eli5: Why is pronouncing words from other languages difficult?


I know our brains are trained in a certain way from childhood, but could someone elaborate? It seems physically impossible yet it is very much possible

In: 3

From what I remember about language acquisition, at birth humans can produce ~200 phonemes (sounds). But over the course of learning our language, certain sounds not used by our language fall to the wayside, and we become unable to make certain sounds. So if English is your first language, even with great effort, there are certain foreign sounds that your tongue will be unable to make.

Part of it is that some sounds are literally more difficult than others. We know this because children develop the ability to produce some sounds before others, even if their ears and brains are properly distinguishing all the sounds they need. However, it’s that last thing that really makes the difference. Most of the time that you struggle to produce a sound, it’s not because it’s physically particularly difficult, it’s because you weren’t exposed to it during the period that you were able to pick up sounds easily.

Before 6 months of age, babies can distinguish all sounds that are meaningfully different in all languages. After that period, more or less, their brains start streamlining. After all, processing that much information takes energy, and so it starts ignoring distinctions it doesn’t need to pay attention to. For instance, in English, [p] and [pʰ] are in complementary distribution, so you don’t need to hear one from the other. But if you grow up speaking Mandarin, this distinction will be natural for you to hear and produce.

Personally, I find acquiring new sounds fairly easy, but this is because I have a good intuitive and explicit understanding of how the vocal tract is organized and can be shaped to produce sounds. It’s a skill one can develop with practice and learning. But it doesn’t compare to infants. Infants are language-learning machines

You’re simply out of practice. If your native language doesn’t have certain sounds, then you’re not experienced at producing those sounds.

The German words Kirche and Kirsche have different pronunciations. I know what those sounds are, I can recognise the difference, but I can’t say Kirche properly without immense effort, I always just pronounce both like Kirsche.

Like anything you do, it’s just a matter of experience. Enough exposure and practice, and you’ll be able to pronounce anything properly.

A few reasons:

There are a wide variety of different sounds humans could potentially make with their mouths. No language uses all of them. Learning to use the ones not used in your first language is challenging.

There are often sounds that aren’t used in combination in one language but are in another.

Many languages may use the same alphabet you’ve learned but the letters don’t always correspond to the same sounds. This adds extra confusion, even if you wouldn’t have had trouble learning the pronounciation of the word by ear.

There’s a window for development of the language centers of our brain that closes in early adolescence. During that window, kids are sponges to soak up new words, sounds, etc. After that window closes, we can learn languages in an intellectual way, but learning new or different sounds will be difficult, where children do it unconsciously. My daughter went to Spanish immersion pre-school and was near fluent in Spanish without cracking a book, and her pronunciation was better than I could do with lots of effort.

To my knowledge, this is a late addition to the human brain in evolutionary terms, and the language window is unique among skills. For example, if you want to be a great tennis player, it’s good to start early, but there’s no similar time frame where if you haven’t learned how to hit a backspin drop shot by 14 you’re never going to learn.