The brain is the most powerful organ of our body, it can do things that you could never imagine you could do, if you train it well. When we talk about language, the brain, logically, plays a significant role in it. In fact, it is the responsible for us to be able to communicate, it is was differentiates us from the rest of the animals.
The scientific explanation of how we learn languages it’s complicated but I am going to try to explain it in a simple way.
When we are born we have nothing in our brains except for the information about the mechanical functions of our body, but it has no knowledge, no memories, no experience, and no language. We acquire that through time and, in that time, our brain changes.
Imagine that, when you are born, your brain is like an open field of soil full of nutrients ready for its first crop. Imagine rain is information you receive from the outside world, each raindrop is new information for your brain. It’s what the soil needs to grow its crop.
When we are babies we learn to talk by listening everything we hear around us. Nobody teaches us the meaning of words, or the grammatical structure of sentences when we are babies. We learn by imitating. This would mean that each raindrop, at the beginning of our lives, is a phoneme. We start to hear a’s and b’s and c’s etc. Those raindrops (phonemes) start making channels in our field, one channel for each phoneme, and the more we hear a phoneme the deeper the channel gets.
Rain after rain the brain forms the channels it needs to communicate and starts to unite them one another in order to form words that have a meaning and then sentences and so on. The older we get the deeper the channels get and the least space remains to make new channels. So, when we are adults, the empty soil field is no longer empty and it’s no longer a field, it’s a jungle full of trees and little rivers and animals, insects, etc., etc.
At this moment, being already an adult, when it rains new information the raindrops can’t even pass through the leaves of the tall trees of your jungle and, if they pass, they don’t have enough space to make new channels and they are not enough to make one either. Here, what the brain does is to put that new raindrop in the most similar channel that it already has. That is why Spanish speakers say b instead of v. They don’t have the channel v because they never receive v rain drops in their normal lives and the brain is so full with information that it can’t even recognize it as a new sound. This means that the Spanish speaker can’t even hear that sound v, it hears it as b and drops it into the b channel. That is the reason why adult Spanish speakers learning English can’t say “very” with v and say “bery” with b. The same happens with the voiced th, the sh, many vowel sound and consonant clusters.
The result of all those new raindrops falling in the wrong channels is talking English like Tony Montana. If you are Latin American and you want to be taken seriously when doing business, or anything else, with English speakers, you really don’t want to sound like Tony Montana.
Unfortunately, Al Pacino played an excellent role in Scarface and that is the image people get when Spanish speakers talk English with bad pronunciation, no matter where they are from, who they are and what they do, there is a negative stereotype, as unfair as it is.
Fortunately, there are ways to fix this. Remember that the human brain is powerful and wonderful and it can do whatever you want it to do. If you have this little problem, don’t get discouraged, there is a solution for everything, you just have to do a little extra (but fun) work. For now, think of stretching your brain bigger (some scientists and linguists have discovered that bilingual -or multilingual- people have bigger and heavier brains). Be elastic.