Teaching Individual Sounds : Part One

Why do language learners have difficulty pronouncing specific sounds in the language they are learning? The answer lies, not surprisingly, in the contrast between their own language and the new language. We are born with the ability to recognise and to learn to pronounce every sound, but as we come to realise that some are meaningful and others aren’t, we filter out the non-meaningful sounds to the point where we may not even be able to “hear” them any more, let alone know how to form them.

  • The sound may not exist in the L1

    No language uses every single sound that the human voice can make in order to express meaning. You can probably think of sounds which occur in other languages which don’t occur in English – like the double-l sound found in many Welsh words such as Llan (church).

    A sound is meaningful for a language if substituting it for another sound causes a change in meaning. In English /p/ is a meaningful sound – if I say peat you understand something very different from if I say beat or meat or heat. In Arabic however, the sound has no meaning – in terms of Arabic, it doesn’t exist. A sound like this which creates a meaning distinction is known as a phoneme (1) of the language. /p/ is a phoneme of English but not of Arabic. (2)

    English uses a relatively high number of phonemes in comparison with many other languages, so there’s a good chance that our learners will come across sounds they’ve never used before.

  • The sound may exist in the L1, but be used differently. Alternatively the difficulty may lie in the position of the sound. Sounds may not occur in every position in a syllable in a specific language, or may never be combined with other sounds. For example, in English the “dark” /l/ found in words like bottle never occurs at the beginning of a syllable whereas in Turkish it may. English allows certain combinations of up to three consonants at the beginnings of words /spr / /str/ /spl/ but not others /sdn/ or /ksb/. Other languages will differ. They may allow fewer consonants to cluster together like this, or more. And they may be quite different consonants. Japanese allows only the possibility of consonant + /j/ as in Tokyo, (compare the Japanese /təʊkjəʊ/ with the English/təʊkiːjaʊ/) whereas Croatian allows many more – try opskrbljivanje (supplying) for instance. 
  • Learners may use a similar, but not identical sound from the L1. For example,  Mandarin Chinese uses a retroflex version of the approximant /r/ - [ɻ].  Try curling the tip of your tongue back to the hard palate and then say /r/ as you bring it forward. What you'll here sounds almost, but not quite, like the English /r/.
  • The sound may exist in the L1, but not be perceived. And finally, two sounds which native speakers consider to be “the same” sound, may actually be phonetically quite different. Take the words cat and cool. If you wrote them phonologically, the symbol used for the first consonant in both would be the same - /k/. But now try saying them. Put your tongue in the /k/ position as if you wanted to say cat, and leave it there a moment. Now put it in the position to say cool. You should feel that it moves back significantly. That means that the two /k/ sounds (I’ll call them /k1/ and /k2/) are phonetically quite different.

So why don’t we think of them as different? In English the difference never signals a change in meaning. If I say /k1u:l/ instead of /k2u:l/, it may sound a bit odd, but it doesn’t mean something different – as it does if I say /bi:t/ instead of /pi:t/. /k1/ and /k2/ are phonetically different, but in English are allophones (2) (or variants) of the same phoneme, whereas, in English /p/ and /b/ are two different phonemes. Another example is /p/ itself. /p/ may be aspirated, as in pill, or not – as in spill. But the difference between the two allophones never creates a meaning difference and, as such is not consciously recognised by native speakers. In Cantonese, on the other hand, the difference does cause a change of meaning. In Cantonese aspirated and non-aspirated /p/ are two different phonemes.

This is what lies behind the problem which Korean learners have, for example, with the /r/, /l/ distinction. Korean does have a version of the /r/ consonant (though not identical to the English /r/), but it only occurs between vowels. It also has an /l/ sound which occurs in other phonetic contexts. The two Korean sounds /l/ /r/ are therefore allophones of the same phoneme – they never occur in the same phonetic context and therefore never distinguish meaning. And therefore they are perceived by Korean speakers as the “same” sound, in the same way that for English speakers /k1/ and /k2/ or aspirated and non-aspirated /p/ are.

All of this means that in teaching the pronunciation of individual sounds we have to deal first not with production but perception. Learners have to learn to recognise the new sounds – and, even more difficult, to notice the difference between sounds that they previously considered “the same” –and then learn how to pronounce them. In the second part of this article we’ll look at strategies to achieve both these aims.


1. For a good explanation of phonemes and allophones, see Wikipedia
2. The best source on the web for finding out which English sounds are liable to cause problems for learners from specific language groups is probably Ted Power's site English Language Learning and Teaching