Open a manual Foreign language, And listing the characters used in the writing system and the sounds they represent, one of the first things you will see is the characters. This is especially important for unfamiliar organizations such as Greek or Russian. But even for languages that rely on the Latin alphabet, diacritics, such as accent marks, can explain how a letter changes its pronunciation and guide the oddities such as -ch- in German or -gl- in Italian. (The first often looks like -ch- from the Scottish “loch” and the second looks like -ll- from “million”).
Accent and combinations
After that, we master greetings, vocabulary and more, without worrying too much about pronunciation. That is a shame. There is a lot more to learn from foreign accents than the sounds of the characters on the page. In the beginning, the equivalents are often very approximate. In French, Paris -p- is completely different from -p- English, which is often overlooked in textbooks: the French version does not have the strong breath of the English version. (Hold your palm in front of your mouth and say “Paris” in English. Then try to do the -p without the puff, you will get the French version).
Even when textbooks or teachers mention these kinds of nuances, the next step is often missing. As with chemistry, it is important not only how the elements function in isolation, but also how they combine. Every language has rules for these combinations, which are generally understood by native speakers (and many authors), but cannot be explained or preferred.
“There’s a lot more to learn from foreign accents than the sounds of the characters on the page. To begin with, equivalents are often very approximate.”
Let’s take a simple example. All French words are pronounced in the last letter, which is usually explained in textbooks. But the significance of this rule is often underestimated. This applies not only to French words, but also to any foreign name: French speakers know the city of Texan called ‘yoos-TON’, but not the English ‘HYOO-ston’. The final emphasis is very stressful, usually involving more tone and more sound. English words, on the other hand, often have a secondary pronunciation and a primary accent: in “civilization” pronounced in English, the primary syllable is the fourth letter and the secondary syllable is the first. In French, the pressure of the final letter is so strong that it leaves little room for another accent.
Phonetic and restricted characters
Second, languages differ in what linguists call phonotactics – in fact, acceptable writing and what not. In English, the -p- of “psychology” and “pterodactyl” is silent because English phonetic rules do not allow native words to start with the sounds -pt- or -ps-. English allows you to combine these consonants between words like “uptown” and “upside” so English speakers can definitely pronounce them. But the rule of thumb is that even if you encourage them to pronounce -p in “psychotic”, they tend to insert extra vowels that match the form, and say ‘puh-sychotic’. English-speaking commentators talking about French footballer Kylian Mbappé are forced to call him Em-bap-ay by adding a third letter.
A similar confusion affects many foreigners learning English, perhaps even more so. The reason why a Spaniard is said to belong to the ‘Espain’ country when speaking English is that combinations of -sp-, -st- and other consonants at the beginning of Spanish words are forbidden, which is why the capital of Sweden is ‘Estocolmo’. This is just an example. In practice, English is exceptionally full of groups of consonants that are not allowed in other languages. For another study, check out a video on Google of strangers trying to say “squirrel”. The word combines an unusual -skw- at the beginning, a strange vowel in the middle that is not present in most languages, and a soft -rl- at the end.
Rhythm by syllables or pronunciation
Another reason why people are betrayed by their pronunciation in other languages is that it is difficult to reduce the rhythm of a language even if they are otherwise proficient. They differ in the way they put the letters into a sentence. For example, are stopped by Cantonese and Italian characters: each syllable has approximately the same duration. Read this sentence aloud and try to pronounce each letter as it is, you will find half following the Italian. English is stopped by pronunciations (although strictly), i.e. the compressed letters appear at approximately regular intervals, while the others are less pronounced. This is what distinguishes Italian from English through a wall, even if it is not possible to distinguish individual sounds or words.
“Another reason why people in other languages are betrayed by their pronunciation is that it is difficult to reduce the rhythm of a language.”
English-speaking tourists can sometimes be found speaking English with a fun hybrid accent when traveling abroad. Linguistic rhythm is contagious. But like drumming or dancing, a little explicit teaching never hurts.
© 2021 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. Source: The Economist, translation The New Economist, published under license. In its original version of the article: www.economist.com.
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