Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language discovers not just different words, but different sounds in those words that can have us twisting our tongues and lips in ways that seem weird and embarrassing – and we still can’t say the word right. It takes practice, skill, nerve or luck – sometimes a lifetime of all those -- to overcome our own ears and tongues when it comes to mastering the sounds of another language.
For English speakers, this can mean trampling the delicate French dipthong (when two or more vowel sounds are next to each other in the same word) in “oeil” (“eye”) with a mere, “oy;” ditto for the spectacularly gutteral “chuchichästli” (“kitchen cupboard”) in Swiss German, which an American can squash to a humdrum “hooki-heshli”; while the famously trilled Spanish “r,” as in “perro” (“dog”), is often reduced to a simple “pair-o.”
As babies, we are wired to learn and say any sound in any language, be they Cockney glottal stops and French dipthongs or African clicks. But research shows that not long after age 9 or so, most children’s wiring simply conforms to the sounds of their own mother tongue; meanwhile, the brain’s language center puts all unused sounds in deep, deep storage, so they are much harder – and sometimes impossible -- to hear and produce later on.
This is how stereotypes of foreigners learning English are born – from the fact that some of our sounds in English do not exist in other languages and foreign speakers pick the easiest ways from their languages to approximate them. I remember receiving a birthday card (in pre-politically correct days) of a Japanese man in a straw hat wishing me a “velly, velly” nice birthday. At the time I was a regular follower of the Japanese crime-fighter cartoon, “Joe Jitsu,” on “Dick Tracy and Friends,” so I already knew (roughly) that the Japanese confused the “l” and “r” sounds. Joe Jitsu would say things like, “So solly!” and “One moment prease,” and, “Carring Dick Tracy!”
But what I have learned from working with Japanese students is that they do have an “r” sound in their language – as in “karaoke” – but it is produced by tapping the tongue on the upper palate, in much the same way the British Jeeves would say “veddy propah,” and not our flat American, “very proper.” When Americans say “very” our tongue is in the lower part of our mouth, and for Japanese, this position is closer to an “l”. When Japanese say words that start with an “r,” like “rice,” they sound fine – not because they’re saying the “r” the way we say it, but because in that position, our ears do not hear a big difference.
The “L” sound is not an easy one: Even native English-speaking children are not expected to say the “L” sound until age 4 or 5. This has been born out with my own name, with little children who call me “Weeze,” “Aweeze,” or “Bah-weeze” often up til kindergarten. And saying a consonant + “l” sound is also tricky; when my son was 4 years old, he and his best friend were pretending to play instruments and his friend stopped mid-play to exclaim, “I can say ‘FLUTE!’” Before that, it had always been “fWoot.”
For the Japanese, who do not have an “l” in their language at all, L-words are likewise a problem: Try saying, “Louise,” “close,” and “English,” and notice the slightly different position that the letter takes in each word, depending on the sound next to it.
In working with a Korean man, I was surprised to discover that they confuse the “f” and “p” sounds, which produces phrases like, “Ophen the door,” and “Would you like a cuff of coppee?”
Argentines (not all Spanish speakers have this difficulty) do not distinguish their “b” and “v” sounds; for either sound, their lips barely touch, rarely touch, or never touch at all. Their capital city is pronounced closer to “Wuenos Aires,” and a simple, “muy bien,” is said with the front teeth ever so lightly touching the inside of the lower lip, which is almost exactly the same spot used to say, “Viva Maradona!”
This is not a problem, of course, unless you are an Argentine working for an American food company in New York. An Argentine student of mine was the head of the Beverage Department of a major food and beverage corporation and could not say the word, “Beverage.” He could say, “beb-rich” or “vev-rich” but not the tricky combination using both sounds. One day, I walked into his office and he had post-it notes lined up all along his shelf with “B-words” and “V-words” and “BEV-erage” to help him practice what amounted to verbally patting his heading and rubbing his stomach at the same time.
The French have trouble with the “h” sound. A sentence like “Amy will take her to the airport in half an hour” can come out like, “Hamy will take ‘er to zee hairport in ‘alf an hower.” That is, they unconsciously reverse the appropriate h-word in every case. It’s very hard for them to switch from saying “h” to not saying it and then once they do, they apply it liberally. It seems generally easier to skip the first “h” in a phrase and then exhale, so that a phrase like “How old are you?” comes out “Ow hold har you?”
Of course, hands-down, the two most confounding sounds for foreign English speakers of almost any Asian, Latin, or Germanic origin are our two “TH” sounds: The soft “voiced” one, as in “this, mother, and breathe,” and the harder-sounding, “unvoiced” one in “thanks, nothing, and mouth.” (By “voiced,” I mean that to make the “th” as in “the,” requires using your voice, whereas the other “th” sound does not.) First, there’s the placement issue: No one wants to be seen sticking their tongue out of their mouths. Add to that the amount of times one or the other or both “th” sounds occur in a typical conversation, and it really seems cruel and unusual punishment -- especially the hard (“thanks”) “th” sound, perhaps because of the extra air required to push the sound through the front teeth.
And though I can live with a “z” being substituted for the “th” in say, “mother,” I do not like “f” being substituted for “th” in “something,” “nothing,” and “anything.” So I exert a little more pressure for students on that point, often with one forced viewing of 12-year-old Oliver in the 1969 movie “Oliver!” singing “I’d Do Anything” – a particularly painful rendition, even for this lover of American musicals.
For further practice of the hard (“thanks”) th sound, I have devised sentences like, “He is thin but he has thick skin” (and for the French, the sentence has that “h” problem too);” and “I think he thought about nothing,” which often prompts howls of protests. The thing is, it’s not that people can’t say these TH sounds – it’s more the effort and embarrassment of doing it -- it just feels so unnatural for non-native speakers.
Occasionally, I give students some well-appreciated, verbal relief: take the words, “clothes,” “months,” and “asked.” All of these have tricky consonant sounds next to a “z,” “s” or “t” sound. And I’ve realized that even we native speakers take certain shortcuts: For “clothes,” we skip the “th” all together and pronounce the word, “kloze;” for “months,” we say “munts,” and for the past tense of “ask” we say often just say “ast.” The reason is that the final sound is the important one, and not the deleted inner consonants.
So to everyone out there trying to speak a new language, just remember that those tongue-twisting sounds are universal – no one is spared. And for those of you with TH-troubles, you’ll just have to develop a sick skin – and some day you’ll sank me for zat.