Have you ever wondered why you speak slightly differently in a foreign language than native speakers do?

Do you know why children are better at speaking in a foreign language and their pronunciation is close to perfection?

Before you find the answers to these questions, you need to understand how your brain works.

Here’s a little task for you (I borrowed the idea from the book “The Trainer’s Toolkit” by Crown House Publishing Limited).

Task No. 1.1

Read this short text, trying to imagine the whole situation well, but be careful: you can only do this once!

“John just turned off the lights in the store when a mysterious person entered and demanded money. The owner opened the cash register. Its contents were emptied, and the man standing nearby started to flee. The police were immediately notified.”

Task No. 1.2

Okay. After reading the text, please answer “true” or “false” to the following questions. Of course, you must not look back at what you read. Base your answers solely on what you managed to remember.

  1. A man appeared in the store when the owner turned off the lights.
  2. The thief was a man.
  3. The store owner emptied the cash register.
  4. There were money in the cash register, but we don’t know exactly how much.
  5. Three people appear in the story: the store owner, the mysterious man, and the police officer.
  6. The following events are true: someone demanded money, the cash register was opened, its contents were emptied, and the man ran out of the store.

How did it go?

It’s time to check.

Here are the correct answers and explanations:

  1. FALSE – John and the shop owner are not necessarily the same person.
  2. FALSE – How do we know that a theft took place at all? Maybe there was no thief?
  3. FALSE – We don’t know who exactly emptied the till.
  4. FALSE – We don’t know if there was any money in the till.
  5. FALSE – There could be as many as four people in it: John, the shop owner, the mystery man, and the policeman.
  6. FALSE – We don’t know if the man ran out of the store.

Don’t worry. It’s rare for anyone to get many correct answers here.


Before I answer your question, let’s do one more little exercise:

Task number 2

Take a look at the drawing below. An actor dressed as… Exactly, can you guess who he is?

Do you already know the answer?

Before you find out if you guessed who correctly, let me explain to you some important rules of how your brain works. You will understand why you did not do well in exercise 1.

The first thing you need to know:

Your brain is lazy

It is constantly looking for simplifications. It is very difficult for it to constantly analyze all the information, so it often likes to switch on its “autopilot.” However, it can’t do it just like that. The brain could potentially fail to react in time to some danger.

In order to save some of its energy, the brain needs to learn to analyze the situation based on a small amount of information. It’s like taking a quick glance and assessing what’s happening based on a few elements. This can only be done if it relies on patterns, or reference points, to which it assigns missing puzzle pieces.

The second important feature of your brain is as follows:

Your brain doesn’t like emptiness

If there is a lack of information, your brain is eager to fill it in. And how does it do that? Of course, based on patterns.

Now it’s time to reveal which character was referred to in exercise number 2:

Of course, it is an alien.

I know, I know. You might have thought that it was a dwarf from Snow White,  or some cartoon character? Your brain glanced at its outline and quickly associated the silhouette with a character known from a cartoon.

But it was a mistake because it was about someone else.

We observed a similar phenomenon in task number 1.

I told you a short story, and you filled in the details yourself. Especially, you imagined that it was a robbery. Everything seemed to indicate that, but in reality, there was no mention of a theft of money. However, your brain referred to a certain pattern and filled in the gaps.

How does this apply to speaking a foreign language?

Language is, in a sense, a set of patterns based on which we create words and sentences.

Let’s focus here on pronunciation for now.

The lowest level is individual sounds, and here the first problem arises.

In every language, we have a specific set of sounds from which words can be constructed.

Although each of us pronounces individual consonants and vowels slightly differently, our brains have learned to associate them with specific patterns, so we know that “a” is “a” and “u” is “u”. The problem is that these patterns look slightly different in each language. For example, in English, we can distinguish between “i” and “ea/ee” which allows us to perceive the difference between words like “pitch” and “peach”. On the other hand, in many other languages, this distinction doesn’t exist.

Why do the Japanese struggle with some simple English words?

However, you could say it’s a double-edged sword that can cut us from both sides.

On one hand, we may not distinguish the pronunciation of two sounds in another language. We may not see the difference, for example, between the English words “ship” and “sheep” or the French words “mais” (but) and “mes” (my). This can sometimes have unpleasant consequences. Imagine a hungry Japanese person entering a restaurant and trying to order something to eat in broken English:

– Lice, please.

You can only imagine the waiter’s reaction.

The poor Japanese person unfortunately cannot distinguish between “l” and “r”, for example. Therefore, “rice, please” and “lice, please” will sound almost identical to them.

On the other hand, we will mispronounce some sounds, assigning them to their English counterparts. Instead of the sound between “è” and “é” in French, we will say “ay” and sound slightly harder, which makes it less natural.

Why do children speak better?

Do you know what contributes to a much better “accent” in children learning a foreign language?

Take a look at how they learn. Young children try to imitate what they hear, while adults associate the sounds of the foreign language with sounds familiar to them from their own language. Haven’t you ever written down the pronunciation in English of a foreign word?

Your brain is lazy again. Or maybe not entirely… It simply doesn’t know that there are different rules in a foreign language and it needs to learn completely new patterns.

There are many theories about why children learn pronunciation better. I am a proponent of the theory that a key moment is the learning of writing and reading. When a child learns to associate individual sounds with alphabet letters, their brain creates patterns that it will refer to in the future.

So, our problem is not a lost ability, but rather that our brain is unaware that different patterns exist.

However, there is another problem.

Mothers and warriors

Anthony Lauder, during one of his lectures given at the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava, drew attention to certain genetic factors in the process of learning correct pronunciation. While a child’s brain is very plastic and learns quickly, this ability, especially in terms of pronunciation, could be detrimental to older individuals. People identified themselves with their group or their own tribe, and one of the markers of this identification was language.

If someone spoke slightly differently, with a different accent, they were treated as an enemy. We still see this today – when we look at the borders of present-day countries, we often find that the defining factor is either language or religion. When people in a certain place speak two different languages or practice different religions, it often becomes a flashpoint, as we can observe in the political situations of Ukraine, Belgium, or Catalonia, for example.

According to Lauder, a key moment in language acquisition was the period of adolescence when the ability to learn a new accent was, in a sense, blocked by the brain.

Boys became warriors, so they couldn’t suddenly start speaking in a foreign language or with a strange accent because they would be considered an enemy on the battlefield. On the other hand, girls became mothers and had significant contact with the language of young children. If they were to naturally start speaking like their surroundings, they would regress in their speaking skills because they would adopt the accent of their babbling offspring.

The invisible wall

It is difficult to say to what extent the above theories are actually true. However, language is certainly a part of our identity – we want to be part of a group, and language is a marker of that.

This is highlighted by American linguist Stephen Krashen, who noticed in himself that although he can speak French almost without a foreign accent, he often chooses not to. He concluded that there seems to be an invisible barrier separating him from having a perfect accent. We don’t want to speak like foreigners because, in a sense, we would become one of them. And after all, we rarely fully identify ourselves with representatives of a foreign country.

To speak better, we need to overcome two challenges: the problem of identification and the problem of pattern recognition.

Here are a few tips that can help you achieve this goal:


  1. Analyze the sounds present in the foreign language and try to identify the differences from English. Are there any sounds that don’t exist in English? Or perhaps there is an English sound that has two equivalents in the foreign language?
  2. A great exercise for learning to recognize sounds is listening to minimal pairs, which are words that differ by only one sound.
  3. Don’t focus on spelling, as it can be misleading. Notice that in French, we often don’t pronounce parts of the word, for example words like “corps” or “longtemps” the “ps” is silent. Sometimes, in combination with other words, the pronunciation of words slightly changes. For example, the Spanish phrase “un poco” sounds like [umpoko], where the “-n” is pronounced as “-m.” Try to repeat what you hear without relying on the spelling.
  4. Analyze pronunciation – this is an excellent exercise for perceiving nuances and differences. Our brain can develop new patterns, but we need to show it that new patterns exist. Otherwise, it will only refer to the old ones.
  5. Avoid using an “English” notation for pronunciation. Use either the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or develop your own way of representing pronunciation that reflects all the differences between sounds.
  6. Focus on the sound of whole sentences. Often, certain words are pronounced weaker or differently within sentences.
  7. Exaggerate the pronunciation of individual sentences slightly, as it will help you catch their sound better. Try to play the role of a “soap opera actor” who delivers each sentence with unnecessary expressiveness.
  8. You won’t learn to speak if you don’t practice the pronunciation of individual sounds. Your speech organs need to work automatically. To practice proper pronunciation, read aloud.


  1. Don’t be afraid to speak out loud. You need to get used to the sound of your voice in a foreign language.
  2. Consider how much you need to communicate versus having a perfect accent. In most cases, understanding the basic pronunciation is sufficient to communicate effectively in a foreign language.
  3. If you learn to pronounce a language perfectly, will it increase the trust of native speakers in you? If you speak broken Chinese, Chinese people will approach you with sympathy, recognizing your effort. However, if you speak Chinese perfectly, they may or may not fully trust you, wondering how a European knows the language so well. This is a question worth considering, especially when learning rare languages.
  4. Choosing a specific accent often aids in identification, such as British English, Brazilian Portuguese, etc. This makes it much easier for us to determine the direction we are heading in.
  5. Are you ready to become French, English, Italian…? When you start speaking like them, inevitably you become one of them. This doesn’t mean abandoning your own identity, but expanding it, which we may not be fully prepared for.
Konrad Jerzak vel Dobosz

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