Saturday, June 14, 2014

If you're reading this, you're too old to say "rouge"

I was feeling sorry for myself the other day over my inability to master the guttural French r that seems to originate from somewhere between the liver and the spleen, when I came across something that made be feeler both better -- and worse.

The real chance to master this sound seemed to have ended at about the age of 9 months. This is based on a study of Asian babies. We all know the difficulty that Asian speakers have pronouncing the English sounds l and r -- you know, the stuff of bad Chinese waiter jokes about "flied lice." Well, it turns out the the core problem isn't that they can't pronounce these sounds: Asians can't pronounce them because, aurally, they can't distinguish between them. To native Asians, the l and r sounds, which don't exist in their language, sound the same!

But not to native Asian babies, who can distinguish the two sounds. However, if not exposed to a Western language, they lose this ability not at the age of 6 years or even 2 years -- but at the age of 9 months!

So, two lessons here: 1) Let's be kind to Asian speakers struggling with English; and 2) stop laughing at me because I gurgle and choke when I try to say the French word rouge. I should've started studying French 59 years and 6 months earlier.

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