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I am a native Russian speaker.

When I am listening to songs and music in other languages, which I do not know, such as Italian, Romanian, Greek, Bulgarian, and even Japanese, Finnish, Kyrgyz and Hebrew, I usually can write what I hear with Russian letters (with possibly adding 1 to 3 additional characters for sounds not present in Russian).

But that is not the case with English. When listening to English songs I can barely understand anything even though I can write and read in English well. Even more, I cannot even write down what I hear, I do not recognize usual vowels and consonants, as if they were singing with extraterrestrial non-human sounds or if it was just a noise rather than human speech.

Is English so special in terms of phonology?

Notice that this is not a question about spelling, English spelling is another big story.

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For me all the languages you list seem to have a pretty clear sound except for Romanian which tricks me with all its fluid vowel combinations. I find male speakers of Korean and Georgian to be very mumbly and indistinct though. Then again all languages are much clearer in typical (not all) singing styles than in colloquial speech. This might or might not be subjective, or maybe there is an acoustic explanation. –  hippietrail Nov 12 '12 at 9:15
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Three words: Hot potato accent. Who hasn't heard/read about this, like when someone talked as though they had a hot potato in their mouth? –  Alenanno Nov 12 '12 at 13:35
    
@hippietrail This soung is half in Romanian, half in Italian. youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=5yW9Lpjj6iM If I was asked I think I could easily write it down (with my alphabet) and get something close to the original text. I can distiguish all wors, I hear sonds similar to those in Russian etc. I do not understand the speech, but I understand the sounds! –  Anixx Nov 12 '12 at 14:41
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How about a few examples of English-language songs that mystify you so much. Is it a particular style of music? I'm also curious if you can really write down the sounds of your Romanian/Italian example or if it's just your subjective impression. Has anyone checked your transcriptions and told you that you were very close? –  lapropriu Nov 13 '12 at 4:02
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Here's a vague suggestion that doesn't merit a full "answer": perhaps what's tripping you up is the rhythm of the language, which could be an important cue to word boundaries. Traditionally, English has been called a "stress-timed" language, compared to Italian, Romanian etc ("syllable-timed") or Japanese ("mora-timed"). Phonetically, it's unclear what these impressionistic descriptions are picking up on, but it might be worth looking into other "stress-timed" languages and seeing how you do there. Wikipedia "isochrony". –  lapropriu Nov 14 '12 at 1:37

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

To solve the problem you will want to consider one issue at a time. As a starting point, In your position I'd first see whether it is the vowel system of English that is a stumbling block.

English could be considered special in that it has an unusually high number of vowel phonemes. Depending on the dialect, English vowels tend not to be pure vowels with a relatively steady formant trajectory, as are found in Spanish or Japanese. Instead, even the non-diphthongs tend to have a moving F1-F2 target. In some of the languages that I have studied that have large numbers of vowel phonemes, the target for producing the vowels tends to be more complex. I don't know, however, whether this is something that is of general significance. Languages such as Marshallese, which are reported to have very few vowel phonemes, can have complex rules for pronouncing them.

So to see if the issue is the vowel inventories, you might try listening to songs in languages with large numbers of vowels, e.g., Cantonese, Norwegian, etc., and see if you have the same difficulty.

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Problems to listen English seems to be common among Russian native speakers (and me definitely isn't exception), and yes, it's harder to listen English than some another languages as in your examples. I'd post my answer mainly to confirm that it's not solely your issue, and to place some accents; the issue implementation may differ but it's very common to Russian natives, as far as I see and I'm told by friends and various mates. My personal implementation of it seems also influenced by Soviet school specifics which gave too few skills of listening of real native speech (not the one produced by teachers or specially trained dictors), and this one-sided teaching lead to prevailing of the written speech over the oral one (this seems noted by @Damkerng T.)

Detailedly, the English features that I detected at my personal experience and which affects understanding of oral speech are:

I. General "inexactness" of sounds which is of another kind than in Russian. For example, Russian never mutates /t/ to kind of /r/ or even to nothing. English vowels can easily shift to their neighbours, e.g. [æ] to [a] or [e], even under stress, which is impossible in Russian. (They shift even in phonetic courses, immediately when a dictor loses control on his/her pronounciation details.)

This also includes shifts of implementation base (sorry for possible mis-terming). E.g. /d/ in English is less voiced than in Russian, and /t/ is more loud; this difference in exhalation power is sometimes more important than voicedness (e.g. some German dialects lose voicedness but continue to differ t-weak and t-hard). It's normal to hear a sound which we treat as /t/ but which is really /d/.

II. Loss of difference. Some sounds are differentiated (for us!) only with length which is generally lost in songs, so the difference disappears (e.g. /ʌ/ vs. /a:/). Also, some differences which are supported to average Russian speaker only with r-coloring, can disappear.

III. General inability to detect words quickly (simply because not trained for this). There are numerous omonyms which are detected as some accustomed word but really shall be others (e.g. sum vs. some, hare vs. hair, etc.)

IV. Dialect differences which aren't often described. For example, some time ago I was unable to detect phrase which was "must have had" but pronounced like /məstəvəd/ at the same time that this speaker had kept /h/ in words like "happy".

The factor which deepens this is that English, unlike Russian, doesn't have a single "canonic" form, so you could hear different accents and dialects when you have no time to spend thinking what does it mean. It's quite rare to hear a Russian song which isn't of ethnic genre but performed using dialect pronounciation; exceptions could be counted using a single hand fingers (В.Высоцкий, Сектор Газа...) English has no such centralization so each singer or speaker gives their own deposit to a "bank" of varieties. At the same time, we were generally taught some "generic" English which is based mainly on Oxford ("RP") dialect but with huge r-coloring, without some pecularities (as exact manner of [æ] or [ɜ:]), and with very limited vocabulary.

OTOH I guess that your description of the issue is too emotional. Very unlikely you could differ e.g. /t/ vs. /m/ in Spanish or Finnish and, at the same time, unable to do this in English. If you can't detect the exact word, you can start with phonematic recording of a speech, and then make a deduction of the source using your recording. This could be very helpful to start with understanding songs.

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As I already said, for any other language I can write what I hear. Maybe I would confuse /t/ for /m/ but I will write something I perceive. For English I even cannot write what I hear. –  Anixx Nov 21 '12 at 4:48
    
Russian is in a special circumstance where it has largely lost its dialects. A better way to compare to English with its dual standards plus variations might be to compare how the many non-Russian ethnicities speak fluent Russian with many accents. –  hippietrail Apr 7 '13 at 9:49

Your problem is very curious. Before going to elaborate, I'd like to jump to my conclusion first: I have a hunch that perhaps it is because you've already known English, which is exactly the reason why you cannot understand most things in English songs.

This might seem to be mind-boggling, but after reviewing lots of things, and trying to think many possibilities, I really do think that it is exactly the reason.

Since I can't speak Russian, and have watched some movies in Russian maybe only three or four time up until now (and I had to read the subtitles every time), after reading your post, I thought that it might be because English is a stress-timed language, or may be because of the liaison in English ("do it" is usually pronounced "do-wit", for example), or may be the number of pure vowels. But a quick research on the web tells me that Russian is also a stress-timed language, also has liaison, and six raw vowels is not so few. (Though English has unusually many vowels, around 14-16.)

I read your original post again and again and finally it hit me. Your saying "I can write and read English well" gave me some clue. Also, the fact that you can "easily write it [the Romanian/Italian song] down" is another big clue.

I dare say that if you try listening to an English song again, but this time pretend to know nothing about English (you can treat it as some extraterrestrial sounds if you like), and then transcribe it, your transcription might be even closer to the original lyric than you might think!

EDIT:

To really answer the question Does English language stand special in terms of phonology?, I would say that every language is special in its own way. English might have unusually many vowels, and the liaison seems to be very strong, so strong that all syllables would appear as if they were merged together, even across word boundaries. This could trouble many non-native speakers. But other languages would have their own quirks as well.

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No, English songs for me are usually bububububububub (lol even no b and u just some noise) –  Anixx Nov 12 '12 at 21:13
    
But I take it that you can understand what they speak, and in things like TV and movies, right? I mean, some distortion would be understandable, but bububububh, really!? –  Damkerng T. Nov 12 '12 at 21:26
    
@ Damkerng T. I hardly can understand speken English. Sometimes I have to guess the meaning based on some 30% of recognized sounds. This is very much unlike other languages. If I know a word I usually can clear hear it when pronounced inside a speech in another language. –  Anixx Nov 13 '12 at 21:03
    
My skill in recognizing English over years improved only the guessing skill, so I can quicker guess something, like when solving a crossword puzzle with lesser sounds known. My ability to recognize the sounds did not improve. –  Anixx Nov 13 '12 at 21:08
    
Then you need to improve your listening skill (for English language), if you really want to write down what you hear from English songs. Guessing might be helpful in everyday speech, but it won't help you at all when you listen to music. –  Damkerng T. Nov 13 '12 at 21:37

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