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IMAGINE: THERE I WAS A (likely) fourth-generation American, and a teacher asked me that question. (I had yet to appreciate sarcasm.)
True, as a native-born Clevelander, I spoke a dialect as flat as the American midwest, the eastern extremity of which includes Ohio. (Real midwesterners consider Cleveland to be an eastern city; real easterners do not.) As an example, I was late in learning the difference between “are” and “our.”
I recently recalled this traumatic experience when listening to Marnie Chesterton’s “Why Can’t I Change my Accent?,” on BBC CrowdScience, October 21, 2022. Marnie speaks that beautifully cultured English favoured by BBC, and she addresses a question from Monica, “who, despite 45 years living in the U.S., is still answering questions about where her accent is from.”
I couldn’t perceive Monica having any accent whatsoever, but maybe her Romanian family arrived in Cleveland when she was 16.
Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits from this BBC podcast.
A Baby’s Learning. Marnie spoke with Yosiane White, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at University College Ulrecht in The Netherlands. White explained that infants immediately begin learning sounds suited to their particular language.
In fact, this set of necessary sounds is pretty much acquired by the age of two. Certainly by the age of puberty it’s difficult to add new phonemes (linguists’ name for these sounds) simply because one doesn’t even hear the subtle differences.
Different Sets of Phonemes. According to Merriam-Webster, Japanese and Spanish each has 25 phonemes compared with English and Thai, each of which has 40.
Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics at University of Reading in the U.K., gave Marnie another contrast between Spanish and English: The latter has 16 different vowel phonemes, Spanish, only five. Thus a native Spanish speaker learning English would be challenged hearing the subtleties of different vowel renderings.
Tonalities. Mandarin Chinese and Thai are among the world’s tonal languages; others are spoken in Africa, Central and South America. Professor Setter describes the oft-cited Mandarin example of “ma.”
The neutral tone is very light and quick. And imagine asking about the mother horse hair’s curse.
Tomorrow in Part 2, Marnie and we learn about flowers, noses, and call centers.
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022