What are some sounds that English speakers have difficulty perceiving?
December 7, 2018 2:21 PM   Subscribe

What are some sounds in non-English languages that native English speakers have a hard time perceiving or producing? For instance, Japanese-speakers might not distinguish between the English "l" and "r" sounds. When English speakers try speaking other languages, what sounds do they have difficult with correctly hearing or speaking, because those sounds don't exist in English?
posted by Mystical Listicle to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think the biggest example has to be the difficulty in hearing/learning tones in Mandarin. And it's not that tones don't exist at all in English, they just don't work the same way.
posted by GuyZero at 2:26 PM on December 7, 2018 [9 favorites]

They're not exactly sounds, but tones sound like they fit the bill - English ears are just not at all trained to treat them as phonemic at all.

There's also a huge pile of vowels that English doesn't have and English speakers will have trouble with. Nordic languages' y or ø for instance. Vietnamese has rather a few of these vowels. It's pretty hard to spell them out in a way that's useful for you. Heck, some dialects of English use distinguish more vowels than others. I'm led to believe that are people for whom "cot" and "caught" sound different.

Also a bunch of languages (e.g., Japanese) have bilabial fricatives, which English speakers tend to hear as labiodental fricatives. But they do sound pretty similar - only a few languages in the world treat both sounds as distinct.
posted by aubilenon at 2:31 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Korean has a lot of consonant variations; for instance, g, k, and kk (ㄱ, ㅋ, ㄲ) which can all sound like "k" to an English-speaker and be difficult to pronounce distinctly.
posted by huimangm at 2:31 PM on December 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

There's a handful of diphthongs in Dutch that are very hard to distinguish. And Dutchies insist they sound different. Also what they call "long vowels" (just another diphthong I guess), like the "aa" in "Haarlem", compared to the short "a" in "maken" (to make)
posted by humboldt32 at 2:32 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's a Romanian vowel sound that sounds something like an umlautted u (as English speakers might pronounce it). There are two words in Romanian:

da lămâie = give a lemon (dah lah I can't pronounce it)
da la muie = give a blowjob (dah lah mweeyay)

They sound basically the same to speakers of English, and not to Romanians. Hilarity ensues.
posted by jessamyn at 2:33 PM on December 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

Tones for sure.

The difference between the q and ch sounds in Mandarin.

The difference between b and bh, d and dh, etc in Hindi. (It's why we tend to forget whether the name is spelled "Gandhi" or "Ghandi" — to us, "g" and "gh" are identical.)

Also in Hindi the difference between "normal" t and d and the retroflex consonants sometimes written and .

The fine vowel distinctions in German or in Scandinavian languages that have more vowels than we do.

The differences between "plain" and "emphatic" consonants in Arabic.

I could keep going. Most languages distinguish sounds we don't, even supposedly "easy to pronounce" ones like Spanish (where r vs rr is hard for English-speakers). It's rare for a language to have exactly the same inventory of sounds as us, or a perfect subset of our inventory of sounds, and to realize all those sounds in exactly the same way.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:34 PM on December 7, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm learning German, and I find it furiously difficult producing the gutteral "ch" and the ending (unrolled) "er" properly, but I can both perceive the sounds and hear that the way I'm pronouncing these words is different from the way a native speaker pronounces them.
posted by platitudipus at 2:39 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hindi and related language have multiple versions of D, T, N, L, K, S ... lots of consonants that English doesn't have a good way of differentiating. Here's one guy trying to explain the difference; I'm curious how many people who didn't grow up around the language can hear the differences. Personally (I grew up hearing Marathi, but functionally stopped speaking it at age 3), I can hear the difference but can't always pronounce them myself. Sometimes these are transliterated with or without h (so, d vs. dh) or sometimes with a dot below them to distinguish, but most English speakers tend to use it interchangeably.

(on preview, what nebulawindphone said, except I would add that "Ghandi" is particularly irritating because "ghan" with a hard/aspirated g means "dirty," which is not at all what the nice white people mean, of course but is an example of how linguistic differences/uncertainty/ignorance can have really unfortunate consequences.)
posted by basalganglia at 2:42 PM on December 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

The notorious SJ sound in Swedish, and its intersections with SK, TJ, and SKJ.

(Shorter video: a tongue twister)
posted by Lyn Never at 2:44 PM on December 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

To elaborate on the Korean example, English basically distinguishes between two kinds of stops, voiced and unvoiced. Korean divides its stops differently, into aspirated, "plain" (which may manifest as voiced or unvoiced depending on the context), and tensified/fortis. In my experience English speakers have the hardest time hearing the fortis ones as distinct at all. English speakers often also have trouble with some Korean vowels because they don't fit into the same categories as English ones.
posted by yhlee at 2:50 PM on December 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Word-final / word-initial glottal stops come to mind. Click for the audio for lessons 7_10 and 7_11 on this page. The distinctions folks are calling out here are generally reflected in some lesson or other at the same site, but you really need a copy of the manual that goes with it--a classic used for a long time to train field linguists and anthropologists.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:53 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Double consonants tend to be elided (cot / cotton) or modified (AmEng 'butter') or modify the preceding vowel in spoken English (biter / bitter) when they're distinct and semantically significant in languages like Italian (casa / cassa).
posted by holgate at 3:06 PM on December 7, 2018

This recent clip of Saoirse Ronan explaining how her name is pronounced looks like a good example - to me as an English speaker and to the interviewer, the two examples sound identical. This commenter explains the two different sounds she hears as an Irish speaker.

Also, I’ve studied quite a bit of Estonian, which has a sprinkling of extra vowel sounds which can be challenging to hear and reproduce for an English speaker - for me the ö and ü were hard to hear the difference between. And the õ took some practice to pronounce. You can hear them all here, though I’d maybe quibble with some of her suggestions of supposed English equivalents. But you can listen in to her Estonian pronunciation and judge for yourself.
posted by penguin pie at 3:36 PM on December 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

In Mandarin, any "zh" sounds - zhang, zher, etc. Regular "z" sounds like in "zou". The "c" in words like "cao". (Obviously I am leaving out the tones because I cannot remember how to type them on this keyboard.)

In French, the "r" in words like "bourgeois" - it's not a full "r", like "boorjwazz", it's sort of the ghost of an "r". English speakers always say it "boooooojwazz", like boo-urns.
posted by Frowner at 3:38 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

The click consonants of the Khoisan languages of Africa.
posted by humph at 3:39 PM on December 7, 2018

These are great, but just to add another layer to the mix, about variation in the United States: I've never heard someone not from the mid-Atlantic region around Philadelphia -- specifically southern Pennsylvania/Delaware, not really even NJ -- who can say the Pennsylvania "o" properly (if I were on a better keyboard, I've have given it an umlaut.) Clearly derived from German/PA Dutch, and unmistakably regionally specific.
posted by nantucket at 3:40 PM on December 7, 2018

Oh and the double ll in Welsh.
posted by humph at 3:48 PM on December 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Polish has pairs of "hissing" and "hushing" sounds that sound similar to English speakers. However, the hissing sounds are Slavic soft consonants and the hushing sounds are sort-of-hard consonants in Polish.

So you have ś and sz (both "sh" sounding variants), ź and ż ("zh"), dź and dż ("j"), ć and cz ("ch"). I've learned how to say them properly now that I've had a couple years of Polish under my belt but when I was starting out I couldn't get the two sets straight.
posted by Somnambulista at 3:58 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I've found research (didn't save the links) showing that people who've been taught how to make the sounds which don't exist in their language are then able to perceive them MUCH better.

When I considered what strategy to use when learning European Portuguese, I knew I'd start with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It's almost all the individual sounds (phonemes) of almost all the languages. Each sound has a named symbol. Search on the name. It's easy to find descriptions of how to position, move, and use your tongue, teeth, mouth, and breath to make the sound. Youtube channels have side view animations showing those. It worked for me.
posted by Homer42 at 4:29 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hindi has a number of of consonants that vary if they are aspirated or not - think "p" with a puff of air and "p" without. For western speakers this difference can be all but undetectable.
posted by smoke at 4:38 PM on December 7, 2018

In Swahili, ng' at the beginning of the word is pronounced as one single sound. I learned to say and hear it by saying "singing" a bunch and just thinking about the way "ng" is pronounced in the middle of the word. It's one smooth transition that combines those sounds without inserting a syllable change. And eventually leaving off the "si" part. Ng' ng' ng' ng' ng' ... and then eventually, I could say ng'ombe - cow!
posted by ChuraChura at 5:24 PM on December 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Icelandic has a fair number of these. A few which are most noticeable to me personally as either unusual in other languages, or shibboleths when foreigners speak Icelandic would be:

The pre-aspirated stops are, I believe, the parts least likely to be noticed by non-native speakers; in words like 'vatn' (IPA /vaʰtn/) the aspiration often isn't heard by those unfamiliar with the language.

Words like 'hné' and 'hnífur' ('knee', 'knife') employ voiceless sonorants (IPA /ˈnjɛː/, /ˈnivʏr/) which sound different to my ear when pronounced by foreigners, perhaps because the concept appears similar -- I often hear people just drop the 'h' in the way one drops the 'k' in English, which gets you in the neighbourhood but isn't exact.

The voiceless alveolar lateral affricate -- which I had to look up, as I just think of it as 'll' -- is likely the most well-known, thanks to 2010's worldwide mangling of 'Eyjafjallajökull'. (The difficulty is compounded depending on which letters it appears next to; I've yet to hear a non-native speaker pronounce 'tollstjóri' (customs) perfectly.)

More subtle is the voiceless alveolar lateral fricative/approximant, in words like 'siglt' or 'hlaup' (IPA /sɪɬt/, /l̥øyːp/) the former appearing to function similar to 'll' in Welsh), and odd pairings of letters, as in 'rusl' (IPA /rʏstl/). 'Ruslpóst' ('rubbish post' or 'junk mail') is a struggle for me to get out perfectly sometimes.

Not entirely the same category: The 'au' pairing is also pronounced as /ø/, so words like 'laust' and 'austur' often cause bilateral confusion much in the way false cognates do, as foreigners won't associate the pronunciation with e.g. 'Austurstræti' if they're being given directions and Icelanders may not immediately connect the, say, English pronunciation of 'au' to the Icelandic word containing those letters.

I'm sure there are more, but that's all I can think of at the moment.
posted by myotahapea at 5:32 PM on December 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

The Turkish "ı" "resembling a lower case I, always stumped me. I was told it's like the "io" in "cushion." Also, the "ğ" in "Erdoğan" which sounds something like a W. Turkish also uses some Umlaut vowels, which, as mentioned upthread, are hard for English speakers to hear.

In German: the "Danke" often gets pronounced "Dahn-KAH" by English speakers. I always thought the more obvious mispronunciation would be "dahn-KEY" but that would be based on reading the word alone and is evidently not how English speakers hear the word.

I am not at all a linguist. These examples are just IME.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 5:43 PM on December 7, 2018

Russia vowels after hard vs soft consonants- English speakers have trouble hearing and certainly reproducing some of these differences:

posted by twoplussix at 7:10 PM on December 7, 2018

In Arabic: Hard vs soft "D", also hard vs soft "Z".
posted by seasparrow at 7:33 PM on December 7, 2018

Tamil has a sound that's generally written "zh" as in pazham (fruit) but actually sounds nothing like zh. It's somewhere in between a la sound and a za sound but really quite indescribable. And it's really only heard by Tamil speakers - speakers of other Indian languages can't distinguish it from la either.
posted by peacheater at 7:34 PM on December 7, 2018

Serious answer: almost all of them?

Take Spanish. A typical English speaker will pronounce all or almost all of the vowels completely wrong in some way: way too long, too rounded, produced too high or too far front or whatever in the mouth. To the extent that they're really not that vowel at all, and sometimes not even in the vicinity. Trying to explain this to most English speakers is extremely difficult: they just don't hear the difference. (Pronunciation guides don't help: they'll say things like "the a in Dante is pronounced like the a in father, and the e is pronounced like ay: DAHN-tay" - and none of that is true, but it's very hard to explain it better because the vowels in English are so different.)

But even most of the consonants pose subtle problems. It varies over the regions they're spoken in, but many Spanish consonants are produced in slightly different parts of the mouth than their English equivalents, and most English speakers don't hear the resulting difference in sound partly because they don't even think of listening for it (they think 'Spanish has a hard c, English has a hard c, I'm all set'). But even when you try to focus on and get them to hear the differences, it's often really hard. Our brains are used to taking a wide range of variants and grouping them as one sound - which is normally useful, considering we don't all pronounce the 'same' sounds in exactly the same way as our friends or even as ourselves two seconds earlier. But it's a real problem when trying to speak in an entirely different accent that breaks up the sounds spectrum in different ways.

If you're interested, the IPA alphabet tries to break up the spectrum in a more granular way, which can give an idea of the axes along which sounds can vary. Much of the time when we hear a sound in another language our brains interpret it as being the closest sounds in ours, and just don't register the difference in palatalization or aspiration or whatever.
posted by trig at 8:06 PM on December 7, 2018 [11 favorites]

The "ão" sound in Portuguese.
posted by jozxyqk at 8:24 PM on December 7, 2018

Russian has two sh sounds, one hard and one soft, which both get their own letter (ш and щ). I think they're a bit like the Polish consonants mentioned upthread. Distinguishing soft consonants from hard ones in Russian in general are super hard.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:53 PM on December 7, 2018

You may be interested in the idea of minimal pairs.
posted by invokeuse at 9:03 PM on December 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Danish phrase "Rød grød med fløde" has vowel sounds so unlike any other Scandinavian or Northern European language that the Danish Resistance used it as a pass phrase during WWII.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:08 PM on December 7, 2018 [9 favorites]

Russian as heard by English speakers (and of course vice versa) is just full of these examples. The "sh sounds" one is a good one. The other one I always notice is that English speakers always seem to hear the sound of the letter ы as a 'u' sound, while to Russians it is in the same general family of sounds as an English short i sound.
posted by twoplussix at 9:30 PM on December 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

also in danish the difference between "å" and "o". The sound difference is subtle to a non-speaker but completely distinguishable for danes. It is where we get a lot of frustration because while learning you hear "but that's what i'm saying!" from the student - but no, not really and you need to practice a bit more.
posted by alchemist at 12:25 AM on December 8, 2018

In French most English speakers cannot distinguish between u and ou and between -on and -ant/-ent
posted by TheRaven at 1:30 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

i have noticed frequently that english speakers (absent the benefit of bar/bat mitzvah lessons) all over the world seem to have a persistent difficulty with the voiceless fricative semitic "ch" sound in hebrew words like challah and chanukah, and with similarly pronounced words in arabic and other semitic languages.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:00 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Japanese: long vs short vowels, where English speakers often make them longer

Scots: /ch/, /w/ vs /wh/ and almost everything to do with the letter R. Oh, and yods of course.
posted by scruss at 4:06 AM on December 8, 2018

Turkish has two types of L sounds, soft and hard. As a native English speaker, I cannot tell the difference at all. This doesn't lead to issues like the Russian lemon/blow job example above, but it is a bit of a shibboleth that makes me stand out to native Turkish speakers.
posted by stripesandplaid at 7:27 AM on December 8, 2018

The lemons and blowjobs are Romanian, not Russian, please and thank you.
posted by twoplussix at 8:17 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's hard to type out in English sounds that aren't used in English, so I'll give a different category of examples: language not only have the sounds they use but also the sequences of those sounds that they use. If you ever try reading words backwards, you'll probably find that you cannot force yourself to literally pronounce the same sounds in reverse order.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 9:47 AM on December 8, 2018

aubilenon: cot and caught definitely sound different to me!

I studied Arabic for a while and always had trouble with ʿayn and ḥāʾ (and i feel okay about that as while reminding myself of the spelling in English characters wiki says they have no English equivalent)
posted by emilly at 1:15 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The d in Danish words such as brod. It's kind of a cross between d and l, almost kind of not really. Six months there and I never got it completely right.
posted by deadwax at 2:11 PM on December 8, 2018

My first semester of Italian, our class derailed an entire lesson while our teacher exhaustively attempted to educate our ears on the difference between "gli" and "li" -- I think those of us who continued with the class just learned the syntax/vocab well enough to reason it out. To this day, I only notice a difference when someone really emphasizes the "gli" sound.
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:15 PM on December 8, 2018

Finnish is a pretty straightforward language, pronunciation-wise, but vowels can do non-native speakers' heads in, as often it can be difficult for foreigners or language learners to discern the difference between a single and a double vowel, and the loss or addition of that vowel can drastically change the meaning of a word. (Single and double consonants as well, but somehow the vowels seem more confusing.)

Most famously:
Tapaan sinut: I will meet you
Tapan sinut: I will kill you

tulen: I come
tuulen: of wind
tuullen: I may blow
tuulleen: of the blown (one)
tuleen: into fire
tuuleen: into wind
tullen: I may come
tulleen: of the one who has come

Certain vowel combinations can be tricky both to pronounce and to hear the nuance of; personally I get anxious whenever I have to use words like 'löyly' because as a non-Finn I rarely manage to get that string of vowels right.

And of course, 'noni' and its thousand shades of meaning depending on which bit of the word gets drawn out or emphasised.
posted by myotahapea at 2:48 PM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Preaspiration of consonants. This is the distinction between the two classes of stops in many Algonquian languages. That is, the only difference between (the letters written as) p t k and b d g is that the former have a soft h sound in front of them, acoustically. I remember sitting with my advisor in front of a tape recording I had made of an Ojibwe speaker, and he was going "it's right there! can't you hear it?" and me being like "I think I can tell something's different in the most obvious examples, but I can't figure out what."

English has postaspiration of voiceless stop consonants at the beginning of words, so I could hear that contrast in Chinese languages, but preaspiration was impossible for my ear. Especially since, like with every element in every human language, people who understand the language are attuned to hear its distinctions so sensitively that people who speak it don't need to enunciate much; the sonic cues can get very subtle in casual speech.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 3:03 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Rhotic Rs
posted by freezer cake at 9:00 AM on December 10, 2018

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