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I Love You, But I Can't Pronounce It: The Physical Difficulties Behind Learning to Speak Another Language

Meagan McDaniel's picture

The full phrase is “Ya tibya lyublyu,” but it's that last word that ties up my tongue. No matter how many times I rehearse saying “I love you” in Russian, it never comes out naturally; the “blyu” gets stuck to the roof of my mouth and I end up saying either “lyubloo” or sometimes just “lyubu.” Once in a while it comes out correctly, but I have to pause between “lyu” and “blyu,” calculating in my head what my mouth is going to have to do next.


Obviously, I'm not used to putting sounds together this way. But one might think, after a few tries, I'd get the hang of it and there would be no more trouble. Grammar and vocabulary take time to memorize, but why is making unfamiliar sounds difficult, too? I assume that everyone's mouth and tongue are basically the same structurally, and have the capability to make all the sounds found in every human language – but why is it hard or sometimes impossible to do?

According to Wikipedia's article on second language acquisition, this isn't just my problem. Although “those who begin learning a language late in life are capable of gaining a high level of fluency,” it seems clear from research that “the overwhelming majority of those who begin learning a language after puberty are unable to acquire a native-like accent.” (1) And interestingly, Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins claims that “in multilingual persons, an accent in their third language often reflects the pronunciation of the speaker's second language. I have observed this when a West African from a French-sphere country is speaking English. Though he sounds like an African, he has a French accent in English also.” (2)

So, accents are a fundamental part of language acquisition – now I'm a little less worried about my trouble with the word “люблю.” But I still want to get it right! Knowing this happens to everyone doesn't explain why.

The Linguistic Society of America backs up part of my original thought; apparently, everyone is “born capable of both producing and perceiving all of the sounds of all human languages.” However, this does not last; soon, “a child begins to learn what sounds are important in his or her language, and to disregard the rest.” By a child's first birthday, he or she has learned to ignore sound distinctions that don't matter to whatever language he or she is learning to speak. (3) So that's why I can't hear the difference between hard and soft Russian consonants; since English doesn't distinguish between consonants in this way, I've grown up thinking of them as the “same” sound, when in fact there are differences. I'm tempted to say they're subtle differences and so I can't be blamed for my confusion, but that isn't right, either; I only think they're subtle because I've been trained since birth not to notice them. The same thing happens to speakers of Japanese who learn English; there's no distinction between l and r in Japanese, so they sound the same to a Japanese speaker listening English. My first reaction as an English speaker is that the difference between l and r is enormous, but of course, that's because I've been trained to hear it!

Differentiating between important and unimportant sound distinctions makes sense. Learning to communicate would be a lot harder otherwise, because every possible inflection of every possible sound or combination of sounds would mean something different, and most of these sounds would not be used by any given language. It is easier, it seems, for the brain to just lump similar sounds together and understand them as only one sound – so much easier that this is literally what it does when we first learn language. In the infant brain, “a different cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain responds to each sound” in the language, so that certain sets of sounds are wired to a single neuron cluster as one sound. (4)

This hardwiring of neurons cannot be completely unchangeable; after all, some people can and do learn to distinguish the unfamiliar sounds of another language, even if those sounds are grouped under one heading in their native tongue. However, these individuals are usually “unable to acquire a native-like accent” when speaking (assuming they did not learn the second language during childhood). For me, this is counter-intuitive – I would imagine that rewiring your brain is more difficult than forcing your mouth and tongue to do things it is technically already capable of – but my own experience tells me otherwise. I can now tell the difference between a hard and soft 'л' in spoken Russian (well, sometimes, anyway), but I still can't say the right thing.

Language itself is produced by learning how to control the various “resources” the body has at its disposal for speaking: the sound generator (vocal chords) and sound chambers (larynx, nasal cavity, and mouth). (5) Presumably, if the brain can be rewired to hear new differences between sounds, it could also be rewired to make new cues to these resources and come up with the correct vowel or consonant for the new language. However, this does not seem to happen as readily – though, in fact, it does happen. I remember in middle school I watched a lot of unsubtitled Japanese films, having read the plots beforehand; sometimes I would try to mimic the language out of curiosity or boredom, but could never get the 'r' sound right, because it's something of a mixture between English 'r' and 'l'. One day, however, I just said it during one of my monologues and found that I could say it. Simply by practice, I had hit upon how to use my “resources” to make this sound; it required putting my tongue behind my front teeth as in 'l' but shaping my mouth in an entirely different way. This unintentional process of trial-and-error mimics what occurs in young children; they listen to what is spoken around them and test out sounds until the ones they produce compare favorably with what they hear. (5) I have experienced other examples of this principle in my life as well; after six years of taking Spanish class, I could pronounce Spanish words more like a native speaker than not, although I had never actively attempted to improve.

This is not to say that learning how to produce an unfamiliar sound is simple, or that once you “get it,” you say it correctly forever. (My Spanish pronunciation has fallen off since I stopped studying it, after all.) But it seems from my personal observations that the steps required to produce sounds outside one's own language are identical to the steps required to differentiate those sounds from native ones when hearing the new language spoken. The learner must hear the new sounds over and over (and perhaps in comparison to each other) to recognize that they are different; he or she must also test out different ways of producing a perhaps familiar sound to come up with the correct way to make the foreign sound. (Think of people trying to learn the English sound “th” by working their way from a native “z.”) But if the process is the same, why is one so much more difficult than the other? Why can people learn to hear differences faster than they can learn to speak them – and usually, never learn to speak them perfectly?

I turned up no conclusive answer for this question in my online research. Some posit that pronunciation is simply given a backseat to grammar and vocabulary, leaving students insecure about fully exploring new sounds. (5) However, the primary consensus seems to be that one's first language is hardwired so thoroughly into the brain that foreign sounds have difficulty tearing away from the sound “magnets” that are built around the native language. If you grow up bilingual, great – you get two sound sets already built in. But try to learn later in life, and one will have to wrench itself out of the pattern of the other – and it's harder to make the new sounds than it is to understand them.

This is frustrating, because I want answers, and somehow the above conclusion doesn't satisfy me. What about those rare people who don't have an accent in the language or languages they learn after childhood? What about people who are naturally gifted at learning languages and absorb them relatively quickly? What if I work really, really hard to rewire my brain and produce new sounds – will that help reduce my accent? Or does it all have to be unconscious and gradual, like with children? Since there is little readily available literature on the subject, I suppose I'll just have to find out for myself.

Ya tibya lyubloo...lyublYOO...


1.“Second Language Acquisition.” Wikipedia.
2.Jenkins, Dr. Orville Boyd. “Why Do People Have Accents?”
3.Birner, Betty. “Why Do Some People Have An Accent?”. Linguistic Society of America.
4.Shiver, Elaine. “Brain Development and Master of Language in the Young Years.” Parenting Information dot Org.
5.Childs, Marshall R. “Practical Linguist – Unique Language Sounds Bar Learning.” Daily Yomiuri Online. 17 November 2006.