Eli5: Speech and pronunciation

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Most of the world’s population has the same oral anatomy. Why is it so difficult for many speakers to roll their r, add a glottal stop, pronounce the “q” in Farsi etc, when it seems like all the tools are right there in our mouths and throats?

I’m mainly referring to borrowed words or attempts at learning new languages. Overcome rhotacism (replacing r with w) . Lisps might be a bit harder due to tongue sizes and disabilities there but lisps are the only impediment I can kind of see how a predisposed mouth structure could affect pronunciation.

I’m fascinated by accents and linguistics and these minor obstacles in others’ speech often stick out louder than the message they’re orating and I get fixated (tiktok content, for reference).

In: Biology

4 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Making the correct mouth sounds take practice.  When you are learning a language that doesn’t use sounds from a language you already know, you have to learn to make those sounds from scratch.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s not all that different from muscle memory. The sounds we make can change dramatically with the tiniest change in the placement of our tongues, how wide open our mouths are, shape we make our lips…etc. Native language speakers intrinsically know how to make their mouths take the exact right shapes because they grew up speaking that language. But when you learn a new language with different sounds that don’t exist in the language you speak, you have to learn how to make your mouth take that exact shape, and that takes time. You’re basically rewiring your brain so it learns how to tell your mouth to move in a certain way.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Think of it in the context of a baby that is learning English, it sounds incomprehensible to us because they have yet to learn how to control their anatomy to make the correct sound. This is the same with sounds not in one’s native language, you have no physical practice doing it so you screw it up. Same with learning to whistle.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Linguistics is something I’m passionate about – in short; muscle memory. Young kids are terrific at learning to make these sounds, but around the time of puberty, the brain has become zeroed in on whatever your native language is, and the language acquisition circuits get pruned down. When your mouth has become fine tuned by your brain to produce the sounds of your native language, it takes great effort to make unfamiliar ones.

Imagine trying to unlearn how to ride a bike and then relearn a different style of riding from scratch, and you start to approach what it’s like to learn a second language, as an adult, to a native-like level.