This is not a comprehensive list but just a few snippets from languages that have a few consonants that sound pretty much the same to me. I wanted to ask how I can learn to hear the difference between them. Also, I am interested to know if either (a) it is just an "accent thing", meaning "d" might be pronounced d after some sounds, while pronounced ɖ after others, after still others, and d̪ʱ after others, but they all mean "d", or (b) these are actually conceptualized as totally distinct sounds.

The examples are:

The main ones are:

  • /k/ vs. /kʰ/ k
  • k vs.
  • k vs. q
  • /cʰ/ vs. /tʂʰ/ ch
  • kʷʰ ⟨kʷ⟩ vs. qʷʰ ⟨qʷ⟩
  • (ʂ) vs. ʃ
  • (ʐ) vs. (ʒ) vs. (ɣ)

I understand the technical pronunciation difference between k and q, but I can't hear a difference, especially if two words were said that mean totally different things but sound roughly the same, like kar vs. qar, I couldn't tell the difference. Wondering if you need to be able to distinguish the two sounds in order to understand the language, or it's more of a context/accent thing (way of pronouncing the "k" sound in a certain context).

Same goes for kʷʰ ⟨kʷ⟩ vs. qʷʰ ⟨qʷ⟩, just slightly different variants.

In Naxi they have /cʰ/ vs. /tʂʰ/ ch, which both sound the same to me as well. Wondering the same for this, if it's required to distinguish between these two sounds.

In Hindustani they have (ʂ) vs. ʃ, and (ʐ) vs. (ʒ) vs. (ɣ). I can kind of tell the difference between /ʂ/ and /ʃ/, where ʂ is a little deeper sounding. But all of these sound similar to each other roughly.

So basically just wondering if you need to be able to clearly distinguish and pronounce these sound pairs/sets in order to speak and understand the language properly, or really there is just one underlying sound, and multiple ways of producing it (like (ʂ) vs. ʃ). And if it needs to be understood at a deeper level, wondering if you have suggestions on how to do it.

  • 2
    As to how native speakers distinguish them: In the first few months to years of life a baby learns which sounds are distinctive (phonemic) and becomes adept at distinguishing between them. By six months it's already losing the ability to distinguish between non-phonemic sounds. The brain can attend to what seem like very minute differences (ʂ vs. ʃ to an English speaker, distinguished in Hindustani) or can ignore what seem like vast differences (l vs ɹ̠ to an English speaker, not distinguished in Japanese), the key being whether or not the difference carries meaning. – Luke Sawczak Sep 10 '18 at 23:03
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    A similar phenomenon is how amazing the brain is at discarding irrelevant information present in the acoustic signal, e.g. a /b/ is a /b/ regardless of the pitch, speed, intensity, vocal quality, background noise... – Luke Sawczak Sep 10 '18 at 23:04
  • When it comes down to individual languages, there's nothing like going where they're spoken and coping. Failing that, you need a native speaker and a good ear, preferably one trained phonetically. There's really no substitute for experience. I've recommended Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics before; it may interest you that Catford was, among other things, an expert on Caucasian languages and their immense consonant systems, including ejectives. – jlawler Sep 12 '18 at 22:04

If you mean "what can I do to learn the distinctions", you need repeated and varied exposure to the sounds in question, and you need some method of telling if you're correct in your hearing and pronunciation. For instance, you might learn the difference between [k] and [q] in the context of learning Arabic. In that case, you would be given many words (indeed minimal pairs) involving those sounds, you could be given dictation exercises where you have to write words that you don't know, and your instructor guides you in correct pronunciations. In other words, practice, practice, practice, based on data, data, data.

In the case of normal child language acquisition, this just happens with no instruction. If you grow up in a Lushootseed-speaking environment, you'll speak Lushootseed (or if everybody is speaking related Nuxalk, that's what you'll learn -- their segmental inventories are very similar except apparently for "k"). However, if you try to learn these sounds as an adult, you may never learn them. The extent to which it is mandatory to learn native-like pronunciations is very hard to determine. I do know that you can map Lushootseed consonants onto English consonants (eliminate ejectives, q→k, kʷ→k, x,χ→h, ɬ→ʃ), and the instructor can still understand you. It would be an interesting experiment to reduce all of the clicks of Taa to [k], and get rid of tone, phonatory adornments and nasalization on vowels, to see if you could still be understood (Taa is much less redundant compared to Lushootseed). Some of the distinctions that you mentioned are marginal anyhow, for example k vs q in Uighur. There is a 3-way contrast in Norwegian (dialect 1) between [ʃ, ʂ, ç] which are all pronounced as [ʃ] in dialect 2, and I don't think anyone even notices the neutralization. If the goal is "be minimally comprehensible", you can probably forgo the obscure sounds, but if you aspire to more native control over the sound system, you need practical experience with these sounds.

Unfortunately, once you've gotten control over a certain sound in some language, like palatal [c] in Hungarian, you have to start over when you try to learn Saami, since [c] in Saami is pronounced somewhat differently. Ejectives in Salishan are different from ejectives in Ethiopian Semitic. Then you have to start to acquire various variants of [ʈ,c,q,ħ,ʕ] and so on.

If you have a specific sound that's causing a problem and if you can hack the writing system, you might try forvo.com, where you can find recordings (of varying quality) of words in the language. The North Saami collection is very well done, for example. Their Naxi collection is, shall we say, sparse. I find getting suitable recordings to be the biggest challenge.

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