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This is a variation of this same question in the Spanish Language site, as I was told it was probably better suited here.

When I was learning Japanese (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away), my Japanese teacher told us that she had a hard time trying to tell apart the numbers "seis" and "siete" when she was learning Spanish, because both sounded quite similar to her. The whole class bursted in laughter (as that was her main purpose, to tell a funny story), and I do not know why I kept that anecdote in my mind.

Time passed and now I am a father with a two-year-old son, and every time he tries to count to ten, he always skips "siete" and goes from "seis" to "ocho", which reminded me what my Japanese teacher told us that day. Maybe he skips "siete" because of the phonetical similarity with the previous number.

We (the Spanish speakers) are not aware of that (as far as I know), so I would like to ask: do "seis" and "siete" really have such a phonetical similarity as to pose a challenge to tell them apart?

Maybe this question is not addressed to those who speak a similar language. English also has "six" and "seven" with the same potential similarity, as have other close languages.

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From the point of view of Japanese, I find it strange that they would be perceived as very similar. I mean, of course they have a couple of things in common, namely /s/ and two vowels.

But while Japanese transcription of foreign words can be rather quirky, due to the very constrained phonotactics of the Japanese language (which is mostly restricted to a CV, i.e. consonant followed by vowel, structure, with exceptions), these two words would sound different when transposed into Japanese phonology:

  • seis → セイス (seisu)
  • siete → シェテ (syete/shete) or less naturally セィエテ (siete)

As to your child, I guess that to someone who is just learning to count, the similarity in the initial sound may be enough to get confused and skip one. After all, the initial sound is the strongest intuitive indicator of similarity between words to our brain.

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"Similarity" depends on the listener (see also this answer Do the IPA consonants /v/ and /w/ sound similar? and other answers to the question), a listener not used to some difference in their native language has difficulties with such a difference in a second language.

Obviously, this is not true for a 2-years-old native learner. Counting up to 10 is quite a challenge for him and I am not surprised that he doesn't yet gets it right. I won't draw further conclusions from the evidence.

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