When trying to learn new languages, I have often encountered a problem when hearing sounds that don't exist in the Polish language (my native language). In my mind they "become" other, more familiar sounds. The examples are:

  • [h] is hard to distinguish from [x]
  • [ə] becomes [a] (or sometimes [ɛ] depending on speaker)
  • I don't hear difference between aspirates and ejectives unless they are pronounced really carefully

What techniques can I use so my brain starts to contrast these sounds?

  • 1
    Related: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/q/393/13
    – Flimzy
    Apr 22, 2016 at 17:37
  • 1
    This isn't anywhere close to a full answer, but this might be related: nytimes.com/2011/10/11/health/views/11klass.html
    – fi12
    Apr 30, 2016 at 21:06
  • @Flimzy That link addresses issues related to software that might help with the described problem, but does not discuss the actual details of the problem or solution. I read it as more of a software resources Q/A.
    – user3169
    May 6, 2016 at 22:10
  • 1
    @user3169: Exactly. That's why the post is related, not a duplicate.
    – Flimzy
    May 7, 2016 at 8:23

3 Answers 3


First, exposure is important. You need to be exposed to the sounds and listen to them in natural contexts, over a period of time. Some people will pick up the sounds quicker than others, but you should expect it to take some time. But with continued exposure, you'll notice the differences.

Second, become familiar with articulatory phonetics and read about the phonetics of the language. Don't rely on a pronunciation guide in a beginner's textbook - they are often imprecise. Often the wikipedia page for the language will be OK. See how the phoneme is meant to be pronounced, and try listening for the sounds and see if you can tell the difference.

In my case, I had been learning Korean for several years and pronouncing the [ɾ] phoneme as an English r ([ɹ̠]), without discerning the difference. I knew it wasn't the same, but I could get by. Then I read about the correct phonetic pronunciation, and suddenly I could clearly discern the two sounds.

Third, singing can help. People naturally can enunciate more clearly when singing. First, listen to music in the language and listen for the sounds you are having trouble with. Then try singing the song - trying to pronounce the sounds can be helpful in learning the distinctions.


I found that pronouncing them myself was a good way to learn the difference.

When I had difficulty understanding the auditory difference between two sounds, I practiced saying them out loud until I could understand the physical difference between saying them.

If you can produce sounds that are different, then you should be able to understand them.

  • You might add how you knew you were saying them correctly, given that you cannot hear the difference.
    – user3169
    May 6, 2016 at 22:06

One way is to get a well educated native speaker to pronounce, and contrast similar sounds.

You want, not just a native speaker, but a well educated one. "Average Joes" sometimes confuse such sounds in their own native language. And in any event, they won't be able to explain the subtleties to you.

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