A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

The Spanish flag

Resurrecting Spanish : How Old Languages Never Really Die

I’m writing this post, rather excitingly, from sunny Valencia. Yes, cheap EasyJet city breaks have returned! And this brief Spanish jaunt is particularly pertinent, as it’s my first trip overseas since the pandemic started. A promising sign the world is opening up again, and I’m filled with gratitude at that. Monumental.

It’s also notable for being my long-overdue to Spain – and to Spanish.

I’m going back to my roots with this one. Spanish was one of the first languages I chose to learn (rather than have chosen for me by the school curriculum). As a young school lad, I started learning with the long-forgotten BBC textbook España Viva in readiness for a holiday with my mum. The (distinctly 80s-ish) pictures of Spanish day life piqued my appetite to experience it for myself, to immerse myself, to connect with it. And what a thrill it was – that trip is one of my earliest memories of the pure joy of communicating in a foreign language.

Spanish Steps

By coincidence not long afterwards, my school laid on a special “spare time”, two-year after-school GCSE Spanish course for keen linguists, probably to gain a well-needed GCSE league table boost. I lapped it up, and then just kept it going – all the way to college and university. I was Rich, the German and Spanish scholar. It was part of my identity, what people knew me as.

But then, I graduated – and Spanish stopped.

Of course, the signs were there that I was drifting away from the Hispanic. My Spanish had always played second fiddle – albeit a loud one – to German at university. Although I loved studying the language, I chose to spend my year abroad in Austria as I wanted so ardently to study the dialects there. Then, after finals, I fell straight into a German-speaking job.

I had no Spanish-speaking friends, no contacts in Spain, and no real footholds in Spanish pop culture to keep it regularly in my life. And with each passing year that separated me from uni, I found fewer and fewer reasons to keep running with it. Even after retraining as a teacher, the only jobs I could find with my stronger German were teaching it alongside French, not Spanish. Ironically, that very poor third-placed French of mine became more important for work than the language I spoke, once upon a time, quite fluently. It seemed like my Spanish was doomed to oblivion.

But then, Valencia – and it was like an old friend turning up on my doorstep after years apart.

Practising my Spanish on market day in ValenciaPractising my Spanish on market day in Valencia!

Why do we let go of languages?

As my story shows, our connection to language may wax and wane for all sorts of reasons. It may just be, as with me, that life takes you in a different direction. There could also be cultural, or political reasons that your target language country no longer feels like a home from home.

On the other hand, external forces can nudge us, too. Knockbacks from others, like unforgiving native speakers in the real world (as opposed to the cocoon of education), can frustrate the effort to keep up your level. I remember feeling horribly deflated when told that my Spanish accent was “a bit non-native” in some recordings I did for a language game in the mid-noughties. Just as well I have my German, I thought. When feedback isn’t coming from a tactful, supportive teacher, the no-frills nature of real-life feedback can feel barbed.

Going Easy on Yourself

That said, I was probably taking myself far too seriously, back then. I’m supposed to be good at Spanish, I told myself. If my accent is bad after years of study, what’s the point? And it’s exactly that kind of destructive perfectionism that can wreck our relationship with a language, too.

Thankfully, time has tempered that perfectionist streak. Back in Spain, I don’t feel that pressure to be good because I’m supposed to be! any more. And, with a more relaxed approach, I’ve found Spanish coming back to me more than willingly.

And guess what? Nobody commented on my funny accent. Everybody understood me. And I understood them back.

I might just have rekindled that old friendship.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that a trip abroad reawakens an old passion for a language. The excitement of on-the-ground immersion is what keeps many of us fuelled. But it’s worth remembering that old languages never die; they’re just off doing other things, waiting for you to get back in touch in your own time.