This is a question I am asked a lot. It seems strange that native English-speakers would be able to hear a difference between two sounds that seem exactly the same to someone speaking English as a second language. The answer goes back to early childhood, when we were learning our native language.
When babies are born, they can identify all the sounds of all the languages of the world. This is pretty remarkable, when you consider the wide range of languages there are, each with its own distinct pattern of sounds. But this ability does not last long.
As the baby grows and is exposed to just one or two languages in their home environment, their ability to hear and distinguish sounds is honed, so that instead of recognizing a wide array of sounds, they become experts at identifying the sounds of their native language(s).
In this process, similar sounds from foreign languages can become one individual sound, in what is often called category collapse. Therefore, a baby growing up in a Spanish-speaking household in Mexico may be able to identify the difference between the English words hot – hut – haute, but that distinction is not so clear for an adult monolingual Spanish speaker.
Do you hear the difference?
Words that are identical except for one sound are called minimal pairs. Can you hear the difference between these minimal pairs?
Share what you hear in the comments!