When you listen to someone speaking a foreign language, whether it’s yourself of someone else, you may notice that some aspects of the pronunciation and intonation are more exaggerated and seem to be quite effortful, especially if you compare them to a native speaker of the same language.

This struck me particularly when listening to the new recordings of Greenlandic phrases, which were made by a learner of Greenlandic from the Czech Republic, and then listening to a Greenlandic news broadcast on YouTube. The native speaker pronunciation seems to flow effortlessly, while the learner’s pronunciation seems more effortful. Having said that though, the uvular plosive /q/ and doubled consonants of Greenlandic do seem to interrupt the smooth flow somewhat, even in the native speakers.

When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese I was taught to pronounce each syllable clearly and separately with exaggerated tones. About five years later I was more of less fluent and didn’t distinguish the tones as much, except in careful, formal speech, and tended to run syllables together a bit, though perhaps not as much as native speakers.

With a lot of careful listening and practise, you can acquire good pronunciation in a foreign language. It does take time though, unless you’re a very good mimic.

Even in your native language there may be certain sounds that trip you up. For example the voiceless dental fricative /θ/ (as in three) did not exist in my original idiolect – a sort of modified RP with Lancastrian influences – and I didn’t know there was a difference in pronunciation between three and free until I learnt some phonetics at university. These days I tend to use /θ/, though it sometimes still requires conscious effort.

17 thoughts on “Effortlessness

  1. I can’t believe that you weren’t told about the difference between th and f before university. You really didn’t know that others make a difference there, or you only didn’t care about it too much?

  2. I don’t remember any of my teachers at school mentioning it, but do remember one of my brother’s friends demonstrating the difference between those sounds to us and laughing at our unsuccessful attempts to say th. So I became aware of it, but didn’t learn to articulate that sound until later.

  3. I think we may fetishize perfect pronunciation a bit too much, sometimes to our disadvantage. As for myself, I have an excellent accent in Spanish (so I’m told), which often causes problems for me because persons I converse with assume a superior vocabulary to go along with the accent, and often answer me with a combination of sophistication and slang that I can’t easily follow. More than one of these people has told me that my accent trips them into communicating with me as they would with a native.

    By contrast, I speak French okay (not nearly as well as Spanish, but well enough for simple conversations) — but with an identifiable accent that I’ve never been able to shed. When natives speak with me in French, I generally find these conversations just as easy to understand as my Spanish-language conversations with Spanish speakers. I believe this is because my obvious accent in French causes the French speakers to slow down, enunciate more carefully, and choose simpler words and sentence constructions.

    (And no matter what anyone says about it, I love it when, in conversations beyond my native English, people talk slowly and loudly to me. It forces them to enunciate clearly, and makes it much easier for me to follow what they’re saying. When I’m speaking to someone for whom English is a foreign language, I try to do the same thing — not out of ignorance, but out of courtesy.)

  4. With Mandarin, there’s always such a delicate line between fudging on tones like a native-speaker and just getting tones wrong. Second tone is always the hardest for me.

  5. I read a book by a British author recently which had a character who substitutes /f/ for initial /θ/. I didn’t have a clue where the character was supposed to be from; I’d never encountered that before. Now I have some idea!

  6. I also remember when I took a few Mandarin classes, I was taught to really exaggerate tones.

    OTOH, when I took Japanese, it was in a class that emphasized conversational ability rather than an orderly grammatical approach, so I learned how to drop my /u/ sounds like a native from day one.

  7. I always say that when you’re learning to speak a language, you need to be anal retentive about getting the pronunciation right, that way when you speed it up later you won’t sound horrible to native speakers–having an accent is fine, you can have an accent AND have excellent pronunciation at the same time, but if you’re not pronouncing words properly then people aren’t going to be able to understand you, especially if you’re speaking at a normal conversational rate of speed like what a native would do.


  8. With Mandarin (and other languages, I assume), the rhythm of your speech is almost as important –if not more important– than the tones. Standard Mandarin speakers, for example, can still understand the dialects of people from say, Qingdao or Chongqing, etc. But for some reason, they have difficulty understanding foreigners whose tones aren’t any “worse,” per se, than places with dialectical Chinese. This leads me to believe that it’s a rhythm thing.

    And on that same note, if you’re stressing the tones too much, it’s bound to screw w/ your rhythm. So yeah, you have to work a lot to get the Mandarin lilt right, as well as getting a feeling for (not learning — I don’t think you can actively “learn” something like that) where and when you should eat your tones.

    Nice entry, man 🙂

  9. Recording of the sample text and Tower of Babel in Greenlandic also were made by a learner of Greenlandic from the Czech Republic.

  10. I gave myself a challenge while living in Japan:
    I noticed that native speakers could jump into the back seat of a noisy cab, rattle off a destination in very poor intonation and clarity and then the driver without a word for the rest of the trip, get us flawlessly to the destination.

    The challenge was simple because my destination was always my home. I wanted to be able to rattle it off in unorthodox indistinct Japanese yet get home without any more conversation and without the driver recognizing that I was not Japanese.

    It only took me a year to succeed. And I noticed, as you write, that pronunciation is only part of the language.

    BTW — how do I get my writer to see the script in your tagline?

  11. P. – you’re right – that was the link I intended. The other one does feature Greenlandic, though isn’t a news broadcast.

  12. OK – so I’m Welsh, but listening to those clips am I right to say that Greenlandic has a ‘ll’ sound in it? It sounds so to my ears, or very similar to the Welsh ‘ll’ voiceless lateral fricative.

  13. Phonetically Greenlandic does have a voiceless lateral (written in Welsh ll) I’m not sure if it’s a separate phoneme or if l is just devoiced when doubled.

    While rare in much of the world voiceless laterals are pretty common throughout North and Central American indigenous languages (not sure about South America). Often written by linguists with something that looks something like the Polish letter ł (which has a very different value).

  14. Wikipeda (usual caveats apply) treat the voiced and voiceless laterals as allophonemes.
    This might be one of those ‘it depends on what kind of analysis you choose’ questions rather than a simple yes/no one. AFAICT the voiceless lateral can’t appear word initially (though it’s not alone in that in Greenlandic)

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