Quick summary:

There's a lot of variation in the sounds we can make with our mouths. A lot of these get used for languages, but we don't all use the exact same sets of sounds in every language we humans have. Every language has consonants and vowels, but they each also have their own individual collection of what sounds are meaningful, what sounds they use to build their words from.

Those sounds are known as phonemes. We can tell which sounds are phonemes in any language we're looking at through the use of what are known as minimal pairs, words that differ in only one sound but have different meanings. We're really good at telling the difference between sounds that are phonemic in our language, and really bad at telling the difference between sounds that aren't, even if they are different phonemes in some other language. Even at a neurological level, we don't notice. Such is the power of phonemes!


Extra material:

When it comes to phonemes and the ability or inability to perceive between two sounds that aren't in one's native language, there's probably no pair of sounds that are more heavily researched than [l] and [ɹ], as we hear as the first sounds in the words light and right. [ɹ], and other r-like sounds in general, are really weird; so weird we'll probably do a whole video just about them at some point in the future. But for now, let's stick with the ability to tell the difference between [l] and [ɹ].

Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese speakers have been studied many times over the years to see why they have such difficulties. And they really are persistent difficulties - just looking at Japanese alone, you can find a dozen studies over the past 45 years or so that have looked into whether Japanese speakers can tell the two sounds apart. I'm citing a few below, but the overall finding that even with a lot of exposure, Japanese speakers are helpless at this, especially without some kind of context that can help them distinguish between the words. (You don't need to hear the difference to know it's probably not Stop throwing locks at the geese! )

So why is this so hard? Well, part of it is that the speakers may not be paying attention to the right part of the sound spectrum; a pair of studies from 2007 and 2009 found that Japanese speakers don't pay attention to the right kind of acoustic information, the stuff that allows German and English speakers to tell the sounds apart. But beyond that, it's just that it's part of the same phoneme in Japanese (and in Korean). We can't differentiate between things that are part of the same phoneme. That underlies the fact that the most widely used models of second language acquisition in phonology both agree that splitting one category into two is the most difficult task that a learner can be faced with.

Of course, that's just with adults. Japanese babies before they're a year old don't have any problems with telling the difference between these at all. But then, all babies are just super amazing that way when it comes to telling apart sounds. Interestingly, though, basically anyone can tell the difference between two sounds, as long as they're really close together. If a pair of sounds are, say, 5 milliseconds apart, played almost right on top of each other? Then we can tell the difference, even if they're not phonemic in our language. But if they're 500 milliseconds apart, so half a second? That's way too long, and we can't.

The thinking is that we don't even really need to use language for when it's really short. We just listen to the sounds themselves. But the longer the string of sounds (like in words), or the longer it is between the sounds, the more we have to rely on our linguistic system, and the more the phonemes in our heads come into play. So even if there is a difference, if it doesn't match your categories, you can't hear it.



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about phonemes, phonology, and differences between sounds in different languages. Or about brains and sounds, too! There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and so we want to hear what interests you.

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