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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