Stumbling Through The Sounds Of Other Languages

Do you know how hard it is to roll your rs? To pronounce th, or distinguish an l from an r? To make the tsu sound, and differentiate it from a simple su in rapid conversation? I know the struggles of about half of these, and there are many more that will remain unlisted. I never though of myself as bad at pronouncing words, since I read a lot as a kid and it gave me a lot of time to play around with uncommon vocabulary and how it rolls off the tongue. But I’m monolingual, and with English as my base tongue I’m not that well versed in a lot of sounds.

I refused to take Spanish in middle and high school for 2 reasons. The first being that someone swept me away with the sounds of French when I was 10, at a basketball game – nothing monumental, and they weren’t a native speaker, but they got it out prettily enough and I was intrigued. The second reason? I’d never been able to roll my rs, and I’d be damned if I had to sit through 2-6 years of a class where I had to sound like an ass trying to say probably every 10th word or so. No thank you.

I have Polish roots (in addition to maybe 6 other backgrounds I have little to no connection with), and it’s how I’ll identify myself if someone asks. There are no family traditions based off of this, however, except for the massive pierogi-making party my family assembles for every Good Friday. So I went to a Polish festival this past spring in hopes to get a taste of the culture I wish I was a part of. They were selling nalesniki, or Polish crêpes with farmers cheese and in this case strawberries, and I wanted one. At the booth I decided to be brave and guess out the word, to be met with a sweet chuckle from the man at the table because ‘actually it’s nah-lesh-nee-kee not nah-lez-nih-kee, don’t worry about it, nah-lesh-nee-kee’. Very kind, no scorn, but I felt embarrassed and ashamed at not knowing a simple word, a common food, of my semi-culture. I burned the word into my mind.

Later at the festival was a stand with stuffed cabbage, golumpki/galabki in Polish. I’ve had them occasionally at home, but nowhere near enough to claim them as something homey and never called by their native name. I still stutter on the pronunciation, skipping over it in a hushed voice before going on to explain it, ‘oh you know, the stuffed cabbage, the Polish food?’. I did the same thing at the stall, smiling at the squat, middle-aged woman who smiled sweetly at me as she plopped a few plates in my hand just bursting from the weight of the things. One day I’ll figure out how it goes.

There are a multitude of other times where I’ve felt inadequate at pronouncing things from a mixture of it being both a linguistic and cultural failure. I won’t mention them here, but they exist with a limited frequency. But beyond that is the everyday, the laughable moments when you go out to a foreign restaurant for Thai, Italian, Chinese, and you politely point at the menu while butchering the order. I always wince, but I’ll try sounding it out anyways. It just strikes me so many times in so many ways.

English, I feel, is a very lucky language to grow up speaking in that we native speakers can easily pronounce a fair number of sounds that are tough for learning tongues. The aforementioned thls vs rs, a v, perhaps the sch string of consonants – these are things I’ve heard to be difficult, both in speaking about and speaking in English with non-native speakers. A fair number of languages don’t use them, making it a tricky thing to master, and for the ones that do I guess we’re in luck. The letter combos monolingual English-speakers struggle with, from throaty or nasal sounds to the tonal dips and dives of some Asian languages like Chinese, are plentiful, yes, but I’ve been able to master most non-native sounds I’ve encountered with ease after a few attempts.

This isn’t to brag, as there are plenty of words and pronunciations I’m beyond abysmal at (looking at you German). I definitely can’t do plenty of things in the way of languages, as I’m constantly reminded by the rolled Spanish r, which comes up plenty amidst my Spanish-speaking friends and from living in America, where Spanish should be an official language with how many speakers we have. I wonder how many ways  you can manipulate letters with your mouth, what sounds are secret to each alphabet, the way a single stroke changes the entire composition of a word and its sound.

As useless as it is to know an alphabet without actually knowing a language, because sounding things out only gets you so far, I think it’s important and something I want to do. I want to learn how to roll the Polish alphabet off my tongue flawlessly, how Hungarian words breathe their way to life, the nuances of Russian cyrillic script and more. Even if it’s as simple as not marring the beauty of the name of a foreign dish at the Chinese place around the corner, I’ll learn for that.

How do bilingual plus speakers feel about foreign alphabets? Are they more inclined to anger, or sympathy, when they hear people misstep over their non-native tongue? Are they proud of their mastery, or is it another fact of life? How do other language learners feel when they face the challenge of new sounds, maybe a whole new alphabet, as they start the journey into another language and culture? I have a lot of thoughts on this area, many many more than I’ve written, but here’s something semi-tangible for me to get off my chest. A part 2 will follow in the far future, likely something far less personal as this one ran away with me.