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Tech entrepreneur, executive, and investor; father of eight children; Googler.

Jackie

When my first child starting talking, the way she said “baby” was comical: it was basically two grunts, a high-pitch followed by a low-pitch, which when concatenated sounded roughly like the word itself.

As time went on, she learned how to speak with greater precision, but the funny bit was that for a while, whenever she would say “baby” she would revert back to her earliest versions of the word. So you’d hear fair renditions of words and then the two grunts.

Eventually, she worked it out.

Tonight as I spent time with my fourth child, I noticed the same behavior with a different word. And then it occurred to me. We don’t reproduce the sounds that we hear. Instead, we learn how to produce sounds and, independently, map the sounds we hear to the sounds we’ve learned how to produce. Hence, most of us have really bad accents when we learn new languages–we are mapping a new set of different sounds to the set of existing sounds that we already know how to make. Mismatches are inevitable.

I doubt this will be a revelation to anyone but me, but it did get me wondering: are there some people who can reproduce the sounds they hear with anything near fidelity? Such people would be amazing at learning new languages, among other things.

Is this a skill I can learn? It seems so much more efficient than having to map what I hear to what I know how to say.

Does anyone know?

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  1. Baka_toroi #
    March 18, 2009

    Well, Spanish is my native language, but every time I’ve spoken to English speakers they tell me I sound American.
    Basically, I’ve always paid attention to the phonemes (sounds) of the foreign language, trying to detach from the sound of my own language. Obvious cases are the “R” and the “TH” (as in ‘thin’), which are non existent in Latinamerican Spanish.
    When I speak Japanese, I try to achieve the same thing, though it’s much harder, mainly because I’m struggling with the vocabulary and syntax, which makes me pay much less attention to the phonemes I’m producing. Still, I attempt to produce Japanese phonemes that don’t exist in Spanish, such as the Z (As in ‘Kamikaze’).

    But yeah, most people don’t do as good as I do (modesty aside ^_^).

  2. March 18, 2009

    I have this vague recollection of reading somewhere that musical training can make language learning easier. I sometimes get told I sound native when speaking German (though usually when I’ve just started talking to someone and haven’t had much time to make mistakes). I did have music training as a child, and I know that when I listen to words in other languages, I can reproduce them much more easily if I dampen down my instinct to try and think of the thing I’ve just heard as a “word” and think of it as a “sound” instead. So there’s one data point. 🙂

  3. March 20, 2009

    Having had some training in Linguistics, I think this is a learned skill, though there are people who good at it naturally. When I took Phonetics in grad school we had to practice listening to people speak and record the actual sounds they said, which meant we had to ignore the words they said. I found it to be quite challenging, but I did get better at it over time. When we hear two people with different accents say the same word, our brains are very good at ignoring the fact that the sounds that were said were very different and we just hear the semantics of what was said. This is extremely challenging for computers which is why speech recognition is so challenging. We have to turn that part of our brain off in order to be able to mimic the sounds.

  4. September 29, 2009

    In my experience, you can learn how to make new sounds even as an adult. I had zero exposure to Cantonese Chinese until I was about 20 years-old, but I can reproduce the sounds accurately enough to fool people into thinking I’m Chinese on the phone!

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