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Why is it so hard to recognize the names of streets, places, dishes etc in a foreign language?

Hi guys, how's it going?


It's been almost two years now since I started to really learn English. Up until now, the most difficult part is to make out words like the name of places, dishes, streets, personal names etc..

They all seem to be so unclear when I hear them for the first time.


I'd like to hear more about you guys. Does it happen to you too? if so, why do you think it's so hard?

Nov 30, 2014 5:04 PM
Comments · 3

Over the phone, people will almost invariably ask you to spell out a place name. Yes, it's hard. The real question isn't "why are place names hard to understand?" The real question is "why aren't other words just as hard?"

Usually, we do not pronounce words clearly or unambiguously. When we listen to ordinary speech, we usually hear words which would be ambiguous by themselves, but can be guessed from context. We hear a word, we think of a list of possibilities, we narrow down the list because only one of them makes sense--and we do this so quickly and unconsciously that we think we've heard the word clearly.

There is a story about a child who believed the Equator was a menagerie lion running around the Earth. 

Both an adult and a child might unconsciously think "what I'm hearing isn't perfectly clear, it could be either menagerie lion or imaginary line" but the adult has the background to know that only the second is possible. Most likely the adult think he has heard imaginary line and isn't even conscious of choosing the best alternatively.

Disambiguation from context works for words that are in our vocabulary, and which have a meaning so we can tell whether or not they make sense in a context.

It doesn't work for place names, unless it's in an area that's familiar to you. If someone says indistinctly "We're going out to harfrd to see Fruitlands Museum," I would know they mean the little town of Harvard, Massachusetts, because I live around there. But if they left out "Fruitlands" I would probably think they meant the big city of Hartford, Connecticut. 


November 30, 2014

Yes, absolutely. I quite agree. The problem with names is they are totally unpredictable. They often have irregular pronunciation, and, unlike other aspects of language, there are no grammatical clues or semantic clues to help you. If it's any comfort to you, even native speakers sometimes have this problem.


I'm British, and I recently went to New York for the first time. The first day or so when I was riding the subway I found it almost impossible to decipher the station announcements. The main reason for this was the fact that I didn't know the names of the subway stations. And what's more, I had absolutely no idea what to expect : the names could be a short word or a long word, a person's name or a place name, a number or a geographical feature, or any combination of these. A key feature of listening comprehension in any language is PREDICTION, and I wasn't able to predict what I was going to hear, even though it was my own language. Technical issues - such as background noise and the acoustic distortion - added to the difficulty, together with an accent that I was less used to hearing. But these were minor factors compared with the loss of predictability. After all, we're all quite capable of filtering out noise, and the NY accent is familiar to everyone the world over, whether they've visited the city before or not.


Needless to say, once I became familiar with the subway stops, after a day or so I soon managed to make out the announcements with no trouble at all. So, don't worry. It's the same for all of us.

November 30, 2014

Thank you both for your insightful answers.

It made things much clearer now. It's really great to hear real stories from natives speakers of English!


November 30, 2014
Language Skills
English, Portuguese
Learning Language