Minimal Pairs (redux)

ESL Teachers:  What are your favorite minimal pairs for helping students overcome issues with pronunciation?

For Arabic-speaking students, I like to use “My dog likes to bark in the park.”

For Japanese speakers, I like “I think I see a sink.”

Please comment belong and share your favorites.  Feel free to share any stories that go along with them!

Minimal Pairs

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.

How to Pronounce Foreign Languages

In my own ESL teaching adventures, I find that likening pronunciation to a physical activity (e.g. sports) can be useful.  For example, I will ask if any students play basketball or soccer.  I then ask students if they think they can use the same muscles and skills to win a swimming match.  Of course, they say “no.”  I then explain that they can’t necessarily use their L1 “muscles” to speak their target language (i.e. English), and that they need to develop what I call “English Muscles” in order to play this “sport” well.  The analogy seems to work pretty well.

Today’s online edition of The Telegraph has an article specifically addressing learning to pronounce foreign languages.  What do you think of it?