Any sounds in other languages that can't be distinguished in English?

I know some languages can’t distinguish “R” and “L”. Or “N” and “L”. I’ve heard Japanese doesn’t distinguish “B” and “V”. As a user of English, I like to think it spans the set of the sounds of all languages (Mathematically, it is a basis for the set of sounds. Or maybe not a basis, since there is some overlap.) Is there any basis to this belief? The only counter I can think of is maybe tones in Chinese.

Actually, some English speakers don’t seem to be able to distinguish “V” and “F”.

Not even. Ever been in a beginning Spanish class?

No, English doesn’t span the whole phonetic set; for example, it doesn’t have the sound that French signifies as gn, Catalan as ny and Spanish as ñ. And it’s not that, for example, “some languages don’t distinguish B and V”, it’s that those languages only use one of them - any given language will use a limited subset of the phonetic set.

You may want to look for information on the International Phonetic Alphabet, and check out which of its symbols are used for English. Have a starting point for the whole set, and for the subset.

Oh hell now. English dialects don’t even have the ability to distinguish all sounds in other dialects. Try explaining to an American that Tune and toon are distinct words or, even more difficult, that why and wye are distinct sounds.

Once you enter into non-English languages, the gulf becomes even wider. I once had an Indian try to explain to me that I was mispronouncing someone’s name because I was calling her Shamsa, when in fact her name was pronounced… Shamsa. Try as I might, I could not here the difference between the way she said it when pronouncing it correctly, and the way she thought that I was pronouncing it. The only difference I could hear was that the “correct” way the “Sha” was pronounced faster than the incorrect way, but I was assured that it had nothing to do with the speed, that they were two distinct sounds.

The same is true for any other language I am familiar with. There are sounds you just can’t get.

But for the most blatant example, you really need to listen to the click languages, !Xhosa, Bushman and so forth. There is, apparently, a world of difference between the “X” click and the “K” click, for example, but there is no way that any English speaker woudl distinguish them on first hearing them.

Ok, maybe I should have asked which language spans the most of the set.

I sea what you did there.

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that sound just “ny”, practically identical to the sound in the English “onion”?
  2. Even if there is a subtle difference, I have no trouble *distinguishing *that sound. English may not use a perfect equivalent to it, but no English speaker would ever hear meñana and think that it rhymed with banana. Hence the sound is distinguishable to any English speaker. In that sense it’s equivalent to the aspirated “ch” of German of Semitic: not a sound that English speakers use, but one that is clearly distinguishable to them.

What is it about certain sounds that cause them to be mixed up? They sound similar? English doesn’t have click sounds, but I won’t mix them up with other sounds.

The problem comes when you transliterate from one language to another. For example, in Japanese the English “love” is transliterated as “rabu”, because Japanese doesn’t have an /l/ or /v/ sound, so it goes for the closest. In addition there are fewer vowels in Japanese, so the Japanese /a/ is closest to what is written as “o” in love, and a Japanese word cannot end with a consonant other than /n/, so /u/ is added at the end.

Not at all, for most speakers.

And mañana and banana rhyme, at least by Spanish rhyming rules. Consonant rhyme, even.

Yes. You are quite right that some sounds are so different that we English speakers just try to learn them as “new” consonants or vowels (though we’ll often fail to produce them correctly, and think we’re doing a better job than we are.) Other sounds are “close enough” to English ones (to our ears) that we will tend to substitute an English sound, and never even try to master the foreign one. Often, we’ll THINK we’re reproducing the foreign one, but we’re not.

If you really want to explore this further, the late Peter Ladefoged wrote a technical but fascinating book called “Sounds of the World’s Languages.” You’ll be blown away. It’s hard to count different “sounds” – it all depends how finely you slice things – but after reading the book, I can say that English has about fifty “sounds,” and this is slightly more than the average (which ranges from a low of about fifteen to a high of about eighty) – but if you add up all the different sounds of the world’s approximately six thousand languages, I’m going to estimate (just a wild guess after reading that book) that the number is between five hundred and one thousand. So, English includes between 5 and 10 percent of the world’s language sounds.

(I’m not including tone, which is a speech variable that has “different letters” meaning in some languages like Chinese, but not in others like English.)

(Nava – Perhaps you were thinking how the ñ sound can’t be at the START of a word in English, but it can be in several languages*, and you noticed how it’s not treated as a single letter in English, and somehow put it together to think it’s not a “sound,” but it is, e.g., in “onion” as someone mentioned. *Spanish is borderline – it has no native words beginning with ñ, but it does allow it for a few recent foreign borrowings like “ñu,” while English used the linguist’s “gn” to write this same borrowed word as “gnu” – but most English speakers refuse to violate the language’s order laws, and so say either “new” or “ganoo”).

(I wasn’t thinking of any of that, but thanks for trying.)

I can also attest to having the same issues with Mandarin, despite learning from the supposedly phonetic pinyin.

e.g. I really have no idea why no-one understands when I ask for a “dai4zi”, yet when they say the word back to me it sounds like what I said, including the tone.

But you would mix the clicks up with each other, almost definitely. There are quite a few of them, and in-language, they’re as separate from each other as B is from V. So it’s not like you can just say “I can distinguish clicks from non-clicks” which is what you seem to be saying

Oh, oh well. I’m surprised, then. Your English is fantastic, yet you didn’t notice how “canyon” and “cañon” are pronounced pretty much the same (except the “o” is an “uh” in English, and the first syllable is stressed in English?).

Maybe that onion example is reflecting how much the way we’ve been taught and how we think about language affects comprehension. I hear “onion” as “Onion”, with a diphthong; some of you guys hear it as “Oñon” or maybe “OÑon”, with a different consonant than I hear and without a diphthong. We’ve had threads where people phonicked the Spanish word de as “day”, whereas in the English word day I hear again a diphthong (I hear it as déi, not de).

ETA: I also hear canyon as CAnion from most speakers. It varies by dialect, the people from whom I’ve heard it as CAñon were from locations where there are so many Spanish speakers that it permeates the English; monolingual Anglophones from those locations would use Spanish words and be surprised when Anglophones from other locations did not know the word. Those same people pronounced RR without choking too.

Interesting, thanks. Yeah, this is one of those things where even professional linguists debate about whether to treat the “phone” (sound) “objectively” as two sounds or just one. But whichever you pick, it’s going to apply to both English and Spanish, so I still posit that your perception of the sound is being (subconsciously?) influenced by the arbitrary fact that it happens to be written with one letter in Spanish but with two letters in English.

(In some languages like Russian, it really SHOULD be considered one “sound,” because there isn’t an “n” sound in the language, just a “ñ,” if I understand correctly. It’s obligatorily palatized, in other words. That’s why “nyet” is actually spelled what looks more like “net.”)

And by all those years where if I’d pronounced it as Oñon in ESL, I would have gotten yelled at…

Basque (sorry for the hijack, but it’s staring at me) had a lot of going back and forth about that same sound for a while. The Academy said that the graphism ñ was “not part of the Basque alphabet” and that a digraph should be used instead. Of course the French digraph wasn’t acceptable either. So for example Iruña came to be written by some people as Irunea, which led to the problem of oooother people reading it as… Irunea. And then we got Iruñea, because hey, the more the merrier and that applies to letters too. I’m not sure what’s the official situation now, but I’m reasonably sure whomever opened that drawer in Pandora’s box wishes he never had.

That should have been “reading it as… iruNEa not iRUña”.
And JKM, I do hear it in Italian, Catalan and French. So it’s likely to be influenced by teaching, but the graphism has nothing to do with it.

Not if the ESL teacher wrre a native English speaker – I’m sure of it! any subtle difference you hear would not have been noticed by the teacher. I’m really curious to hear what that subtle difference is (for one thing, knowing this might help me improve my Spanish pronunciation). If you don’t mind, please try to describe the distinction in a few words.

Uh, I already have. There’s two different consonants, and a diphthong vs a single vowel. Can’t explain it any better, sorry. The diphthong would be about the same found in for example bocio (and don’t ask me why that word popped to mind), the “about” is because for some English dialects the i is weaker than in Spanish.