How To Learn To Hear Differently In Another Language

Did you ever find yourself several months into learning a new language, able to read and write quite well, but still strugggling to understand the things you hear? Even when, and hearing them repeated, you realize you knew all those words?

It can be quite frustrating. But you might be relieved to learn that it's not just the accent that's throwing you off, and it's not that your brain can't process sounds in another language.

In fact, it might be something you've never thought about before, and just the fact of thinking about it once in a while may make all the difference in how you hear — and speak — in another language.

English is stress-timed

In English, we have a somewhat unpredictable stress. It might be on the first syllable. Or the last. The stress may be assigned within a single word (u-NI-ted), or it might go on just one syllable of an entire phrase (u-ni-ted STATES). Most one-syllable words and many two-syllable words never get stress. Others only get it when they fall into the important part of a sentence.

Consider the phrase: "I'm NOT gon-na MAKE it in-to the OF-fice to-DAY." In the rhythm of this sentence, there are four beats, and you're paying attention, you'll notice that a lot of information gets squished between the 2nd and 3rd beat. And make gets stress only as a result of being the only important word falling near the second beat. (This may be an American feature... Brits might, in fact, stress the word "it", I'm not sure.)

Really good stress-timing in English is an art form. It's hard to describe, and hard to teach, and it remains one of the most obvious signs that reveal a non-native speaker — even when that person has nearly perfect pronunciation and grammar. But this art form also serves to confuse us when we learn other languages.

Many other languages are syllable-timed

As English speakers, our stress-timing can make it difficult to speak and/or to understand syllable-timed languages. And unfortunately, this is an aspect of a language that you can not be picked up by listening to music, because the very nature of music forces a change on the timing of words.

In syllable-times languages, each syllable of each word shares the same timing as the rest. Words do not get smashed together between stressed syllables, but rather get elongated to the point where our stress-timed ears actually start to anticipate more than what was actually said.

Because each syllable shares equal duration, it might be hard to know where one word stops and another starts, which is why we usually find that syllable-timed languages also tend to have highly predictable stress patterns — usually penultimate stress, where the second-to-last syllable gets the stress.

Talk like a robot

For native English speakers, speaking in a syllable-timed manner (giving equal timing to each syllable in a sentence) tends to sound very robotic, even leading to the description of Spanish as a "machine-gun language" because of it's evenly-timed "rat-a-tat" pattern.

But to native Spanish-speakers, French-speakers, Poles, etc., this is perfectly normal and expected. To them, a person failing to use even timing on syllables seems to "have no rhythm." And hearing their languages spoken in a stress-timed manner not only sounds weird, but can even lead to comprehension problems because they subconsciously rely on that stress to signal the ends and beginnings of words.

Fortunately for you, the best way to get your ears accustomed to hearing in this way is actually to start speaking in this way! Essentially, that means that fixing the way you speak will also help you to fix the way you hear. And when you start doing so, you'll also find things are a lot easier to pronounce once you're not trying to shove all of those sounds into the space between stresses.


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  • I'M na'goina MAKE I' to the OFfice TOdayI think that's how you'd stress it if you were British. I always find it difficult to note stress as us Brits tend to run everything together and always seem to drop letters like "t". Americans however seem to stress their words quite a bit (well, a lot more than the English).Do you think we should get accustomed to all the different types of accents as well? There's quite a big of difference between columbian and Argentinian Spanish.

  • I think you should focus on the accent that is used where you want to be. If you're going to Spain, don't worry about the Argentine accent... but if you're going to hop from country to country in South America, you'll want to focus on all accents.But just as with English... you grow up learning one accent, but eventually you get exposed to others and you learn to understand them. I think the things you need to know can be picked up easily enough, so long as your skill in the language itself is good.

  • Any tips or ideas about how to explore and figure out the stress of a new language? I think the first key is probably reading an article like this that lets you know that there can be differences, but outside of just listening a lot, it seems there are probably certain drills, strategies, methods, etc that may help speed the process of "noticing", hearing correctly and then producing. Of course to me it seems that LOTS of exposure is probably the most important part of the equation.

  • It's not so much the stress, but the timing that is the issue here. The best exercise I can think of is simply to mimic what you hear: watch a tv show or listen to a podcast or something, and mimic everything you hear as close as possible to how it was said. And even better, play it back and try to say it along with the speaker. This kind of thing really gets you to listen intently, and to pay attention to timing, stress, intonation, etc.

  • Thanks, this is a really helpful article. I've been thinking of reading more often along with podcasts and your article has encouraged me doing this.

  • Thanks for the great article. How does Russian fit into all this? Since it has very irregular stress like English, is it safe to assume it's stress-timed? Any tips?

  • I have been doing a lot of experimentation on the listening side of things, one thing that seems to help a huge amount in this aspect is focusing on how you handle repetitive listening.When I have a sentence or dialogue to listen to (from anywhere could be Pimsleur, podcast, audiobook, youtube video, movie soundtrack, whatever learning method you prefer). Once you "know" all the words in the sentence then on repeat listening it is very easy to gloss over and assume that you are understanding the whole sentence, progress is smooth the sun is shining blah blah blah. However hear a similar sentence from a native speaker or other situation and you cannot pull the words out.If on re-listening, re-watching the film (whatever) you can learn to forget what you know and pay attention to whether you actually HEAR the words as they are coming to you, you will learn how to pull the words out of the stream of speech and how they get mangled/squished etc. in the language you are learning.This is hard to describe but you just know when you have the knack, bizarrely it then is easy to listen to someone speaking a sentence 10 times in a row (knowing every single word) but also knowing that you can't hear the sentence. You also know exactly the point when you can hear and understand that collection of words in the sentence.Just one aspect of listening that can make all the difference between useful listening and wasting your time.If you are into types of meditation, this is similar to sitting on a beach and learning to be freshly surprised by each and every wave that rolls onto the sand.In summary don't focus on whether you understand the sentence in this exercise (of course you do you have already heard/studied/read the subs./etc before) focus on the words as they are in the sentence. I know that after long discussions and some experimentation that many language learners are not doing this when they think they are practicing learning to understand real language).This even extends to formulaic language it is easy to assume that have nailed something because you succeeded going through a greeting exchange or something simililar with a native, but not realise that you relied on what you expected and actually didn't hear all the words in the sentence they uttered.

  • I think I simultaneously agree and disagree.Once you understand all the words the first time, you're right: one does have a tendency to fool oneself into feeling as if one understands it upon listenng again. And to that extent, I agree with your suggestion to exercise in "forgetting".But on the other hand, our brains are nothing if not elaborate pattern-matching engines, and I believe we spend a lot of effort anticipating (pre-fetching, if you will) what we're about to hear, and that doing so is a crucial component of comprehension.If I say "born to...", you may be anticipating "run", or "be wild", or "ride", all of which are fitting ends for that fragment. You're definitely not listening for me to say "plant tulips." I think this pattern-matching and anticipating is what helps us through accents and voices and picking out sounds from a stream of speech. No?

  • Stress-timing is strongly related to vowel reduction, and since Russian (like English) uses vowel reduction, it is stress-timed.This is also why Russians can understnd a lot of Polish, but Poles have a harder time understanding Russian.

  • Excellent, I'm glad!

  • That is the problem with trying to explain something I have no words for :)I only 'forget' for the purpose of learning to hear the words in context, and to make sure I learn to feel the flow of the language (which would include stress etc). I am more than happy to remember chunks of words. Like the wave example I gave, it would be a problem if you were constantly surprised by each wave for the rest of your life.Referring to your learn like a child post, children have one advantage in that they constantly are surprised by many things, but adults try to package them away in known boxes as quickly as possible. The flow and stress of the language possibly ignored as we package a sentence in a "I know all these words" box.

  • I think if you're hearing a language that belongs to the same family that your native language belongs to, it would be easier to understand and you won't struggle to much :)

  • In spite of the fact that French is in the same family as Romanian, and German is in the same family as English, their mutual intelligability is quite low. No, I'm convinced there's more to it than just language family. Vowel reduction, for example, seems to cause fits for Poles trying to understand Russian, while Russians have much less trouble understanding Polish. Likewise, the Portuguese seem to understand far more of Spanish than Spaniards do of Portuguese, due to wandering stress patterns.

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