Minimal Pairs – English Pronunciation

Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are doing an English pronunciation focus on minimal pairs. Our Lunchtime Lessons are are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.

If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below.

If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.

Transcript of Video

​Today, we’re going to be doing a pronunciation focus and looking  at something which is called minimal pairs.
So, what are minimal pairs? Question number one. Minimal pairs are basically two sounds which are really, similar. It’s just one sound that makes a difference between them. And they often confuse English learners logically because they’re very similar. So to give you some examples, I’m talking about the /f/ and the /v/. in fan and van. Really similar words, but a slight difference. Or the /e/ and the /I/ desk and disk.  Learners from different languages will have different problems with minimal pairs because a lot of it depends on the sounds in your own language. So, we’re going to look at selection today and I’m going to give you some tips on how to pronounce them. We’re going to think about the shape your mouth should be making, the position of your tongue, your lips, and then I’m going to give you some practice sentences so that you can try working with them and developing them.
And I actually really recommend that you record yourself, because that’s a great way to hear it and see if you’re doing it OK and compare the recordings.

/æ/, /ʌ/ and /ɒ/ 

​We’re going to start with these three. I know I said minimal pairs, and this is technically a minimal trio, right. Because there are three similar sounds. So the sounds we’re looking at, first of all, are /æ/, /ʌ/ and /ɒ/. Right, so the first one here is the same sound that we have in Cat. That is the sound that we have in cut, and that is the sound that we have in clock. So cut, cut, clock.
And to put that into a sentence, which doesn’t really make any sense, is just so you can practice the sounds, the cat cut the clock.
So, try saying that to yourselves – the cat cut the clock. Cat, cut, clock.
In terms of how we’re making and producing these sounds what I want you to do is put your hands on your face and make the first sound. We’re just going to open our mouths. Now, to change to the second sound, all we’re going to do is drop our jaw. So the only thing that you should feel change with your hands is your jaw open and close. Your tongue hasn’t changed. Your lips haven’t changed. Just that space. OK, so now if we go to all /ɒ/. To make /ɒ/ I need to make a round shape with my mouth, not /uː/. Like you’re surprised. You should notice when we make the /ɒ/ that, I open my jaw again, do you feel that difference?
And another thing which is quite important, the /ʌ/ in the examples we’ve seen today that are they are words that are spelled with the letter U, but actually very often it’s often a word with the letter O. To give you some examples of that: son, mother, love, glove, money. There’s lots of words in English which are spelled with the letter O but use that sound. And a common pronunciation mistake that people make is instead of using that, we use /ɒ/.

/l/ or /iː/

​OK, so for those of you who are not familiar with the phonemic symbols, when I’ve got a symbol like this that has two dots, that means it’s a long sound. So, a way to think about that is imagine you’ve got some chewing gum in your mouth and you’re going to pull the chewing gum out.
So, the first sound /l/ here is like ship and the second sound /iː/ is like sheep. So, we’re going to do the same again. I want you to put your hands on your face. When I’m making /iː/ I should be smiling. The main difference that we’re making here is that /iː/ has that nice smile, and your tongue is going to move back a little bit, right? 

/ɒ/ and /ɔː/

​/ɒ/ is the sound in clock and for /ɔː/ imagine that you see a little baby or if you don’t like babies, a little puppy or, whatever you think is cute. And this is the long sound.
So, some words which have this long vowel sound to give you an idea: court, law, short, warn.  I have a Scottish accent, so in a Scottish accent, we usually pronounce the /r/ sound, but in a different accent, especially in English ones, the /r/ sound disappears.
If you say these with a short sound instead of a long sound, it really changes the words and it makes it difficult for people to understand you. It’s really important to use the long vowel sounds, because it will affect your communication. People will not understand what you’re saying.

/æ/ vs /ɑː/ 

​Let me show you another example of a long vowel. So, we have the /æ/that we saw before. Remember the word cat? And the /ɑː/. So, this one, I want you to think of going to the dentist. What does the dentist say when you open your mouth? /ɑː/. This is like in the word car. Again, you’ve got the two dots, that means it’s a long vowel, a chewing gum vowel.
OK, so let me give you again some examples with that long vowel sounds: heart, car, shark, can’t, park. You might notice that a lot of these words have the letter R. So very often after a long vowel sound, you have the letter R, and we saw it in the previous examples as well, like court, warn.
So, again, if I don’t make a long vowel, listen to what happens. Can’t – I’ve put this example, actually, it’s a bad example because of my accent, I don’t say /cɑːnt/ that’s an English one. In a Scottish accent, we actually say /cænt/. It’s a good example of regional variations. But if you had what’s called a received pronunciation accent, sort of a classic English accent, then you would say /cɑːnt/.  In Scotland, we do pronounce the /r/ sound and I think whether you’re in Scotland or not, sometimes it can be easier to pronounce the /r/ instead of saying the long vowel only.  Which can be a bit hard to say.

/ʤ/ and /ʧ/

​All right. OK, the next ones we’re going to look at are /ʤ/ and /ʧ/. So, these are consonant sounds. So far, we’ve been looking at vowel sounds and now we’re going to look at some consonant sounds. These are what we call voiced and unvoiced consonants. What that means is the /ʤ/ sound, like a Jeep. I produce that in my throat, I make a vibration. You can test this, put your hand on your throat and you say, /ʤ/. You should feel the vibration.  but if I take another word like cheap /ʧ/, I’m not making this sound in my throat, I’m making this sound in my mouth. If I put my hand on my throat again and I compare it to you should feel a difference in the vibration. And it’s where you’re producing the sound. So, my mouth is doing exactly the same thing. You should feel your tongue coming into the middle and being behind your teeth. Try saying cha cha cha. It’s a good way to practise it.

/s/, /ʃ/ and /z/

​We’re going to finish today with some final consonant sounds and something called a tongue twister. This is something which is difficult to say quickly. Tongue twisters are a really great to help you practise your pronunciation. So we’re going to look at these three sounds, which are very often represented by the letter S.
OK, so we have /s/, /ʃ/, and /z/. /s/ is, like a snake. To do that you should feel your tongues is pressing up a little bit in your mind. It’s not quite touching the roof of your mouth and resting between your teeth. The second sound is /ʃ/ of should. So, think about when you want someone to be quiet. When I do this, my lips are going to go round a little bit. And the last time we’re looking at here is the /z/sound like you get in nose. So this is a bit of a nasal sound and you should feel a vibration. And this part of your tongue is touching the top of your mouth, right? So, here’s my challenge for you., we’re going to finish with a tongue twister. I’m going to say it slowly one time and then you can repeat it with me.  I’ve highlighted all the colours for you. So if you see an orange s, that’s because it’s got to be a /s/, if you see a blue one that’s got to be a /ʃ/. And if you see a green one, that’s because we’re making the /z/.
OK, so when you see the letter S, especially at the end of a word, is very often this /z/ an end of a word. OK, that’s your homework. Try and practice it to get that fast. Right.


​Everything we’ve done today, even if it’s a difficult sound for you to produce, you can produce it. All humans have the same physiology. We have the same abilities to create sounds. It’s just that you’re not used to hearing or producing those sounds. So, I want you to think about it as training. You have to take your mouth to the pronunciation gym. The more you practise this, the easier it’s going to get. And I also really recommend practicing the sounds in front of a mirror, because when you’re looking at a mirror, you’re going to see what shapes you’re making with your mouth.

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