Devanagari Script with Phonetics
So, I was getting frustrated with the sounds I was hearing, so I looked for the IPA phonetics on Devanagari.
This contains IPA, Hindi, ISO 15919 (which is what the Duo contributors seem to be using) and Urdu (which you can ignore).
Based on this, I'm not hearing the difference between a (अ) and ā (आ) correctly, or indeed between other vowels. According to this, आ should be longer than अ, but all I'm hearing is a pitch difference rather than a difference in length. Can a course contributor confirm?
Also, if someone wants to get super geeky about the Devanagari script, this link is really insightful!
I can hear the vowel quality distinction clearly for the two [a] sounds, but can't hear anything other than a pitch difference for the short and long [i] and short and long [u] in this course. Other sources I have looked into seem to have an actual length distinction for these other vowels, so I'm wondering if the Duolingo audio could be improved. Of course, it's also possible that my English speaking brain can't hear a difference which is actually there :-). I still think the difference in the Duo sound files needs to be at least amplified somewhat compared to now, since I can hear the distinction in e.g. the omniglot audio.
The difference is clear between a and ā.
I completely agree that the upward inflection is distracting, that the u/ū and i/ī distinctions are poor, and that the thing overall need improvement.
However, a/ā IS clear.
One possible reason they have been unclear is that in Sanskrit the vowels differ only by length, whereas in Hindi they do differ by quality (even though people refer to them as long and short). Some people in India have gotten this confused; they get distracted by the Sanskrit thing and they try to represent Hindi as if it was Sanskrit. There's this "old school" thread of pedagogy that swears these are "long and short" vowels like Sanskrit, and when they go about pronouncing the sounds of Devanagari (but NOT when they are saying actual words), they fall back on that kindergarten mantra.. "a-aaaaa.... i-iiiii... u-uuuuu... "
As Hindi at this level is more or less Hindustani -- that is to say Urdu -- I think we'd be surprised to see the difference in how the exact same sounds are taught when teaching "Urdu."
And I'll bet you a crore of rupees that the reason for the upward inflection was that they were reading a list/chart, wherein "a" was a non-final item in the list (probably the very first item), rather than concentrating on making a neutral sound for each letter individually.
This is interesting. I'm a South Asian speaker, and I can't hear the correct difference according to the wikia and other Hindi pronounciation guides which state that a is closer to a schwa and ā is closer to a: (phonetically). What are you hearing that I'm not? I'm not disputing the puritans vs use argument, I'm just not hearing a good difference that makes sense yet. Pitch/Inflection is definitely not something Hindi or most South Asian languages contain, so that can't be it...
"a is closer to a schwa and ā is closer to a: (phonetically)." That's exactly what I'm hearing. Do the South Asian language(s) you know well also make that distinction? Pitch has absolutely nothing to do with it, so let's leave that off the table once and for all! :) Again, I can recommend that you also include "Urdu" explanations in your searches for info, and be sure to search for the sounds of Hindi/Urdu as opposed to the sounds of Devanagari. Good luck!
In my language (Sinhalese), which is also born from Sanskrit, the first vowel can be used either as a schwa or as an 'a' sound. I'm not hearing that sound clearly, or at least I wasn't in the Letters lessons. But I think I need to go back to it. Will report back on it :)
I have been looking at Urdu as well, btw. It's been very useful.
This really illustrates the perils of relying on the IPA. It gives you a ball park, but it is better to learn to understand languages in their own terms.
I learned Devanagari for Nepali and Sanskrit first, so my pronunciation is not 100% the same as the way someone in, say UP speaks Hindi/Urdu, but the way I learned to differentiate अ from आ is not necessarily length, but how you move your mouth.
अ is pronounced with your mouth mostly closed, creating an "aw" with a slightly lower pitch. Whereas आ is pronounced with your mouth all the way open, making an "ah" sound with a slightly higher pitch (at least to my ears.)
Indeed, I'm kinda deaf, so I spend a lot of time lip reading, and you'll find that there are some very distinctive mouth movements for each letter. This is one of the more obvious ones. As RanzoG points out, this is also the difference between "about" where your mouth is closed, and "father" where your mouth is open. The only thing I would add to that is that most speakers I know "round" the vowel a more than it is in "about" so it almost sounds like an "o" in the dialect of English I speak.
श <ś> vs. ष <ṣ>
I first learned the Devanāgarī letters when being introduced to Sanskrit, and was taught to make a clear distinction between these letters. The ś had a distinct sj sound as in the British Received Pronunciation of the word “issue,” whilst the ṣ is like the initial digraph in the pan-English “shall” or ”ship.” It may be that this distinction is not observed by most Hindi speakers, and that's fine, but if the recorded voice in the Duolingo Hindi course pronounces the two letters identically — as it seems to me, at least — it makes it impossible for me to identify which sound is being pronounced if both romanizations are offered as alternative choices, in the same multiple-choice test in Lesson 4. I think this would be a good thing to sort out before the course leaves Beta testing. If the two letters are indeed pronounced identically, perhaps they should not be taught in the same lesson. Conversely, if they are meant to have distinct pronunciations, it would be good to make new recordings of them both. Thanks.
Just repeating here: Hindi ("Urdu") when written in Arabic alphabet shows no distinction (in the writing) between sh/SH. They are for all intents and purposes identical phonemes whose historical difference is represented only in orthography (Devanagari). The orthography leads people to overthink and overcorrect. The teaching of Devanagari in the context of Sanskrit has influenced the Hindi pedagogy despite it having no practical function. Indian pedagogy is sometimes traditional to a fault. (There's a reason why the Vedas were maintained orally through rote memorization for hundreds of years!)