Category Archives: Language Learning

The Vehement Behemoth and the Suede Tirade

To celebrate 10+ years of living in an English-speaking country, I present to you:

A List of Words I Mispronounced in the Last Two Years
(along with their standard US pronunciation)

amalgam /əˈmalɡəm/
antecedent /ˌan(t)əˈsēdnt/
ascertain /ˌasərˈtān/
assuage /əˈswāj/
behemoth /bəˈhēməTH,bəˈhēmäTH/
cauldron /ˈkôldrən/
chasm /ˈkazəm/
circa /ˈsərkə/
civilization, organization, design, decision and all other words that have some /z/ or /ZH/ sound somewhere in there, waiting in ambush.
demise /dəˈmīz/
differ /ˈdifər/
egregious /əˈɡrējəs/
enamel /iˈnaməl/
ephemeral /əˈfem(ə)rəl/
epitome /əˈpidəmē/
example /iɡˈzampəl/
impudent /ˈimpyəd(ə)nt/
indict /inˈdīt/
leitmotif /ˈlītmōˌtēf/
linear lin•e•ar
nascent /ˈnāsənt,ˈnasənt/
nuptial /ˈnəp(t)SHəl/
paprika /pəˈprēkə,paˈprēkə/
pastel /paˈstel/
preface /ˈprefəs/
puerile /ˈpyo͝orəl,ˈpyo͝orˌīl/
scarce /skers/
suede /swād/
tirade /ˈtīˌrād/
top-grossing (doesn't rhyme with crossing)
toward /tôrd,t(ə)ˈwôrd/
transferable /transˈfərəb(ə)l/
tyranny /ˈtirənē/
vehement /ˈvēəmənt/
wary vs. weary /ˈwerē/ vs. /ˈwirē/
wolf /wo͝olf/
womb /wo͞om/

What is a Spectrogram?

I once took a Speech Recognition AI course, and one of the concepts that fascinated me was that of spectrograms. Here's the spectrogram for the sound of a person speaking the words "nineteenth century"

A spectrogram helps us visualize sounds by decomposing them into their basic frequencies. In this type of visualization, the x axis is time (the progress through the audio clip), the y axis is frequency (low or high pitched), and the color represents loudness.

Something cool about these plots is that trained professionals can actually deduce what words are being uttered in an audio clip just by looking at the corresponding spectrogram. The representation is so useful for this purpose that many speech recognition software systems create a spectrogram as an initial step in the process of transcribing speech to text.

This is all possible because in speech, each sound has a characteristic look in the spectrogram. For example, different vowels can be distinguished by something called "formants": the position of a series of bands that show up near the bottom of a spectrogram. More specifically, the first 3 formants, F1, F2, and F3:

The image above shows the histogram for the words "bee" and "baa", showing the difference in the frequencies of the formants for these two vowels.

Here's a chart that shows the frequency of the formants for several English vowels:

And here's a cool fact from Encyclopædia Britannica: "Most people cannot hear the pitches of the individual formants in normal speech. In whispered speech, however, there are no regular variations in air pressure produced by the vocal cords, and the higher resonances of the vocal tract are more clearly audible. It is quite easy to hear the falling pitch of the second formant when whispering the series of words heed, hid, head, had, hod, hawed, hood, who’d." (Just don't try this too much, or you'll get dizzy from exhaling so much air.)

Another characteristic of vowels is that they have "overtones". These manifest themselves as equally-spaced horizontal lines that appear in a histogram when we see it in high resolution. In the following chart, pay attention to the very fine evenly-spaced horizontal lines (not the broad yellow blobs):

(Note that formants can span across several overtones.)

On a piano or a guitar, whenever you play a middle C, you're not only producing a pure 262Hz (middle C) sound. The instrument actually also produces at the same time a tone at twice the frequency, three times the frequency, etc. at integer multiples of that C note's frequency (aka the "fundamental frequency"). These are called "overtones" and are what gives a piano or a guitar its characteristic sound (aka its "timbre"), as opposed to sounding like a computer-generated beep. A similar phenomenon happens when a person pronounces a vowel (or any sound that uses the vocal chords). This is why we saw the equally-spaced parallel lines in the high-res spectrogram of vowel sounds.

While vowels can simply be identified by their formants, consonants have a wide range of looks and durations on a spectrogram. A "b" consonant and an "m" consonant look very different in the plot. Some easy to spot consonants are sounds such as "shhh", "chhh", "zzz", and "sss", since they have a very characteristic high-pitched component, so you will see a band of high frequencies light up at the top of the spectrogram. For example, here is a "sss" sound sandwiched between two vowels:

Just for completeness, I should mention that it's not always so clear-cut how to map a slice of a spectrogram to its corresponding phoneme. Different speakers pronounce words in slightly different ways and have different vocal ranges. And even when only considering a single speaker, individual sounds can change depending on the surrounding vowels or consonants. Also, let's not forget that a spoken sentence would look very different from normal on a spectrogram when it's whispered or spoken quickly.

There are smartphone apps that generate a spectrogram in real time. My favorite one so far is SpectrumView by Oxford Research (iOS only), but there are a few others out there. You can also try this cool-looking web app or this more sober-looking web app (make sure to press the Mic checkbox). Some fun things to try are: vowel sounds (notice the overtones? the formants? can you determine your vocal range?), consonant sounds ("sss", "zzz", "mmm", "rrr", "thh", "tee", "dee"), whispering, playing a note on a piano or another instrument (notice the overtones?), whistling (notice the lack of strong overtones?), a waterfall (white noise), and that high-pitched sound coming from the TV that you hear but your parents don't.

So there you have it. Now you're able to see sounds.

P.S. If you'd like to learn more, check out the following links:


The images are from:

Video Games for Language Learning

Playing video games is a surprisingly underrated way of developing vocabulary and reading skills in new languages.

I'm not even talking about educational video games, just regular video games that let you change the default language.

Video games allow you to immerse yourself in the language. You're forced to actively improve your language skills if you want to progress through the game. You'll need to learn a new word to understand what specific object a game character just asked you to find. For some words, maybe you don't bother to look them up, but you constantly read them in certain contexts and, that way, realize what they mean. In the game, your character's tool inventory shows you pictures of objects with their corresponding labels, so they basically act as vocabulary flashcards. Finally, regardless of how you learn any new words, you're sometimes even able to associate these words with the specific part of the game where you encountered them: a village, a beach, a castle, a dream—the game world acts as a memory palace, helping you remember the vocabulary more easily.

Of course, the game needs to be at the right level of language learning difficulty. I wouldn't recommend this for someone who doesn't know anything about the language at hand. Yet, after learning the basic grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics of the language, it seems like a great technique to expand your knowledge.

For beginners, it seems best to play a game where text isn't too frequent and the grammatical structures are simple. For more advanced language learners, text-heavy games with complex grammatical structures, more advanced vocabulary, and even some wordplay provide more learning opportunities.

Last year I finished playing Breath of the Wild in Italian and now I'm playing some less text-heavy games in French. I wonder how much playing Ocarina of Time and other games helped me learn English in my youth.