Pronunciation and Listening

March 7, 2012

I find it very interesting how some listeners can distinguish between similar sounds, while to others the sounds are identical – and how this can also be seen in speakers, the producers of the sounds in question. Typically, this can occur when one learns a new language, and has to master the subtle differences between tones or syllables, but it can appear in one’s native language as well. I recently noticed that a friend of mine pronounces the words “pen” exactly like “pin”, and “Jenn” the same as “gin”. She believes that she is differentiating the “e” and “i” in each of these words, but anyone listening to her cannot ascertain which word she is actually saying (barring contextual clues, of course). Even more curiously, she pronounces the name “Jennifer” using the “e” sound that should be heard in “Jenn”, but thinks she does say “Jenn” using the same sound. Within her umwelt, there is a differentiation between these sounds, although she rarely pays attention to it. When she speaks these words, however, the sounds that we find entering our spheres of existence are foreign and seem to be pronounced incorrectly. But this is all based on the filtration of these words out of her mind, into her umwelt, and then into ours. What if we as listeners are simply incapable of noticing the distinction she makes? Is she “wrong” – or are we? How can she hear the difference in pronunciation by others but not notice the nuances of her own speech? Can any of us truly know how we sound to our listeners?

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