What Foreign Languages Sound Like

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What foreign languages sound like?

Ever wonder what you sound like to someone who doesn’t speak your language? What does English sound like to a person who does not know a word of English? Does UK English sound different than US or Australian English? What about Spanish? Russian? Japanese?

I’m not talking about the words themselves. I’m talking about the rhythm and cadence of the words, and the sentences that they form. Each language has its own special “sound” that has nothing to do with the meaning behind the words. Not convinced? Take a look at this video, where a girl speaks complete gibberish using the rhythm of different languages around the world:

While not perfect, her representation of how different languages sound is still pretty awesome (there’s a part two on her YouTube page if you want to see more), and does bring up an interesting thought. We hear the way a language sounds long before we understand its meaning. Even when we’re infants, learning our mother tongue, we learn the sounds before the meaning.

I have a theory that this is why immersion is so much more powerful than sitting in a classroom to learn a language. Our brains are designed to pick up on patterns, and by hearing the same rhythm all around you, all the time, it makes it much easier for the mind to begin interpreting this new language.

Linguistic Geek Out: Intonation, Dialect and Accent

Before we look at specific languages, let’s get into some nitty, gritty linguistics.

Every language has its own intonation. This is the variation of pitch within a sentence. It’s how you know that a question is a question, a statement is a statement, and so on. It has nothing to do with the words themselves, but the way that they are arranged and the sort of general meaning they convey. This is one of the first things we hear as a foreigner among unfamiliar languages. When looking at the intonation of a language, you are looking at tone, pitch-range, volume, rhythm and tempo.

It’s worth noting that within each language there are also dialects that may differ. The intonation of one dialect may be slightly different from the intonation of another. For example, an American English speaker has a different intonation than a British English speaker. A British English speaker from London sounds very different from a British English speaker from Liverpool, just as American English speakers from Boston and New Orleans sound entirely different. All of these people are speaking English, but they are speaking different dialects.

This is different from an accent. If I, as a native American English speaker, attempt to converse in French, I will have an accent. Accents appear when a person is speaking their non-native language, whereas dialects exist within someone’s mother tongue.

First Impressions: What Foreign Languages Sound like

I most recently had the opportunity to appreciate the intonation of different languages last July, when Tara and I went to Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. In the past, I have supplemented most of my travels with language lessons, and have been so focused on remembering vocabulary that I haven’t taken the time to stop and think about how a language sounds. But, as it turns out, understanding intonation is just as important as remembering how to count to ten. We normally don’t think about it, though, because our brains automatically absorb it (unless you’re studying a tonal language, like Mandarin).

Below, I’ve written up a basic breakdown of what my first impressions of Italian, Slovenian (Slovene), and Croatian were, based less on what the words are and more on the general intonation.

How Italian Sounds

Hand gestures aside, Italy marked the first time I visited a country without knowing even the most basic words. I wasn’t even entirely sure on “hello” and “thank you”. Somehow in my preparations for my trip I had overlooked the fact that I might want to actually communicate with people.

Luckily, Tara has a working grasp of Italian, so I wasn’t left completely floundering. In fact, stepping back and allowing her to take the reins, I was given the opportunity to appreciate the general ambiance of the language.

Italian, to my ear, sounds like rolling hills, with a constant smooth motion up and down over the syllables. The words flow together with a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables that I picked up far before the meaning became clear. Over time, a basic pattern began to emerge, with a stress on the second to last syllable. Once I had a handle on that pattern, it became easier for me to sort out the meaning, figuring out where one word stopped and the next began. From there, I could begin interpreting the meaning.

How Slovenian (Slovene) Sounds

Just across the border, in Slovenia, you suddenly are faced with a strange amalgamation of Slavic and Germanic influence. Slovenian is technically a South Slavic language, and because of that the words themselves are very similar to those you find in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. However, more than perhaps any other Slavic language, Slovenian has inherited a distinctly Germanic sound, with maybe a bit of Russian sprinkled in. That slightly guttural, sliding sound that is often associated with German or Austrian is far more present here than in other Slavic languages.

To me, the language sounds a bit like a wet cloth being dragged over gravel, with a lot of “ch” and “huh” sounds. As far as emphasis, the Slovene language is a bit trickier than Italian. There’s no hard and fast rule, though the tendency is to place it near the end, like in Italian.

How Croatian Sounds

Another South Slavic language, Croatian and Slovenian share many words; however, there is less of the guttural, back of the throat sound that implies Germanic influence.

There is a general sense of rising and falling when you listen to the language, and one source notes that “[one] feature that sets Serbo-Croatian apart from other Slavic languages is its use of musical pitch or intonation. It possesses four kinds of musical accent: two rising inflections, one long and one short, and two falling inflections, one long and one short.”

This musical quality is what makes Croatian one of my favorite languages, and is why I have pursued learning it. It’s really pleasant to listen to, and I enjoy its general rhythm and cadence.

BONUS: How English Sounds

With our trip around the Adriatic complete, it’s back to the land of English.

Being my mother tongue, it’s hard for me to say how English sounds to non-English speakers. I can safely say I’ve never heard anyone say that an American accent sounds attractive (though Americans tend to obsess over British and Australian dialects, something I’m wholly guilty of). My mom once told me that her Ukrainian office-mate described American English as similar to the sound of dogs barking. Not the most flattering of descriptions.

The next time you travel abroad, I encourage you to step back from learning the essential phrases and take a moment to just listen. What does the language sound like? How does it make you feel? Is it fast or slow? Do the words flow together, or do they start and stop abruptly? How do the syllables rise and fall?

Your mind is already picking up on this naturally, but it’s worth taking the time to acknowledge it. Every language is beautiful in its own way, and it’s exciting to witness the many different flavors that make up our world.

What first impressions have you had of foreign languages? What is your favorite?


Japan's Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum
Bathrooms around the world