Can you write a blog post about the specific challenges involved in learning the phonetics of a foreign language?"
Sure. I can do that.
When learning a foreign language, you will struggle with sounds that are not part of the English language. So, for example, the Spanish word lento (slow) is a snap for any English-speaker to pronounce, because every sound in this word already exists in English. This is true for most of the Spanish language. Spanish does present a few challenging sounds. These include the n with the tilde, ñ. This sounds a lot like the ny sound in the English word “canyon”. The ñ sound can be found in many common Spanish words, including:
mañana (tomorrow / morning)
español (Spanish language)
niña/ niño (girl, boy)
enseñar (to teach)
madrileño (a person from Madrid)
(You’ll notice, by the way, that the last word on this list is the Spanish word for canyon. The English word is derived from the Spanish one.)
This isn’t the only tricky sound in Spanish. The trilled Spanish rr and the Spanish ll sound also present challenges. But most native English-speakers are able to produce passable versions of these with only a modest amount of effort and imitation.
I could cite similar examples from German—another language commonly taught in American high schools. Most American high school students find German grammar to be tough. (I certainly did, as a high school freshman.) However, German also contains some tricky sounds.
The German ch sound, in particular, takes time to master. Some students struggle to remember that the German w is pronounced like the English v, and that the German s actually sounds like the English z.
But these are minor inconveniences in the big scheme of things. The sounds themselves are relatively easy. (The most difficult part is remembering to make the proper sounds when they appear in a word.) There is no sound in Spanish or German which you—as a native English-speaker—will be fundamentally unprepared to reproduce. Even French—the most phonetically challenging of the Western European languages—requires only slight modifications to the “English way” of pronouncing letters and combinations of letters.
Pronunciation doesn’t become really challenging until you venture outside the Western European fold, into a language like Russian. Learn Russian and you’ll need to grasp the difference between a hard and a soft consonant. You’ll also need to distinguish the sounds Ш (sh) and Щ (shch), which can sound maddeningly similar to English-speaking ears.
If you learn Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or Burmese, you will have to do battle with tonal systems, whereby the meaning of words are distinguished by their pitch. Chinese has four tones, plus one unemphasized, or “neutral” tone. Here is what this means in practice: The word ma can have a variety of meanings, depending on the pitch assigned to the vowel:
吗 ma a particle that indicates a question
骂 mà to insult; scold
麻 má hemp
马 mă horse
妈 mā mom; aunt
Then there is Arabic. If you study Arabic, you will have to learn to make the often-dreaded “ain” sound, which is a glottal stop. This sound is uncomfortable for English-speakers, because it corresponds to no sound in our language. The Arabic ع ain sound is sometimes described as the sound you might make just before gagging. While it is possible for English-speakers to master this sound, it does require repeated practice. (A similar sound can be found in Hebrew.)
The above represents an overview of the pronunciation difficulties to be encountered in the languages that you are most likely to study. I haven’t even covered the clicking sounds that can be found in some African languages like Xhosa. (You can find a few examples of spoken Xhosa on YouTube. If you have never heard it before, it does sound quite unusual.)
Now, in case this section has convinced you that native English-speakers face an especially difficult set of challenges, I should tell you that the phonetic structure of our language equally frustrates the native speakers of other languages. We may have a hard time with Chinese tones, but Mandarin-speakers struggle with English vowel sounds that do not exist in their language. Russian speakers must work hard to pronounce the English th sound—as must speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, and Japanese.
Equally difficult for Japanese speakers is the “l” sound—which all but the most fluent Japanese mispronounce.
What is the point, though, of telling you all this? Early on in your language studies, you need to identify where your language ranks in terms of phonetic difficulty. As we have now made clear, some are more difficult than others. If your target language is Spanish, Italian, Japanese, or Indonesian, then you don’t need to worry overmuch about your ability to master its pronunciation. After grasping the basics, you can probably rely on the process of osmosis for mastering pronunciation, while you focus your studies on vocabulary and grammar.
This is because all of these languages consist of sounds that exist in English, more or less. More challenging languages on the pronunciation difficulty scale are French, German, Portuguese, and Russian. The most difficult are Mandarin, Thai, Arabic, and Vietnamese. These require persistent, dedicated effort.
While it is important for you to pay close attention to the rules of pronunciation (no matter which language you decide to study), I don’t want you to be paranoid about it. If you study Mandarin or Arabic, it is likely that your early attempts to speak the language will occasionally result in confusion on the part of your listeners. However, once you have acquired the basics, you will find that context saves the day—even if your pronunciation is still far from perfect.
The student of Mandarin tends to be especially self-conscious, because she is grappling with a phonetic system that has no real equivalent in English, and she fears (often correctly, in the case of a beginner) that her pronunciation is flawed. She often assumes this to mean that her listeners will be completely baffled by what she says. This is usually not so—unless her grammar and vocabulary are also hopelessly inadequate.
Context saves the day. Think about some of your interactions with foreigners. Ask yourself: How many of them pronounce English perfectly? Now ask yourself: How many of them pronounce English really badly? If you are honest, I think you’ll discover that the non-native English speaker with flawless pronunciation is actually the exception rather than the rule. I recall more than a few foreign-born instructors from my college days: almost all of them mangled specific parts of the American English phonetic system.
Nevertheless, I think you will also find that you are usually able to understand these people. One big reason for this is that a particular word or syllable—even when mispronounced—is usually understandable if it is surrounded by other words and syllables that give it context.
For example, suppose that a native Japanese-speaker tells you, upon returning from his vacation to the shores of Lake Erie, “I rearry rike to go to the rake.” The speaker has mangled every single “L” in this sentence. Nevertheless, you probably have no trouble realizing that he has actually said, “I really like to go to the lake,”—even though “rearry” and “rike” are complete nonsense words, and “rake” actually refers to a gardening tool—not a large inland body of water.
You understand because of the context in which the words—and the sentence—were spoken. It doesn’t make sense to speak in terms of going to a rake, and you know that your Japanese colleague has just returned from a trip to Lake Erie. Your knowledge of your own language and the situation allows your mind to fill in the necessary blanks.
The objective here (very important) is not to poke fun at the mistakes that foreigners sometimes make when speaking English. (If you are ever tempted to do this, remember that the vast majority of Americans and Britons never even attempt to learn a foreign language.) The objective is to make you realize that pronunciation mistakes are common when speaking a foreign language.
This is true if you’re an American learning Mandarin, or you’re a Chinese person learning American English. While you should never be complacent about your imperfect pronunciation, you shouldn’t be overly self-conscious about it, either. Everyone makes mistakes when speaking; and the attainment of completely accurate pronunciation is a constant, never-ending effort. These facts are simply parts of the game.