How the Substitution of Familiar Sounds for Those That Are Unfamiliar Creates a Foreign Accent

In a nuanced episode of their incredibly informative whiteboard series for Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain how a non-native speaker of any language may have difficulty speaking that language without an accent because they don’t having the right set of sounds within their native vocabulary arsenal, but will instead reach for a familiar sound that is close to what the word requires.

The human vocal tract can produce thousands of different sounds but languages use only a tiny subset of them. What happens when you try to speak a language that uses a different subset from your own?