Recently when I was driving my kid to school, I thought of playing on phonetics with him. With my increasing frustration and disillusionment with the amount of effort one has to put to spell English and remember the alphabet-sequence and my increasing understanding of Sanskrita, I wanted to see how kids react to phonetics of something they have not heard so-far.
The experiment contained of pronouncing a letter and finding out the origination of the letter in the position of the mouth. It also helped he was not seeing my face and just hearing the sounds. The SikSha SaStra (lit. science of phonetics) goes very deep into the subject and literature has been written around it over the span of 2500+ years.
The conversation went like this (all his responses were after some thought).
Me: Tell me where does the sound 'a' come from?
He: (after some thought) throat.
Me: Tell me where does the sound 'ka' come from?
Me: Whats the difference?
He: the tongue touching.
Me: Tell me what happens with 'ca' ?
He: the tongue goes and touches up.
Me: Now repeat after me ka kha ga gha ~nga (like the ng in sing)
Me: Where does the sound ~nga come from?
Me: where else?
He: (does not catch on first, then very doubtfully) nose?
Me: Tell me what happens with Ta (like T in Patrick)
He: tongue rolls up.
Me: Whats the difference? Stop the tongue at T and tell me
He: (thinks a bit more) tongue rolls back
Me: Now repeat ca, cha, ja, jha, nya, Ta, Tha, Da, Dha (I stop).. What comes after ?
He: (Repeats, keeps rolling the tongue backwards and pronounces Na) (Like the N in Pundit, Mandala, but not navy, nine)
Me: Now tell me what comes after pa.
He: (catches on to the pattern and says) pa pha ba bha ma.
Me: Finally now just repeat 'ka ca Ta ta pa'
He: (tries it, but does not catch on)
Me: Do you observe that the tongue travels from throat all the way to the lips?
He: (Nods, but i hardly think he understood)
But the point is how natural it is - I only make half the effort for him to understand the 'alphabets', he just latched on to others naturally (or analytically). I was not fully convinced about placement of varNa-s in Sanskrita, but I think I'm slowly beginning to see the originality and superiority. I still have confusions about Ra, La, Sa, zed, zha -- about placement/omission of these in the scheme, but that's only due to my very limited knowledge of phonetics.
The retro-flex is probably the most important and obvious difference between a "desi" pronunciation and a Westerner's pronunciation. Even among the Indians, you can see the Tamilians use the retro-flex a lot more than other South Indians because of the presence of the Ra and Zha, both of which are not present in other Indian languages. In fact there is even a Tamil adage that says the tongue has to roll for proper pronunciation. Sri DJ Vaidya-ji in his audio blog on phonetics mentions that Sanskrita retro-flex is most likely the effect of Dravidian languages on her.