "guh-hah" several times. As you repeat, pronounce it faster and faster!
2) Eventually, you should be pronouncing it fast enough to get rid of the "uh" sound, so you are saying "ghah," or /gha/! Got it??? Ah, old chap, you do me proud...This is a far, far better thing to do than you have ever done...:)
Now, let's look at these sounds:
/Ta/ /Tha/ /Da/ /Dha/ /Na/
These letters are called retroflex consonants. They exist in most South Asian languages and are used by Indians (as well as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, and Sri Lankans and possibly Maldivians) when pronouncing English words with a "t," "d," or "n" (unless the word has a "th" or possibly a "dh"). Notice how an Indian (or any other aforementioned Asian) pronounces the words "tar," "dad," "none."
But how can anyone else form that sound? It's really quite simple. Make the tip of your tongue touch the roof of your mouth. Then say "tah" without aspirating the "t." Your tongue should end up flipping forward and making a sound like this. So, to pronounce any other retroflex consonant, you need only follow these same steps, but instead of saying an unaspirated "tah" to get /Ta/, you might use an aspirated "tah" to get /Tha/, an unaspirated "dah" to get /Da/, etc.
And after that, in the Malayalam alphabet, comes:
/tha/ /thha/ /da/ /dha/
It is hard for people who speak only English to form these sounds naturally as well, because when they pronounce their "th's," it sounds like something else! But the /tha/ and /da/ sounds exist in other languages, such as Romance and Slavic languages.
To make the sound /tha/, place the tip of the tongue just behind the upper teeth and say "tah." Do the same thing for /da/, except say "dah."
And now, there are only five sounds left!
/ra/ /Sa/ /La/ /zha/ /rra/
/ra/ is pronounced exactly like the Japanese letter "ra." It's sort of a sound between the American/English "r" and "d." For English-speakers, it can take quite a bit of practice to obtain. But don't worry, it took me years of practice, too! I think I've figured out a trick for pronouncing it, though: say "rah" and then "dah" (as an American or Englishman would pronounce it). Then, keep repeating the sound "rah" while approaching the "dah" sound. You should be able to pronounce it correctly if the tip of your tongue just barely touches your gums, right behind your teeth.
The letter /Sa/ may be a little easier. Just say "sha" (and don't say "NO!" :)), but move your tongue more towards your teeth.
/La/ and /zha/ are very similar to each other...and to the other retroflex consonants (/Ta/ /Tha/ /Da/ /Dha/ /Na/)! So, all you need to do is pronounce the sounds "lah" and "rah" like retroflex consonants, i.e. moving your tongue back so the tip of your tongue touches the right part of the roof of your mouth.
Now, if /ra/ isn't so hard for you, perhaps /rra/ WILL be...unless you can make the trilled "r" in Scottish, Spanish, and Italian (among many other languages/accents!).
To pronounce this letter, you're supposed to vibrate the tip of your tongue against your gums....Not helping, eh? Don't know how to actually MAKE your tongue vibrate? I wish I knew how to describe that (for the sake of any students who find it too hard to make a rolling "r" sound). But if you CAN make your tongue vibrate, well then.......
Hooray! NOW you can pronounce all of the sounds in Malayalam just like a Malayalee!