Why can't Spanish actors play "American?"
August 21, 2006 4:01 PM   Subscribe

If British and Australian actors can do a convincing American accent, and American, Australian and British actors can do convincing foreign accents, why can't Spanish or French actors do an American accent?

When I say Americans and Brits can do convincing foreign accents, I mean like Jodie Foster being cast as a French woman in a French film (A Very Long Engagement) and speaking fluent French. Not Kevin Kline doing that horrible French accent in "French Kiss." I mean, if British, Australian and American actors have the ear to recognize those differences and can be trained to be some other nationality linguistically, why wouldn't a French or Spanish actor be able to do that?
posted by generic230 to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sure they can, the question is why would an American director use a foreign actor for an American film unless they wanted them to play a foreigner? Most foreign directors probably use local talent to play "American" anyway.

Off the top of my head, I can think of Michele Yeo as a foreign actress who des US sounding English although to be honest I can't remember what accent she used in those films.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 PM on August 21, 2006


Foreign actors might want to do that in order to get high paying work in American television, or film, just like Australian and British actors do. Like Toni Collette in several movies, Marianne Jean-Baptiste from Without a Trace. Mark Addy on Still Standing. Simon Baker in The Guardian, The Devil Wears Prada, Something New.

This is obviously a place where good actors want to be and work, why limit yourself?
posted by generic230 at 4:26 PM on August 21, 2006


You seem to be suggesting that many/most Brits/Americans can speak foreign languages without accent. This is not the case. For what it's worth, few US actors can produce convincing British accents, either (though I remember Gwyneth Paltrow is very good). Jodie Foster is unusual because, according to IMDB and other bios on the web, she learned French as a child, or perhaps was raised bilingual.

It is generally extremely difficult for teenage/adult language learners to pick up the appropriate accent or speech patterns (prosody). For example, French has a fixed pattern which dictates which syllable of a phrase is stressed. English speakers are accustomed to moving this stress for emphasis and find it difficult to acquire the French method.

[After living in the US for a while, I have come to believe that I can spot fellow Brits faking US accents. I am consistently wrong.]
posted by beniamino at 4:27 PM on August 21, 2006


Your assumption is flawed; witness the English-language success of Michael Vartan and Benecio del Toro (born in France and Puerto Rico, respectively). Of course, they learned English early enough in their lives to be able to gain accentless fluency. Charlize Theron, on the other hand, grew up speaking Afrikaans, learning English only as a teenager, and she's played Murkens pretty convincingly.

(Foster attended the Lycée Français in LA, where her classes were in French, so that accounts for her unusual facility.)
posted by rob511 at 4:29 PM on August 21, 2006


Yes, as benjamino says, Jodie Foster is very much the exception.

And Gwyneth's London accent in Sliding Doors was great, but she fell down on the detail -- she said "for Christ's sakes", plural, when English people only ever say "for Christ's sake", singular.

I would posit that relatively few actors can actually do foreign accents that well, witness Meryl Streep constantly being praised for her accents in various movies.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:38 PM on August 21, 2006


The actor who plays Dr. House in the series "House" is British, but the character has an American accent, right?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:09 PM on August 21, 2006


It's more a question of audience knowledge / expectation. You as an English speaker think "Wow, that's a great French accent," and you may be quite wrong in that assessment. A Frenchman might have a very different opinion. You are more able to notice the flaws in someone speaking your own native language / accent.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:22 PM on August 21, 2006


I think accents are easier for Brits/Americans because the language is the same, so it's easier to concentrate just on accents and rhythm. Plus, the collection of sounds you make to speak French or Spanish (or Japanese or whatever...) is very different from the one you use for English. The buzzy 'th' sound, as in "these", in English/American is very tough for anyone who didn't grow up with it, just like the rolling 'r' so common in Spanish, French and Italian, is very difficult for us Yanks to do. And while American films and tv are loaded with Brits speaking American, they don't always do it well. Sometimes they sound like they're from the Texan part of the Ohio, just outside the Bronx.
posted by tula at 5:37 PM on August 21, 2006


Jamie Bamber , who plays Apollo in the new Battlestar Galactica series, does a disturbingly good American accent - I had NO idea that he was actually British until I saw the DVD extras from the first season of that series, where he was using his natural London accent, and making fun of the fact that he had to speak American for the role.

I've always thought that Natalie Portman's accent in V for Vendetta was pretty good, as well, but then again, I'm not from London, so how the heck would I know, right?
posted by deadmessenger at 5:40 PM on August 21, 2006


What Meatbomb said.

How many Americans do you see playing French roles in French films? The best they can do is fake it well enough for an American audience.

I'm sure there are French actors who can fake an American accent well enough to fool a French audience too, for what that's worth.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:42 PM on August 21, 2006


What everyone else said, plus: Americans do terrible Australian and British accents.
posted by Lucie at 5:48 PM on August 21, 2006


Sort of on topic, I have yet to hear a non-Bay Stater pull off a Massachusetts accent. I guess it's a wicked hahhd one to do.
posted by Scoo at 5:52 PM on August 21, 2006


Tula, yes, that's what I was looking for. I really did mean is there a language thingamabobby that makes it difficult to mimic American accents if you're Spanish, French, Japanese, etc. That makes sense. And Rob and Ambrose make good points also, learning a second language in childhood, or youth would explain the accentlessness. Like my Cuban girfriend who went to American schools.
posted by generic230 at 6:15 PM on August 21, 2006


But you've laid out a faulty analogy. The Brits, Aussies and Americans are speaking their native language. You might as well ask why they can't do French with a Provençal accent, or German with a Bavarian accent.
posted by Neiltupper at 6:22 PM on August 21, 2006


Famke Janssen is Dutch. If you listen very carefully, you can here a wisp of a non-native accent, but it sounds pretty good to me. Then again, she's been in the USA a long time, and, well, the Dutch are embarrassingly good at English in general
posted by adamrice at 6:29 PM on August 21, 2006


Bob Hoskins normally speaks with a cockney accent. His American accent in "Roger Rabbit" was flawless.

Alan Cumming is a Scot. And he sounds like it, too, except in the film "Spy Kids" and when he appears on Broadway.

Rufus Sewell is from Middlesex -- but his American accent in "Dark City" sure sounded good to me.

Some people have the nack of picking up accents. One of the weirdest things I've ever heard in my life was Peter Ustinov speaking with an American accent; it was perfect. He switched in mid-sentence during an interview I was watching, just to make the point.

I used to work with a guy with an Iranian name. He not only was perfectly fluent in English, he spoke it with a slight Boston accent. (I was living in Massachusetts at the time.) I assumed he was second generation, but it turned out he'd only come to the US during college. He'd studied English in Iran, of course, but he'd learned to speak American English with the local accent in just a couple of years. It's just an ability some people have. (And it's not like English and Farsi are closely related, either.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:31 PM on August 21, 2006


Yeah have to say Mark Addy does a REALLY convincing American accent. I was actually really surprised to hear he wasn't an American.
posted by geekhorde at 7:03 PM on August 21, 2006


I've spoken to Scandanavians (not actors) who speak American-accented English so well they could tell me they're from Ohio, and I wouldn't blink an eye. An Icelandic girl once told me its because they learn English more by watching American TV shows than academically.
posted by lunalaguna at 7:17 PM on August 21, 2006


Do French-Canadians count? Geneviève Bujold does a reasonable American accent.
posted by gubo at 7:27 PM on August 21, 2006


Jamie Bamber , who plays Apollo in the new Battlestar Galactica series, does a disturbingly good American accent - I had NO idea that he was actually British until I saw the DVD extras from the first season of that series,

DUDE. Yeah, he's scary good. I thought he was from Chicago.
posted by frogan at 8:32 PM on August 21, 2006


Christian Bale (Batman) does different accents in many of his roles and he's British.
posted by madman at 9:16 PM on August 21, 2006


>I thought he was from Chicago.

Which is another point. Which American accent? There is no "American" accent, though of course there's a generic, bland newsreader tone that might count. By the same token there's no such thing as an English accent.

Perhaps the people who've succeeded with the accent thing have adopted a specific regional accent.

The canonical bad accent of all time was poor old Bianca Lawson as Kendra in Buffy. People are still talking about it now, it sounded so weird. But the dialog coach apparently insists that she was accurately reproducing the accent of a particular part of the West Indes ... just not a part we know about or hear people from. The irony being that if she'd done the clichéd "mon" Jamaican accent, nobody would have thought twice about it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:19 PM on August 21, 2006


I grew up in the theatre, and was one of those people with a gift for accents. I'm not nearly as good at it as I used to be, but I can tell you that it was an instinct from childhood. I would just unconsciously imitate the accent of whomever was speaking to me, to the point where my mom had to tell me off one time in our favorite Chinese restaurant (I didn't even realize I was doing the Chinese accent.)

Again, I can't do it as well as I used to, but I don't really act anymore, so there you go. When I did, I could manage English, Scottish, and Irish well enough to differentiate region (though I never tried Welsh.) Australian was tougher, because I was never really around it, but I could do it passably. Still, the foreign language accents were the toughest. I took five years of French, and eventually got it down so that I didn't sound like a "Spanish Cow," but I doubt if I could ever get it exactly right.

Why?

Because native French speakers don't really put inflection into their sentences. As a fairly animated English-speaker, this is next-to-impossible for me to manage, especially if I were acting. Think about it. By the very non-scientific estimates, American actors do 80% of their acting non-verbally, and 20% through dialog. With French actors and actresses it's more like 95%/5%. SO sure, Jodie FOster can pull it off, because she was raised to know French, and she's a genius, and she's already a better actress than 99.9% of other actors out there, but most of us couldn't consciously handle the odd (non)inflection and express ourselves more through body-language at the same time.

For a more extreme example, think of Japanese, which doesn't accent any syllables at all. Think of how tricky that would be to pronounce and still stay in character. Still, it's easier for us than for them, as all of the sounds in Japanese at least exist in English. My last name is Smith, which native Japanese-speakers pronounce as Shimitzu. It fits the sounds that they know to be verbal, and to them sounds exactly the same. I'd be condescending about it, except I've had the experience of trying to pronounce a Chinese friend's middle name.

To me it sounded like he was saying Dreng-an, albeit with a rolled R, a sound I have no trouble making. He repeated it back to me, and I said it back, over and over. I never got it, though I was repeating him perfetly, in my ears. Eventually he gave up and walked off, frustrated. It was like the Radioactive man "Up And At Them" thing. Unless you learn it from birth, I'm pretty certain that you can never pick up the tonal variations necessary to properly speak Mandarin or Cantonese. So at least it goes both ways.

To answer your question, though, most films that aren't shot in India are shot in Hollywood, which has the best stable of varied actors on earth. It's cheaper to hire a Hollywood-based actor than to fly someone in from Spain (and I might add that you never hear anyone appropriating the true Spanish lisp in, say, The Mask of Zorro.) For the most part, American movies will require an accent but not the language, which will make things easier for the actor, as all they have to do is stereotype. SOme Brits can nail American accents (Cary Elwes is certainly getting better and better at it) as can Australians (though, interestingly, Mel Gibson is not actually Aussie, nor is Nicole Kidman, nor Russell Crowe.)

I have no doubt that Gerard Depardieu could do a convincing American accent if he were asked to, as likely could Jean Reno, but nobody ever wants them to. The answer is simply supply and demand.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:24 PM on August 21, 2006


But of course we're going off track. As someone has already pointed out, you think that certain actors do convincing foreign accents, but that's only because you are not from that region, and a regular French or German or Italian may differ with you. For instance, I'm Indian, and I find some of the Indian accents in English movies outright hilarious because they tend to sound like Apu (which is Hank Azaria's crappy version; nobody sounds like that here.)
posted by madman at 9:26 PM on August 21, 2006


AmbroseChapel - for what it's worth, the "newsreader tone" generally considered to be the pure "American accent" is gennerally shopped for in Indiana, though Northeast Oklahoma is sometimes used as well. I still can't comprehend how foreign English speakers fake it though, because the large part of my brain just thinks that that's how English should sound, and that if someone is able to "fake" it, well hell, why aren't they simply speaking that way all the time?

I know, I know, I'm an idiot. But my brain just filters it that way.

Still, one of my family friends is a former ambassador. He's American, but due to his work he learned to speak as properly and clearly as possible. He now sounds much like an upper-class Englishman. So there you go.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:35 PM on August 21, 2006


AmbroseChapel : "she said 'for Christ's sakes', plural, when English people only ever say 'for Christ's sake', singular."

Minor nitpick: "For Christ's sake" is not plural, but possessive (plural would be "for Christs sakes" - no apostrophe)

generic230 : "I really did mean is there a language thingamabobby that makes it difficult to mimic American accents if you're Spanish, French, Japanese, etc."

Japanese is very, very limited in the sounds that can be produced (there are only 5 vowel sounds, maybe a 6th if you slur a bit, compared to American English's, what, 10? 12? And each consonant, besides "n", is paired with a vowel, meaning that, while you can say "kaka", you can't say "kak", and you can say "bedo" but not "bed"), which makes it difficult for a Japanese speaker to pronounce English period, American/NonAmerican aside.

But, as Neiltupper says, you've laid out a faulty analogy. The Brits, Aussies and Americans are speaking their native language, so they can put all their concentration into the pronunciation of the words. For folks from other countries, a lot of effort needs to be put into the English itself.
posted by Bugbread at 10:11 PM on August 21, 2006


Adding to what Navelgazer said...I'm from Kansas City, and a few non-American friends, watching Bernie Shaw on CNN in the Netherlands, remarked that Shaw and I must be from the same part of America, because we have the same accent. But of course, it's just that I have a midwestern suburban accent, and that's what American newscasters tend to have.
posted by bingo at 10:15 PM on August 21, 2006


Navelgazer : "My last name is Smith, which native Japanese-speakers pronounce as Shimitzu."

Nitpick: There's no "tz" sound in Japanese. Smith is usually pronounced as "Sumisu".
posted by Bugbread at 10:30 PM on August 21, 2006


bugbread, right on. I was writing it out phonetically as I've heard it. Thankfully my first (well, middle, actually, but it's what I go by) name is Dawson, which Japanese speakers have no problem with at all.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:04 PM on August 21, 2006


>AmbroseChapel : Minor nitpick: "For Christ's sake" is not plural, but possessive (plural would be "for Christs sakes" - no apostrophe)

Dude.

I wasn't talking about the "s" on the end of "Christ". I was talking about the "s" on the end of "sake".

In America, Christ has many sakes:
"For Christ's sakes"
In the UK, Christ has only one sake.
"For Christ's sake"
Although I believe that was clear enough in my original post.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:31 PM on August 21, 2006


It's all about the inflection and the hard-to-teach things.

The interesting case studies here are what you might call 'ambidextrously' bilingual actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg, for instance, has played roles where she switches effortlessly. Her English accent is as flawless as her mother's -- upper-middle class, a bit of jolly hockey sticks -- even though she's spent most of her life in France, her 'working language' is French, and her accent was only honed as a teenager when her uncle hired her a voice coach for The Cement Garden. There are giveaways if you listen for them (the rising intonation at the end of sentences) but she's also got a lot of the telltales of a native speaker, and is able to dial it up to sound like a French-speaker who's learned to speak English.

I knew someone at college who was even more bilingual, in an interesting way: she had an Essex-girl / Estuary English accent, and a broad Provençal French accent. That's something I suspect would flummox the best voice coaches.
posted by holgate at 12:15 AM on August 22, 2006


What do American audiences make of Hugh Laurie playing Greg House? Sounds good to me.

I think the answer to the main question is probably that Jodie Foster speaking French sounds genuine to me, but probably doesn't to most native speakers. It's like what passes for an Australian accent in shows like Lost - Emilie de Ravin is Australian, but most of the secondary characters aren't, and it hurts us Aussies as we watch it. (That's not how you pronounce Kalgoorlie!)
posted by tomble at 1:12 AM on August 22, 2006


AmbroseChapel : "Dude.

I wasn't talking about the 's' on the end of 'Christ'. I was talking about the 's' on the end of 'sake'."


Dude.

I didn't even notice there was an "s" at the end of "sake". Now I feel really dumb. I'm sorry.
posted by Bugbread at 1:41 AM on August 22, 2006


I thought Damian Lewis was particularly good at an American accent in Band of Brothers, I was shocked when he turned up with is own English accent in something else. On the other hand, even to my English ears Rachel Weisz seems to do appalling American.
posted by biffa at 3:58 AM on August 22, 2006


Where oh where is languagehat when you need him.

Many years ago I remember a scale from -5 through to +5 relating to the difficulties different nationalities have in pronouncing English to native fluency, given the normal language learning pattern of a few years in high school followed by some time in the country.
Since some Japanese and Chinese speakers will never be able to pronounce an English "R" unless they have been exposed to the sound as a baby (something ridiculous like before their ninth month) it is almost impossible for them to sound like native speakers (so I'm guessing they got a -5) Of all the Europeans the French (-2 or -3)had the greatest difficulty sounding native in English, and the scale went up to Scandinavians who got a +4 and Dutch probably rated a +5 but it's 20 years ago and I wasn't interested enough to remember- sorry.

I don't think House (Laurie) does a good US accent but then I've never been to the US so all I can say is he doesn't sound like any other US actor on TV!
posted by Wilder at 4:46 AM on August 22, 2006


some Japanese and Chinese speakers will never be able to pronounce an English "R" unless they have been exposed to the sound as a baby (something ridiculous like before their ninth month)

This is absolute nonsense. You're saying that the Chinese or Japenese tongue is incapable of making that sound? Or their brains? It doesn't make the least bit of sense either way.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:23 AM on August 22, 2006


Sorry I can't be more accurate as to source. It was 20 years ago and maybe a better explantion has come along. All I can say is the same paper or book compared Henry Kissinger and his brother, and the fact that their age on immigration to the USA was the critical differentiator in why one had a strong germanic accent all his life while the other brother had a flawless American accent. It also explained what the age was beyond which a Spanish speaker finds it nearly impossible to NOT put a vowel in front of a consonant beginning Sp, or Sn. A spaniard will say, for example "I'm from espain", or " I'm having an esnack" however if they learn the correct pronounciation at a certain age they will not have that difficulty.
As I said in my previous post, this is one for languagehat. Having said that I speak five languages, have taught English abroad, and have found what I said above to be the case. The only Asian people I met who could pronounce an English "R" were brought up in a bilingual enviornment
posted by Wilder at 8:39 AM on August 22, 2006


Sorry again, and of course it wasn't the muscle, it was to do with how sound is imprinted on a certain brain area.
posted by Wilder at 8:40 AM on August 22, 2006


AmbroseChapel: Why doesn't it make sense? Obviously the physical mechanism (the tongue is the same organ for everyone) isn't the problem, but if you're saying that everyone has in their brains the capability to make any physically possible sound, the fact that accents exist disproves your point. Brains get wired for language in childhood, and after awhile acquire a degree of inflexibility, which is precisely why, as has already been mentioned, 'th' is hard for non-native English speakers, and 'r' is hard for native Chinese speakers.
posted by notswedish at 9:01 AM on August 22, 2006


The primary difficulty for R with Chinese speakers is that, in the Chinese languages, and most asian pacific languages, the phoneme "r" does not have any meaning. It does not exist as a sound which distinguishes one word or meaning from another.

As they are not exposed to this as a meaningful sound in early life, the nerve pathways which would be able to make the distinctions attrophy during early brain development. An infant has vastly more brain cells at 2 months than at 2 years and only those which are stimulated significantly have a high survival percentage. It is not that children learn better when they are young. It is that they have not lost the pathways best suited to that information yet.

You can put information in a spreadsheet or a word document, depending on what you have avalible, but it is more difficult to work with if you are having to make do. The same theory applies here and, to bring it back around, the lack of those neural pathways means that someone learning new languages has a very difficult time learning the parts which do not matter in their own language.

Taiwanese, for example, has 8 different tones which can make the same phonetic word into 8 different meanings. In English, we generally use a rising tone to indicate a question and that is about it.
posted by slavlin at 11:37 AM on August 22, 2006


AbroseChapel: Wilder is right. Though infants are born with the ability to distinguish between different phonemes in all languages, as a child learns which phonemes are relevant to his or her native language, he or she loses the ability to distinguish between phonemes not used in that language (I believe this happens around 10-12 months). So the example that Wilder was using is a fair one: in Japanese, the l/r boundary that is present in English does not exist and Japanese grow up without having to distinguish between those phonemes: this causes understandable difficulty in recreating them in speech.
posted by irregardless at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2006


You're saying that the Chinese or Japenese tongue is incapable of making that sound?

Though infants are born with the ability to distinguish between different phonemes in all languages, as a child learns which phonemes are relevant to his or her native language, he or she loses the ability to distinguish between phonemes not used in that language...


You guys are both half-right. Let's be specific -- there's no structural or neurological difference at birth. Take a Chinese baby and plop him down in Alabama and you'd have a Chinese kid that's a native English speaker with a Southern accent. There's a semi-famous stand-up comedian named Henry Cho that's 100 percent Korean with a thick-as-molasses Tennessee drawl.

The difference is how the muscles related to speech are used. There's no R sound in these languages, so the muscles are never exercised and developed to the extent that they are by English speakers (the reverse is also true for Chinese-only sounds).

A good speech therapist could take a native Asian speaker and through a series of focused exercises and plenty of time create the necessary muscle development to allow the person to say his R's with the best of them.
posted by frogan at 12:18 PM on August 22, 2006


Sorry folks, I just can't let a conversation about accents in movies pass by without reference to the crimes commited by Tom Cruise on the Irish accent in Far and Away. Damn, that was awful.
posted by Sk4n at 12:38 PM on August 22, 2006


Hah. Nobody hates Tom Cruise more than me, but I'll see your "Tom Cruise in Far And Away" and I'll raise you "Mickey Rourke in A Prayer For They Dying". His accent wanders all over the British Isles and at one point visits Norway briefly.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2006


To sum up this nonsense about Chinese/Japanese people never being able to say the letter "R":
  1. Wilder: they will never be able to say it unless they heard the sound as a baby
  2. notswedish: The fact that people have accents proves this theory.
  3. slavlin: there's a nerve pathway just for the letter "r" and in Chinese/Japanese babies it shrivels up
Oh dear. I've never seen such a collection of half-understood ideas.

Everyone else is just saying "difficulty" and "it takes a lot of work".

That's a perfectly logical thing to say. It's very difficult for Chinese/Japanese speakers, because they're not used to the sound. Fair enough. But all this stuff about it being scientifically "impossible", and pathways in the brain atrophying is still, I'm afraid, nonsense.

Plus, this thread isn't about regular people, who can learn enough to get by and not sweat it, it's about actors, who have an enormous financial incentive to learn accents and lose their native speech patterns.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:50 PM on August 22, 2006


Wilder : "The only Asian people I met who could pronounce an English 'R' were brought up in a bilingual enviornment"

I've taught a number of Japanese folks who could pronounce the "r" just fine, despite having no exposure to English until junior high. I've also met (and I found this quite odd) at least two people who could pronounce "r" and "l" perfectly but could not tell the difference. They knew how to shape their mouth, and would shape it as appropriate for the word, but as far as they could tell, the same sound came out of their mouth. When teaching them a new word (let's say "perrenial"), I would tell them, and then I'd have to tell them whether it was an "r" or an "l" so they could repeat it back to me correctly.

AmbroseChapel : "But all this stuff about it being scientifically 'impossible', and pathways in the brain atrophying is still, I'm afraid, nonsense."

Regarding "impossibility", yes, that's just silly, in that I've met many, many Japanese folks who haven't been exposed to English during their first X months, but can pronounce "r". Statistical unlikelihood, fine, I can buy, but I'm surrounded by prima facia evidence that "impossible" is just incorrect.

However, regarding "atrophy", I dunno. It depends how you define "atrophy". I understand "atrophy" to mean wasting away, not necessarily "to nothing", but to "essentially useless". To my knowledge, atrophied neural pathways are to some degree regenerable, but that may take a lot of effort. So the "atrophy" concept seems to make sense: In babies, the pathway is there, and if stimulated, the kid will be able to hear and make the sound. If not stimulated, it will become atrophied, and as an adult, regenerating that pathway will take a lot of effort, while it wouldn't for a kid.
posted by Bugbread at 3:38 AM on August 23, 2006


I've also met (and I found this quite odd) at least two people who could pronounce "r" and "l" perfectly but could not tell the difference. They knew how to shape their mouth, and would shape it as appropriate for the word, but as far as they could tell, the same sound came out of their mouth. When teaching them a new word (let's say "perrenial"), I would tell them, and then I'd have to tell them whether it was an "r" or an "l" so they could repeat it back to me correctly.

I know an English-speaker who is the same with two phonemes in Polish: able to form them accurately, but unable to distinguish the sounds he makes.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:24 AM on August 27, 2006


Ambrose, you did not, apparently, understand what I wrote. At no point did I say anything was impossible, merely more difficult.

I have a degree in English Lit with a minor in Anthropology. The 2 together, while not making me an expert, did include several courses in linguistics including reading several papers on the subject of language differences and brain structure.

In the same way that paths get worn in a forest as animals or people follow them over and over, sounds with meaning to them do the same in the brain. The difference is, in the forest, the path is emptier, where as, in the brain, the paths are thicker and stronger due to their repeated use.

This translates to meaninful sounds being recognized, and therfore reproduced, more easily by people raised on them.
Repeated exposure maintains a higher neuron density in that area.

As for people who are able to learn the language given immense incentive, it is possible for some men to play a convincing woman in a movie, but you don't see that happen. Why? Because, all things being equal, why take the role you are less suited for? Actors, the good ones at least, seem to take roles that they are suited for. I don't think that we will see Joe Pesci playing Duce Bigilo in the next installment, though I would be first in line to see that one. By the same token, what incentive is there for Pierce Brosnan to play a California born surfer when James Bond was out there?
posted by slavlin at 9:33 AM on August 28, 2006


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