Limitations of Central-American pronunciation

OK, pet peeve.

We (probably) know how native English speakers have trouble pronouncing Spanish – and most other languages – in a way that doesn't sound silly. English uses Latin in legal contexts, and I personally cringe how it's pronounced. I was brought up on classical and ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, and Latin pronounced by English speakers sounds like none of that. To me, it sounds most like pig Latin.

But interestingly, the vocal range of Central American Spanish speakers – in my experience, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan – is even more restricted. "How could that be?" you ask. "They can pronounce rolled Rs!"

Yes they can. But here are a few words that Central Americans I've met cannot properly pronounce:

EnglishCentral American
pizzaPronounced pixa.
shortsPronounced chor, as in "el chor" (masculine singular: short pants).
sushiPronounced suchi.
Marshall (the name)Pronounced Marchal.
MitsubishiPronounced Mitsubichi.
Yency (name)Pronounced Jen-see.
Jana (my wife)Pronounced either Hah-nah or Jah-nah, with a "j" sound.
Correct pronunciation, Yah-nah, has not been achieved by anyone.

To clarify – this is not just a style that speakers prefer, but can deviate from. They cannot:
  • Try to teach them to say "sushi". They keep repeating "suchi", with a clear "ch" sound.
  • Try to teach them to say "Yah-nah". They keep repeating "Jah-nah", with a subtle "j".
  • Try to teach them to say "pizza". They keep repeating "pixa", with a clear "x".
This is not even to mention the constant confusion between "b" and "v". In Central America, it's as though these two letters produce the same sound. They can't tell the difference.

Let me not get cocky, though. I can't really tell (or pronounce) the difference between č and ć.

And then there's Cantonese, where the word we'd spell maa has at least 5 very different meanings, depending on the tone of the "aa", and we'd catch none of them without training. :-)


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