What do foreign learners find difficult about English? Part 1

The learner has to tune in to a new system for making sense of sound
English has about 44 phonemes – individual sounds which form the smallest meaningful unit in a language (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet_for_English). This is, although by no means huge, a larger sound palette than many other languages (the number of phonemes in Spanish is in the mid 20s). The problems when mapping these onto the Roman alphabet of just 26 letters is obvious. There is nothing about h + c on their own that would lead you to think that, combined, they make the first and last sound of church? That phoneme is really a combination of sh and t, so it would more sensibly be written tsh; I went to tshurtsh. That's why cat shit sounds like catch it. There is no way of distinguishing in the alphabet the two phonemes represented by th in thigh and thy. The various ways of pronouncing gh is famous. This vestigial spelling bears witness to an extinct phoneme in standard English – the glottal fricative found in Scots loch (lough in Northern Ireland, or Van Gogh in Dutch).
English has a large number of vowel phonemes – about 20 depending on how you count – compared with 5 in Spanish. This enables us to have a large number of one-syllable words:
After 5 words, Spanish would have had to add a second syllable – a reason why Spanish words are often longer than English ones. While this makes English very concise, it has the disadvantage of placing an extra burden on the learner. The vowel palette is a finite space, and in order to have more vowels, the distinctions between them must be finer. The vowels in fit and feet form one the most productive contrasts (hundreds of words differ only in respect of this vowel), yet the physical difference is tiny – a minuscule difference in tongue position and (sometimes) a slight difference in length – and the auditory distinction approaches the limits of human perception. As a result many foreign learners struggle to appreciate the difference between such words as
and are constantly in danger of saying such things as a shit of paper or a piss of paper. Even many advanced learners will swear that the two sounds sound identical to them. An English person, meanwhile, (when listening to a native speaker with a familiar accent) never confuses these sounds, just making use of the similarity in puns like life's a beach.
The problem is, if you don't need to hear the difference in your own language, it's hard to hear the difference in a new one. For example the words hit, hat, hot all start with the same sound don't they? No they don't. Say them – each h has a very different lip shape and sound. The a in add is different from the a in mad, but it's not important in English so we don't waste our processing capacity by ever noticing it. In other languages the two a's might form a meaningful contrast. In Spanish the r in pero (but) is different (longer and more rolled) to the r in perro (dog). To us they sound the same, or just two different ways of saying r. To a Spaniard they are separate phonemes. A Japanese person famously groups English l and r together, yet we group together the first and last sound in little as the same l sound (in fact the mouth is different, and the sound is different, but we just don't notice it) while other languages hear them as differently as we do d and t or s and z. In fact there is often more variation within one phoneme than there is between different phonemes. It all depends where the boundary between two phonemes are. Experiments have been done where a phoneme is recorded and repeated electronically, each time moving closer to a neighbouring phoneme, say hid moving towards heed. At no point in the middle will a native speaker think that it sounds halfway between hid and heed; it will sound at most like a slightly weird hid before suddenly and completely jumping to heed. This is the gestalt effect in perception, like the silhouette of the vase and faces – you completely flip between the two categories and you never see both or neither.
The disparity between the perceived and the actual (acoustic) differences between phonemes is demonstrated when we talk on the telephone. In a normal conversation we can say
Peter and Paul have bought a boat.
And we would never hear it as
Beter and Baul have pought a poat.
The first sentence is the interpretation that make more sense, so we hear what we expect to hear (top-down processing).
But when it comes to spelling a postcode or name, there is no context, so have to rely much more on interpreting the actual acoustic signal (bottom-up processing) ,so BP on the telephone can be impossible to distinguish from PB, BB or PP
It's only at this point that we realise B and P are, in the slightly impoverished medium of the phone, very similar sounds, and it's at this point we have to flesh out the sounds with
B for Bertram
P for Parker Knoll
It's not just that different phonemes can sound similar, it's also that the same phonemes often sound different. Writing has over simplified word structure: writing is made up of 26 letters that can be recombined to make every word, and, while every word is different, the letters themselves remain the same. In actual speech, although we perceive 44 phonemes remaining intact as we recombine them, they actually vary enormously depending on the neighbours. More on this another time, though.
So, in short, a learner listening to any new language has to learn that, on the one hand, there are subtle, tiny differences between sound categories in the new language where an inch is a good as a mile, and on the other hand, large differences between sounds that native speakers seem to ignore. That's why voice recognition software has (until recently) been so unsuccessful. And that's also the challenge for a learner of any new language.

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