The art of wrapping your mouth — literally — around a new language

Note: Today I’m debuting a new feature here at Vagablogging — “Learning Languages, with Tim Ferriss.” Tim Ferriss is fluent in five languages, has studied more than 15, and has spent the last 12 years analyzing the world’s best language learners. He has lived in more than 25 countries, designed curricula worldwide for Berlitz®, and studied East Asian Studies and Neuroscience at Princeton University.

Learning Tones, and Other Growing Pains

By Tim Ferriss

Each culture has unique difficulties pronouncing words from unfamiliar languages. For the Germans, it’s the trilled “r” of Spanish or the dreaded “th” of English. Americans just can’t spit out the retroflex curled tongue of Mandarin or the open vowels of Portuguese. Then there are the poor Japanese, who seem to have trouble with everything.

But who can blame them? Their language got short-changed with only 112 phonemes, the basic sounds that form the building blocks of pronunciation. In comparison, Chinese ekes out a slightly higher 411 and English boasts an impressive 80,000 or so.

What makes languages hard or easy? It largely depends on how much the phonemes of your mother tongue overlap those of your target language. If you speak English, the jump to Spanish is often little more than tagging vowels on the end of everything — voilá, you can now intelligibly mangle a romance language. The Japanese also have practically no trouble with Spanish, which closely mirrors the sounds they’ve been using since infancy. Chinese and other tonal languages, in contrast, are just as hard for English and Japanese speakers alike. It’s not our brains or ears that are the problem — it’s our tongues and throats.

As with a new exercise program, you are conditioning your muscles when you learn a new language, and your tongue or vocal chords 1) don’t change without sufficient stimulus, and 2) don’t thicken or elongate overnight (I hope not, anyway). It doesn’t matter how smart you are. It cannot be overcome intellectually. If I give you an African language based on clicks, you can work on it for 10 hours in the first day until your jaw flips up and swallows your head; you still won’t have the hardware to produce the sounds. It takes time.

This is not bad news. In fact, it’s great news. A “bad ear” isn’t an acceptable excuse to ditch a worthwhile language — just continue to practice and give it some time. Chances are that you need a few more reps with the offending sound and a little recovery in between. Opt for frequent but short sessions when you hit a plateau. 30 minutes six times a week is ten times better than one hour three times per week. If you hit a period where you feel consistently tongue-tied, take a few days of rest: you’re over-training.

Remember, learning to pronounce a new language is physical conditioning: Hit the vocal weights and get your rest. It’ll happen.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | July 25, 2006
Category: Languages and Culture

5 Responses to “The art of wrapping your mouth — literally — around a new language”

  1. Juan Manuel Cambefort Says:

    Allow me to congratulate you on this article. I myself am fluent in three languages, and found the article to be clever and extremely accurate in pinpointing facts that are often ignored or overlooked when it comes to learning a new language.

  2. douglas price Says:

    very insightful tim. definitely on target when it comes to my own proficiency in spanish, english, portuguese and german.

  3. chris Says:

    great work tim
    i have heard you speak four of your five languages, and having lived myself in asia and south america for seven years but having no where near your proficiency, have always wondered how you did it. great post, and please keep sharing!

  4. Nick Says:

    80,000 – I think he meant the number of morphemes, not phonemes.