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What English Sounds Like To Non-English Speakers

What Does English Sound Like To Non-English Speakers?

by Terry Heick

When someone hears a language they’re not familiar, it sounds–well, weird.

I’m not a neuroscientist, nor am I a linguist, so this is a layperson’s explanation of ‘what English sounds like to non-English speakers’ insofar as I understand it.

(The ‘insofar as I understand it’ part should go without saying–how could I explain how I understand something that I don’t understand unless I’m explaining how I don’t understand it, which itself is ironic because being aware of your own misunderstanding is itself evidence of a level of understanding.)

First, a little background. There are neurological reasons for this, starting with how the brain processes sound, decodes phonetics and makes meaning. One of the neocortex’s strengths is pattern recognition, so when someone is accustomed to hearing one set of phonetic patterns, when exposed to a completely different set of patterns, it first tries to break the code–identifying any pattern it recognizes, before (consciously) giving up completely and just ‘listening to the sound.’

This is what a mono-lingual, native-English speaker would do listening to the staccato and intense German language, for example. (Of course, it’s even more complex than that; how you perceive and frame the sounds isn’t only a matter of sound, but also culture, as we associate distinct unique sounds and sound patterns with everything else we know or think we know about that culture. An example of this is the (obviously harmful and inaccurate) stereotype of ‘hicks’ and the southern drawl being an indicator of a lack of intelligence. (I am from ‘The South’ and encounter this phenomenon often.) [1]

What Does English Sound Like To Non-English Speakers?

In Steve Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct,’ he describes language less as a skill and more as an ‘instinct.’

Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.”

And as an ‘instinct’ that is either deeply humanizing or deeply dehumanizing, depending on your perspective, it is ripe with subconscious ‘aural expectations.’

So, the video–many English speakers know what Spanish or Russian might sound like, or even unique dialects and accents of English (e.g.,m Scottish, British, the aforementioned Southern US, etc.). What does English sound like to a non-native/non-English speaker?

There are many videos on YouTube that attempt to answer this question, but the one above is one of the better ones I’ve seen. It gets a little weird at the end, and at four minutes is a little long–doesn’t take more than 30 seconds to get the idea. But it’s kind of mesmerizing to listen to, isn’t it?

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Check out Steve Pinker’s ‘The Language Instinct’ and Noam Chomsky’s ‘The Universal Grammar’ for additional, somewhat-related reading.

[1] See 2002 Wendell Berry essay called “The Prejudice Against Country People, where he writes,

“The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the gravest kind.

I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and others have said many times before: These stereotypes don’t fit. They don’t work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are “closed and cold,” but some, too, have minds that are open and warm.”

What English Sounds Like To Non-English Speakers; What Does English Sound Like To Non-English Speakers?