In Linguistics, minimal pairs are pairs of words (or phrases) in a language which differ by only one element. They can be as useful for learning/practicing the phonology of a language as they are for confusing learners of that language.
As I’ve taught English to international students, I’ve learned that students from different language groups will tend to have different problems with certain sounds. I’ve used minimal pairs to great effect in combating this.
Arabic speakers, for example, often have trouble with the sound |p| as it doesn’t exist in Arabic. Thus, they will often pronounce path and bath the same way. Japanese speakers will often have trouble with l/r or th. Thank and sank will often be pronounced similarly. (To work on this, I try to get them to stick out their tongues. They love this.)
Here are a small handful of the countless minimal pairs in English:
- sit / seat / set
- grid / grade
- too / toe
- pen / pin
- path / bath
- thin / sin
- thin / thing
There are, of course, many (many) more. The next time you learn a new language, try finding minimal pairs in that language. Not only will it help you with phonology, but also vocabulary acquisition.