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Hardest language to pronounce?

Discussion in 'Cultural Discussions' started by tpettit, Aug 18, 2007.

  1. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    Hi there, I'm very interested in languages, and especially in their phonetic aspects. I'm bilingual in French and English, although I do have more vocabulary in French since I've always studied in french. I also know a little spanish, and I'm learning swedish for the only reason that it just sounds beautiful.
    Anyhoo, I was wondering what you guys think is the hardest language to master in terms of pronunciation. Forget about grammar, vocab, reading, writing, etc.
    I think spanish is pretty easy to pronounce, since it has very little phonetic diversity, although it's sometimes spoken incredibly fast. But I think anyone can pretty much "imitate" a spanish accent fairly decently. English, on the other hand, and many germanic languages, is much more difficult to pronounce because of its many vowels and diphtongs.
    I also think french is very hard to pronounce, because it doesn't really sound like any other language. All of its vowels have this distinct "french" sound to them . I have yet to hear a non-native speaker pronounce french accuratly.
    Japanese is fairly easy to pronounce, except for the "u" sound which is quite tricky.
    Arabic just hurts my throat (and I lived 10 years in saudi arabia)

    Tell me what you think !
     
  2. Horazio Senior Member

    Venice
    italian / spanish (bilingual)
    It depends on your native tongue.
    Each language has its own set of phonemes and you learn to master this particular set of sounds.
    When you study a new language the difficulty of prononunciation depends on how many new sounds "match" with your own phonetic repertoire.

    For Westerns , trying to learn a tonal language (chinese, vietnamese ) is a "hell of a lot more impossibler mission" simply because tones are not used in most western languages.
     
  3. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    For me it's Georgian and other Caucasian languages with what seem to be unpronounceable consonant clusters: how is one to pronounce words like brt'q'eli, mc'vrtneli, or prčkvna? Or pretty much any language with such a feature like the native languages of British Columbia, or the Slavic languages. Compared to these, everything else seems quite easy :D.

    There's a few other things that trip me up, especially languages that use pitch to distinguish words, whether it's like Swedish or like Mandarin, but the consonant clusters would be the worst for me.

    About Spanish, though, one thing I find difficult about its pronunciation is the "soft" sound of b, d and g, which, no matter what I do, I can't quite pronounce the way Spanish speakers too. There's some difference between say d and English th or Greek δ and between g and γ which I just can't figure out.
     
  4. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Interestingly, assuming that the consonants in these transcriptions have more or less standard values, these Caucasian examples you present are pretty easy to pronounce for a Croatian speaker like me, even though my language is from a totally unrelated family. On the other hand, I have serious problems with languages that have a huge number of vowels, like English or French.

    But I guess we could look for languages that have the most exotic phonologies, in the sense of being radically different from the large majority of other languages (and thus most difficult to pronounce for the majority of people in the world). In this regard, I think the most serious candidates woud be Northwest-Caucasian languages (whose most extreme example is Ubykh, with about 85 distinct consonants) and the African languages that use click consonants (this one is probably the most extreme among those).
     
  5. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    Of course judging difficulty depends to a great extent on where you're coming from. I find it surprising that for many people in my family who learned English as a second language, it's very difficult for them to pronounce English lax and tense vowels differently, or pronounce sh and s differently, and so on, yet for me there's those consonant clusters which are easy for you but I can't pronounce without inserting at least one definite vowel somewhere.

    I was going to say that since infants can learn any language, everything should be equally easy for them, but now I wonder if that's true. Perhaps infants take longer to learn some sounds than others and we could use that as an objective measure to determine difficulty of pronunciation.

    That sounds like a reasonable approach. And Ubykh is :eek:! So many fine distinctions between sounds. (I know the original post didn't ask about this, but Ubykh has got to be up there with the languages that are difficult to understand orally since I'm pretty sure I couldn't consistently distinguish between a velar and uvular fricative -- they sound extremely similar to me.)
     
  6. divisortheory Senior Member

    San Francisco, CA USA
    United States, English
    Vietnamese is the hardest language to pronounce that I've learned so far. Mandarin Chinese also uses tones, but I did not find it nearly as difficult as Vietnamese tones.
     
  7. irela Junior Member

    Venezuela Spanish
    As you all have expose.... the difficulties depends on your native language. For me is king of easy to pronounce english words I even got to speak english with different accents. After living one year in canada, Toronto I caught their "accent" and when I went to ireland " I didn't get the irish accent but the scottish.
    When I go to the U.S and I stay more than a month my family, well the ones who leave there they say that I get the Denver accent.

    Maybe for me It will be difficult the african languages and the easter languages like chinese, but I've tried to say words in finnish and russian and it is quite easy but the problem is their grammar cause is very difficult.

    Another example: For me french is easy to pronounce cause I went there when I was a kid, but for my classmates which are native venezuelan as me, and have never studied french before, they find difficult to pronounce the "r" and the "e" as in the word "regarde" means "see" or the sound of "u" as in "voiture" means car.

    Sincerely

    Irela
     
  8. Harry Batt

    Harry Batt Senior Member

    Minneapolis
    USA English
    I've described Norwegian as a Gemanic language spoken with a Chinese accent. It is not easy to pronounce because you feel silly. About 68% of the settlers in northeast Iowa where I grew up were immigrants who sailed out of Stavanger. The language grammatically was difficult to master because everyone was trying to shed their peasant side of history. That meant shedding their Norwegian accents. The pronunciation which remains has been preserved by the farming families.
     
  9. Tetabiakti Junior Member

    Dutch
    Athapascan languages like Navajo and Apache are very hard to pronounce, and very few outsiders have ever learned to speak it. Remember the famous Navajo Code Talkers?
     
  10. Guachipem

    Guachipem Senior Member

    Praha, Czech Republic
    Español (de Canarias)
    That is true. I think most of Spanish sounds are easy to pronounce, but "rr" is a difficult sound, even for some Spanish people. I know a lot of people who can't pronounce it very well, and "rr" normally is the last sound for children to learn. For example, one of my nieces spoke Spanish very well when she was two, but she couldn't pronounce "rr" until she was five.
    But in general, I think learning a sound when you are a child is much more easy than do it when you are an adult.

    I have read that Navajo is the most difficult language in the world to learn becouse its grammar, but I also have read that the most difficult language to pronounce is a language spoken in Africa. Sorry, I don't remember de name, but I think it is the one Athaulf says.

    Please, correct my mistakes, I don't speak English very well.
     
  11. Tetabiakti Junior Member

    Dutch
    One of the languages mentioned in Athaulf's link is Xhosa, Nelson Mandela's mother tongue. Xhosa (I don't even know how to pronounce that! ;)) is famous for its special sound effects, perceived as 'clicks' by non-Xhosas.

    Have you ever heard Miriam Makeba's Click Song? Actually, this is not how the song is called at all but nobody knows how to pronounce its real name!

    After listening to her song, some people have asked Miriam Makeba how she managed to 'make that noise'. Her answer: 'it isn't a noise, it's my language!'.

    In this video clip, Miriam Makeba introduces her audience to the Xhosa language by giving a short demonstration:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?d...l=5&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=1
     
  12. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    In case someone is curious how this language actually sounds (or rather sounded -- the last native speaker unfortunately died in 1992), an audio sample with French translation can be found on this link. There is also a transcription of the sample here.
     
  13. Horazio Senior Member

    Venice
    italian / spanish (bilingual)
    ... a language that has Xhosa consonants AND asian tones....go figure!
     
  14. Gris Senior Member

    España
    Español
    No se si será la lengua más dificil de pronunciar, pero la ỹ guaraní, gutural y nasal simultáneamente, es bastante dificil de obtener para los no nativos
     
  15. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    Interesting. That reminds me of when I went to Greece, I noticed that some young kids would pronounce χ in certain positions where it should sound like the ch in German ich as a "sh" and now I'm wondering if this is a matter of the sound being difficult.

    Thanks for the links.
     
  16. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The English consonants are fricatives. The Spanish consonants may sometimes be pronounced as fricatives, but they are more often approximants. Basically, the Spanish pronunciation is "softer".

    Great comeback! :D
     
  17. Woland

    Woland Senior Member

    Israel
    Romania/Romanian
    in Romania, Hungarian is considered the hardest language to pronounce because its unusual phonology,somehow similar to Finnish.Primary stress is always on the first syllabe of a word(like in Finnish,Slovak and Czech)
     
  18. HKK

    HKK Senior Member

    3010 Leuven, Be.
    Dutch/Belgium
    I'd say English b, d, g are plosives :)
     
  19. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Please look at the phonetic transcription that Modus.Irrealis wrote. I can't type IPA.
     
  20. palomnik Senior Member

    Vietnam
    English
    I find that the real problems arise not so much from the number and difficulty of the sounds themselves (although I never encountered Ubych, so I'm not so sure about that one). The languages I've had the hardest time learning to pronounce are French, with its combination of sylllable-timing and elisions, and ones which have stress patterns that don't concur with vowel length, like Czech and Hungarian. It is a particularly ironic problem with French, since I can pronounce it quite well, but I have a great deal of trouble understanding it when spoken, which has gotten me into difficult situations occasionally.

    I think the difficulty of tonal languages is decidedly overrated, and anybody who puts in some effort into learning one will find that using tones as a distinguisher comes almost naturally.
     
  21. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I've never tried to learn a language with phonemic secondary articulations, like palatalization (the Goidelic languages, the Slavic languages), or aspiration (many southern and southeast Asian languages), or emphatic consonants (Semitic languages), but at first glance I suspect I would have difficulty with that.
    Also, some northern native American languages look quite formidable in phonetic transcription, for the amount of sounds that are unusual to me.
     
  22. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    If you speak English, then you have no problems with aspiration, since /p/, /t/ and /k/ are aspirated in stressed syllables.
     
  23. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    While aspirated consonants appear in English, they are not independent phonemes. They are complementary with their unaspirated counterparts. Imagine a language with four possibilities:

    kin, with aspirated /k/
    kin, with unaspirated /k/
    napkin, with unaspirated /k/
    napkin, with aspirated /k/

    Would you be able to make these distinctions easily?
     
  24. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    I honestly do not consider this to be difficult. The distinction is quite obvious orally, it is just a matter of learning the words.
     
  25. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    If you say it's obvious for you, I believe you, but it certainly isn't for me. Aspirating the plosives was probably one of the last things about English phonetics that I suceeded in doing. :)

    By the way, I second an earlier remark that the tense-lax vowel distinction is another hard thing about English phonetics, for a speaker of a Romance language. Even today, I'm not completely sure I've mastered it. Case in point...
     
  26. sniffrat

    sniffrat Senior Member

    Leicester, England
    English, UK

    Can anyone give an example of an "aspirated plosive" or a "tense-lax vowels distinction"? Of course I don't study English pronuciation but I would be really interested to know about the difficulties my non-native friends have...
     
  27. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    Aspirated plosive:
    the first p in paper is aspirated (it has an /h/ sound after the /p/) while the second one is not.

    Tense-lax:
    feel - fill
    fool - full
     
  28. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    Ah, thanks -- so I just need to train my tongue to stay a little further from the point of contact.

    About aspirated consonants, I find it very difficult to do the so-called voiced aspirates, of Hindi for example (and I understand these sounds are fairly rare across the world). It's not that I can't do it period but that I can't do it and have it sound natural at the same time. But I agree that double articulation is difficult in general -- I don't know how the Slavic languages can palatalize a consonant before another consonant as my tongue simply doesn't want to do that. English also has w which is doubly articulated and it difficult for some Greek speakers I know, who replace it with γου to get both the velar and labial aspects of the English sound (oddly enough they don't use β [v] like many other languages do).
     
  29. divisortheory Senior Member

    San Francisco, CA USA
    United States, English

    It definitely isn't obvious to me, and one of the languages I'm actively learning (Vietnamese) involves aspirated / unaspirated phonemes exactly as mentioned. It is definitely not always easy to tell the difference between the two in speech. Just out of curiosity, what languages are you learning or have you learned that make distinctions between aspirated and unaspirated consonants?
     
  30. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    Granted, I've never actually tried to learn any language that does make the distincion. However, I've often listened to such languages before, such as Vietnamese or Thai, and I find the difference between an aspirated plosive and a non aspirated one very noticeable. I have a theory about that, though. I think that the fact that I grew up speaking French and English at the same time, in which plosives are respectively non aspirated and aspirated, has "trained" my ears to tell the difference.
     
  31. Tetabiakti Junior Member

    Dutch
    Even a simple Navajo greeting like yáá'át'eh is notoriously difficult to pronounce. I'm able to pronounce glottal stops but according to the Navajos who taught me this word, my pronunciation didn't even come close!

    Very few outsiders have ever mastered this language, which was used as a code by Navajo GIs during World War II:

    http://home.earthlink.net/~pfeiffer/N-Navajo Language.html
     
  32. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    Don't worry, I am not confusing the two. All it takes is a little shifting of the tongue's position. I refer to that as the "French mouth position" and the "English mouth position". Still, English also has un aspirated alveolar plosives. And the plosives /k/ and /p/ are nearly identical in both languages, when not aspirated.
     
  33. palomnik Senior Member

    Vietnam
    English
    Divisor, Mandarin Chinese makes the distinction, but if you're studying Vietnamese you probably have already heard that before.

    It's much easier to internalize than you may think. In fact, you may be just trying too hard.
     
  34. tepatria Senior Member

    Onondaga, Ontario
    Canadian English
    I did my best to learn Inuktitu - the native language of the Inuit people (formerly know as Eskimos). Many words are pronounced from the back of the throat and it is extremely gutteral. Although I learned the words, actually speaking it was impossible for me. My young students gleefully enjoyed my attempts.
    That being said, I tried to pronounce a Chinese friends name and she giggled and said I had called her "Rubber boots".
     
  35. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    When it comes to secondary articulation, one thing that totally confuses me in some cases is the difference between "real" palatal consonants and those that are "palatalized" as a manner of secondary articulation. For example, the Spanish ñ or the Croatian/Serbian nj is supposedly a real palatal nasal (IPA ɲ), whereas the Russian "soft n" is merely "palatalized" (IPA nʲ). Yet I can't hear any difference whatsoever in these sounds, and I don't even understand theoretically what the difference in their pronunciation should be. For what that's worth, the Croatian and Serbian Russian textbooks I've seen happily inform the reader that these sounds are the same.
     
  36. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    A long time ago (in a thread far, far away ;)), I listened to palatalized /n/ and /l/. The former sounded like a palatal /n/ (Spanish "ñ"), but the latter did not sound like a palatal /l/ to me! :eek: :confused:

    Of course, it could simply be that the recording was not very good.
     
  37. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    There are some high-quality samples of Russian palatalization in these audio files (especially good is the file 005-9(1).mp3, which corresponds to the table on top of page 5-9 of this lesson).

    The situation with the palatalized /l/ sounds murkier than with /n/ to me too. Sometimes I hear it as identical to the palatal /l/ (i.e. Croatian lj or Portuguese lh), but sometimes I hear it as subtly different in a way I can't reproduce. In particular, I hear the Russian palatalized /l/ as identical to the Croatian lj in syllables лё or лу, but oddly different in syllables ле or ли.

    These Russian palatalized consonants are a good example of how difficult it can be to properly pronounce even very closely related languages.
     
  38. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The palatalized /l/ in the samples of the other thread sounded like "ly" to me: "lyef" (or "lhyef", perhaps). I know that there's a difference between palatalizing a consonant and inserting a glide after it, but I honestly couldn't hear it.
    Thank you for the other links.
     
  39. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    Even though I speak and hear a language everyday which unlike English doesn't have aspiration, I also had lots of trouble distinguishing aspirated and unaspirated consonants -- in fact, at first I was hearing the distinction as voiceless vs. voiced through the influence of English. It took me a long while before I could consistently produce and distinguish between them and even then it's always been in a "safe" environment so I don't know if I could do it in the real world.

    I've convinced myself there's a difference although I guess the way to test that is to see if I could consistently distinguish them, which would be tough -- is there any language that does distinguish them? But there should be a difference on the pronunciation side, which if I understand it correctly, is that with nʲ the tip of the tongue is still in the same position against the teeth as with n but the middle of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate, while with ɲ the middle of the tongue is pressed against the hard palate while the tip isn't really doing anything. When I do that I get a "heavier", more "dull" sound (I'd even say more "Russian" :D) for the palatalized consonant than the palatal one.

    Ah textbooks! I've learned not to trust them on details after having read that the palatal n is the "ny" in "canyon" or the palatal l is the "lli" in "million" when the English is clearly two consonants while the actual sound is not -- at least in my English they're two consonants, and that leads to another problem for textbooks in that they rarely, if ever, specify which accent of English they're talking about so it's always possible that in the author's speech it is the same sound. I've seen similar descriptions of aspirated consonants as being boathouse and madhouse, but again in English it's distinctly two consonants. All I can say is that internet has to have made language learning a lot easier than back in the day where these book descriptions were the main resource.
     
  40. Woland

    Woland Senior Member

    Israel
    Romania/Romanian
    This doesn't apply only for slavic languages.Many of those who study Romanian told me they have serious problems with this.
    for example : the word cîrn is pronounced /K'/R/N'/'
     
  41. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    That's a very good description of the "ñ" sound. When I pronounce an "n" slowly, the tip of my tongue touches the back of my upper teeth, or the palate just above them. But when I pronounce a "ñ" the tip of the tongue drops down to behind the lower teeth. As you say, it's the middle of the tongue which touches the palate. For the palatal "l", the tip of the tongue may perhaps touch the teeth or the palate just behind them, but the main friction is still done with the middle of the tongue, which touches the palate perhaps a bit farther back in the mouth than for "ñ". You can see how they're produced here, by the way.

    Thanks again, I liked the recording very much. This time around, the palatalized "l" did sound pretty much like a palatal "l". It's funny: when the palatal sound exists in my language, I hear one consonant, but when it doesn't I hear consonant + glide!

    One thing I've realised about languages with palatalized and non-palatalized consonants, and which this recording makes clear, is that they don't just have "plain" consonants plus palatalized versions of those consonants. The default non-palatalized consonants are also transformed. This probably helps to differentiate the two pronunciations. In the case of Russian, I believe "plain" consonants are velarized (another kind of secondary articulation). When I was listening to the file, I often heard a "w" combined with the non-palatalized consonants, just as I hear a "y" combined with the palatalized consonants. The difference between the two kinds of articulation was especially noticeable to me for the "l" sounds; the non-palatalized one is a dark "l", a sound I recognize from Portuguese, while the palatalized one sounds like a "lh", or a clear "l", combined with a "y".

    Another thing we haven't been considering is that two sounds may sound similar even though they are produced in different ways in the mouth.
     
  42. modus.irrealis Senior Member

    Toronto
    English, Canada
    Interesting -- so if I understand your notation correctly, all three of the consonants are palatalized? And then there's the vowel, which is also pretty tough for many people, at least for me :D.

    Yeah, that was what I was trying to get at. Personally I find it easier to pronounce the palatalized versions of say f or p (or at least something that sounds reasonably close to them) since I'm doing one thing with my lips and another with my tongue (in fact I think of it as pronouncing an f, say, and a j at the same time -- does it seem that way to anyone else?), but with those consonants where you're basically doing two things with your tongue at the same time it's much harder for me, especially if I then have to move on to pronouncing another consonant -- for example it's all but impossible for me to say [nʲt] without a very short vowel in between, while [ñt] seems much easier.

    I read the Wikipedia article on velarized consonants that you brought up and they seem even harder -- because of my English, I can pronounce the dark L, but for some reason I can't do what I do with dark l to other consonants (except for the consonant made with the lip for the same reason as above).

    One thing that causes difficulties for me is that I have a tough time picking up what to do just from hearing the sounds and detailed descriptions really help me in getting something that's as close to a native pronunciation as I'll get. On the other hand, I know people who don't care for descriptions and just pick it up. I wonder which method is more common for people.
     
  43. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    I am one of the poeple you described, as I have the ability to reproduce any sound quite accurately. Not too long ago, I met a Chinese person who tought me to say a few random words, and she was completely taken aback when I repeated the words for the first time. She even asked me if I was pretending not to know any Cantonese. That also happened with a Welsh speaker. I think there are two kinds of language learners: those with auditive memory and those with visual memory. You must be a visual person, as you probably need those detailed instructions to visualize what your mouth and tongue must do in order to produce a certain sound. As for me, hearing and producing a foreign/unknown sound is like hearing a note and singing it back.
     
  44. wijmlet Senior Member

    New York City
    English USA
    Absolutely: It depends on your first language(s) and the sounds they have and do not have. There is no definitive answer, I think.
     
  45. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Thanks for this excellent post. Now when I try doing what you write, it really sounds more Russian to me too. :)
     
  46. ayupshiplad Senior Member

    Edinburgh
    Scotland, English
    My German teacher was telling me how in German you speak of Ohrenmenschen ('ear people') and Augenmenschen('eye people'). Ohrenmenschen are born, apparently, whereas you can learn the skills of an Augenmensch. You're an Ohrenmensch by the sounds of it...lucky you! Apparently I sound like a Portuguese person after only studying it for a few months...It's a beast :D
     
  47. divisortheory Senior Member

    San Francisco, CA USA
    United States, English
    I actually have learned mandarin in the past, but I can't think of the distinction you are talking about. Can you give two words which are identical in tone and pronunciation except for the aspirated consonant?
     
  48. tpettit

    tpettit Senior Member

    Standard French
    No, lucky you! You cannot imagine what it's like for an "Ohrenmenschen" to study written history lessons before an upcoming exam:D. I really like Portuguese, those nasal vowels sound very odd yet "soothing" or "relaxing" to me:confused: (weird, I know). I guess they also sound strange in French, but I speak the language and therefore can't "hear" it like foreigners do. Nasal vowels just stand out when I hear someone speak Portuguese.
     
  49. ayupshiplad Senior Member

    Edinburgh
    Scotland, English
    I love Portuguese...but try saying também if you can't do nasal sounds! It's very frustrating, because I've been studying French for 5 years and you still wouldn't mistake me for being French, yet after a few months of Portuguese...! I really don't look Portuguese at all though, so maybe just on the phone! I'll try to think of nasal words I find hard in French and PM you...I can't think of any right now!
     
  50. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I still hesitate pronouncing the nasal vowels of French, not because they are nasal (nasalizing a vowel is second nature to me ;)), but because they are front and rounded (ouch!)
    And then there's the whole "in" - "un" controversy... and "en" doesn't really sound like a nasal "è" to me, no matter what the phonetic transcriptions say... Oh, well. :)
     

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