I’ve noticed that when I learn about a phonological distinction that English lacks – length of vowels, tones, palatization of consonants – I tend not to treat it seriously. On an intellectual level, I know and believe that, yes, e.g., vowel length is distinctive, and is very important to a, let us say, Estonian speaker. On a gut level though, I figure it just sounds a little different and whoever I was speaking to in Tallinn would understand me perfectly well. I mean, I don’t notice the difference in English, so how could anybody else?
This is a result, I surmise, of not having any real world experience with native speakers who would actually be confused by one of my mistakes. If I speak to other English speakers learning Estonian, then chances are they are similarly indifferent to vowel length; they don’t notice my mistakes, because they’re making the same ones. (This is particularly apropos when you’re learning Latin—it is quite challenging finding a native speaker. Our group has been looking for one for a year now with no success. I blame the harsh US immigration restrictions.)
The first time I really bought that different phonological distinctions really matter for native speakers, even if they don’t for me, was when I was having a conversation with my Uruguayan friend, Carlos. I was speaking in Spanish, and I said, “pero,” meaning “but.” But that’s not what I said – I actually said “perro,” meaning dog, rendering whatever sentence I was saying nonsense. A single “r” in Spanish is a single flip of the tongue, whereas a double “r” is a full trill – three or four taps. Learning to trill my r’s was difficult for me, and then after learning it, it proved equally tricky to limit a trill to a single tap. But because we don’t have that distinction in English, I tended to overlook it, figuring a long “r” in place of a short one would just sound a little like an accent, without sacrificing meaning. Plus, surely given the context of the sentence, the meaning would be obvious even if the word sounded a bit off.
But Carlos just stared at me, dumbfounded. Eventually, he snapped his fingers, and said, “Ah, you mean pero.” I’m sure it’s the reaction I’d have if someone said, e.g., “rack” instead of “rock.” (Or when Carlos foretold the Apocalypse). That was when I first really started to take that distinction (and others) seriously.