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When Rudi began learning English at school, many years ago, he didn’t worry about pronunciation very much.
Rudi’s native language, Indonesian, has mostly the same alphabet as English and mostly the same sounds. He preferred to focus on grammar instead.
He did have some difficulty with the ‘th’ sound, which doesn’t exist in Indonesian. But he was able to avoid the problem by substituting other sounds.
Instead of ‘three’, he would just say ‘tree’. Instead of ‘them’, he would say ‘dem’. Many other Indonesians did the same thing, so it seemed okay.
Years later, English has become more and more important. Rudi uses it at work and often speaks to non-Indonesians.
His English is good, but he still makes one simple mistake: he pronounces ‘th’ incorrectly. It has become a bad habit and he just can’t seem to get it right.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you’re facing a similar situation, but with a different sound. Some people struggle to differentiate ‘p’ and ‘f’. Some struggle with ‘l’ and ‘r’.
The solution to this problem is practice with minimal pairs.
What exactly are minimal pairs?
Minimal pairs are simply two words that have the same pronunciation, except for one sound. Here are some examples:
- three and tree
- pour and four
- slip and sleep
- reek and leek
The idea of minimal pairs is simple. They allow you to focus on problem sound areas in context. You don’t even need to worry about that confusing phonetic alphabet!
My strategy for using minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are a simple tool, but you need a good strategy to make them work. Let me outline my strategy here:
Step 1: Identify your problem areas
Perhaps, like Rudi, you already know your problem areas. Or perhaps you don’t.
To identify your problem areas, you could take an online lesson and ask your tutor to help you find them.
You will need to listen very carefully. Remember how Rudi used ‘tree’ for ‘three’ and ‘dem’ for ‘them’? Why did he sometimes substitute a ‘t’ and other times a ‘d’?
This is because there are TWO ‘th’ sounds in English. One is stronger, or ‘voiced’ (θ in three) and the other is weaker, or ‘unvoiced’ (ð in them).
Similarly, there are two ‘x’ sounds. One sounds like K+S (taxi) and the other sounds like G+Z (exam).
Step 2: Make sure you know the correct pronunciation
Before you can practise, you need to know HOW to make the sounds. The best way to do this is to find videos that show the correct mouth positions.
For example, for the ‘th’ sounds, this video will help.
Since only you know your own problem areas, you need to put a little work in here to find suitable videos.
Step 3: Practise with minimal pairs
Now that you know how to make the problem sound, it’s time to practise!
First, find a list of minimal pairs. I recommend using this site. It has a huge list of pairs and links to further resources.
I recommend that you use your list of words and practise three ways:
1 Practise saying each word in each pair slowly.
2 Practise saying each word in each pair at a normal speed.
3 Practise saying the target word in a sentence.
So, Rudi’s practice list may look like this:
I bought three trees.
It was a thick tick.
I used the tongs to pick up my thongs.
I thought I taught you this.
How dare you go there!
You can’t diss this!
A female deer is called a doe, though.
I want to doze when I listen to those.
Remember to record your practice. As an independent learner, it is up to you to play it back and hear if it is correct.
What if you still continue to make pronunciation mistakes?
It can be very difficult to change your pronunciation. Let’s look at the reasons.
1 You may not be able to hear the difference between two sounds
Auditory discrimination is the ability to hear the differences in sounds. We develop this as children. However, if you don’t hear certain sounds, like ‘th’, as a child, you may not develop the ability to ‘hear’ them as an adult.
2 Saying it correctly may feel ‘weird’ in your mouth.
For example, to say the two ‘th’ sounds, you need to place your tongue between your teeth and bite down on it a little bit!
If you have not been doing this, it may feel strange, even though it is correct!
3 Saying it the wrong way becomes a bad habit.
A bad habit is always difficult to get rid of, whether it is smoking, using bad language or mispronouncing a word.
This is because you do not only need to learn something, but you need to change your behaviour, and this takes time.
So, don’t expect that your pronunciation issues can be fixed in one single session. You will need to come back to it and practise time and time again.
Don’t give up! Keep trying and you will correct yourself in time.
What are some useful minimal pairs to practise?
The minimal pairs best suited to you generally depend on your native language. If there is a sound which English has, but your native language does not, then this may be a problem sound for you.
Common problems that I have observed in my own students are:
- the two ‘th’ sounds
- ee and i (sheep and ship)
- the two ‘x’ sounds
- l and r (lat and rat)
- p and f (pat and fat)
- w and v (wow and vow)
- b and p (big and pig)
The first two in the list are the most common and affect speakers of many languages.
This page suggests sets of minimal pairs for speakers of Arabic, French, Japanese, Spanish and Korean.
Practising with podcasts
We looked at a three-step guide to practising minimal pairs. Here, I want to suggest a fourth step.
Once you feel that you are beginning to get your minimal pairs correct, listen out for real-life examples.
For instance, listen to a podcast and see if you can hear examples of the target sounds.
The English Learning for Curious Minds podcast is perfect for this, because it is presented with clear pronunciation and comes with a transcript.
Mark out on the transcript where you hear examples of the target sounds. Then, record yourself saying the sentences and compare your recording with the original.
This is a powerful method to help you get it right.
Hang in there and don’t give up!
Some learners feel demotivated because it takes time to correct what seems like a basic English problem.
In fact, it’s the ‘basic’ problems that are the hardest to fix - because they become bad habits.
I promise you that with some effort and smart study strategies, you will be able to pronounce any English sound correctly.