Try saying these words - Nguyen, Ngan, Ngoai, Ngoh, Ngoi, Ngai, Nggak, Ngopi, Ngerti, Ngut-ngit, Ngi-ngau.

Imagine living in Vietnam with 38% of the population having the surname Nguyên, and not being able to pronounce their name properly? In spoken Indonesian, the initial 'ng' sound often plays a very important functional role when it comes to making meanings, so mastering its use is essential.

Next to getting the tones right in different languages across Asia, the initial ‘Ng’ sound that is found in languages like Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, Indonesian, Cantonese, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects, Tagalog and other languages of the Philippines, Burmese, Mon and Many Hill Tribe languages, proves to be one of the most difficult pronunciation issues to overcome for language learners of ‘initial ng’ languages who have a European language as their mother tongue.

Before we go any further, let me introduce this symbol - 'ŋ'. Notice how it looks like the letter 'n' attached to the tail of the letter 'g'. ŋ is the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for the 'ng' sound, so now on 'ng' and 'ŋ' will be interchangeable. It often helps psychologically to thing of this as one single letter sound rather than as a compound of two letters. In fact, many of the languages that frequently use this sound have a separate letter for it in their own script.

I have heard some learners who have trouble with the initial 'ŋ' sound say that their strategy is to learn to make sentences that avoid words that begin with the sound and find either alternate words or alternate ways of conveying their meanings. That's just crazy! I hope that by the end of reading this, as well as watching the video that I put together below, you will in a short time be able to master the initial ŋ sound and enjoy a new freedom in the 'ŋ'-prominant laguage that you are learning to speak.

Can You Say Sing?

Say the English word 'sing'.

Now there are some important things to notice about the way you are pronouncing this word in English. Depending on where you come from, you may pronounce the final 'ng' in 'sing' differently. Most English speakers will have a clean ŋ at the end of the word 'sing', but I often hear English dialects from especially from the north of the UK add a clicking 'g' sound to the end, rendering the word pronounced as 'sing-g', like you would say the 'g' sound in 'finger'. If this is happening to you, first thing to do is realise that you're doing it - and it's probably going to help you from now on to visualise this sound as the IPA letter ŋ, rather than an n+g together. ŋ is ONE SOUND. The way to overcome this final ejective 'g' at the end if you are someone who does pronounce it like that, is to lock your throat down all the way until the end of the word and don't release it until the sound stops. Look at the video I put together and practice. you come from, you may pronounce the final 'ng' in 'sing' differently. Most English speakers will have a clean ŋ at the end of the word 'sing', but I often hear English dialects from especially from the north of the UK add a clicking 'g' sound to the end, rendering the word pronounced as 'sing-g'. If this is happening to you, first thing to do is realise that you're doing it - and it's probably going to help you from now on to visualise this sound as the IPA letter ŋ, rather than an n+g together. ŋ is ONE SOUND. The way to overcome this final ejective 'g' at the end if you are someone who does pronounce it like that, is to lock your throat down all the way until the end of the word and don't release it until the sound stops. Look at the video I put together and practice.

Now say Singer-nger

If you are saying the word 'sing' now with a clean ŋ at the end, now see if you can say 'singer' (does NOT rhyme with 'finger').
Now, apologies to friends in North America and Ireland, but for this exercise I'm going to ask you to hold back a bit on your rhotal 'rrrr' at the end of 'singer' and just pronounce it without an 'r' at the end - like an Aussie (Eegads!).

So now you should be pronouncing it something like 'singa'. For the more academically inclined, in the International Phonetic Alphabet it would be written 'siŋə'.

Now double the ending -

Singa-nga (siŋə-ŋə)

This is where the problems usually start to kick in. From experience, it's just as much a psychological issue as a physiological issue. Because in English we don't have an initial 'ng' sound, the muscles aren't used to kicking into gear as an initial - even though they CAN do it as a final. The mind then concentrates on the letters that are used in spelling rather than actually focusing on the actual sound. So from 'n-g', the tongue consciously goes to where an 'n' would be pronounced from which is usually somewhere between the top teeth and the hard palate (the bump / ridge you run into if you slide your tongue back towards the roof of your mouth from the back of your top teeth).

DO NOT place your tongue in the same position as an N. ŋ is produced from the back of your throat - that means that the tongue raises up in the back of your throat and in the back of your throat only. If the tip of your tongue even starts go go 'pointy' or lift up towards the palate, I want you to see red lights flashing and hear a big 'buzzer' sound in your head. Reset - try again.

Every few times, you will want to re-calibrate - stop on the first 'ng' of 'Sing' and become intimitely aware of the position of your tongue and your throat. Try and sythesize that when you get to the second ŋ in 'singa-nga'.

Drop the 'Sing'

As you're getting better at pronouncing 'singa-nga' now, slowly put more and more space between the 'sing' and the 'nga'. Do it until you can eliminate the word 'sing' all together.

Remember - if the front of your tongue starts to raise up, reset and start again. If there is any 'ee' sound sneaking in, you can be pretty certain that your tongue is heading towards the palate rather than the back of your throat. Your tongue shouldn't be doing any gliding, sliding or anything aside from raising up like a big blob of meat, chocking up the back of your throat so that the windpipe is completely closed - the only way you can breathe or generate any sound with your voice will be through your nose.

Time to go Solo

If you have gone through the video and done all of the exercises, you should be at a point now where you're ready to go solo.

Remember - when pronouncing the following words that have an initial ŋ, there should be:
1 No 'g' sound popping out anywhere during or immediately after the ŋ
2 No gliding of the tongue
3 No 'ee' /i/ sound being produced during the initial ŋ

Try and say these words:

Word Original IPA Language Meaning
Nguyễn Nguyễn 阮 ŋwĩəŋ Vietnamese Surname
Nga ၅ (5) ŋa: Burmese Number 5
Ngan งาน ŋa:n Thai Work
Ngeep งีบ ŋi:p Thai Have a 'snooze'
Ngo ŋɔ: Cantonese I
Ngerti (Me)ngerti ŋərtɪ Indonesian Understand
Ngut-ngit หงุดหงิด ŋut-ŋit Thai Frustrated

You can use the video I put together on Youtube to see if you are saying it correctly or not. Better still, find a native speaker and use them as a mirror - ask them to tell you when you are sounding more natural. Don't let them think that it's okay if you can't pronounce it properly - insist that your goal is to pronounce the words accurately and easy for native speakers to understand.

Let me know how you went. If there are any areas you need coaching on, let me know in the comments sections and if possible I'll put another clip together to go deeper.