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May 20, 2004 - Lida Baker: Voiced and Voiceless Sounds in English - 2004-05-20

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: May 20, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- helping English learners find their voice.

RS: It's time for our monthly visit with English teacher Lida Baker in Los Angeles. Today she has advice about how to master sounds that are often a source of confusion for students learning English.

AA: In linguistic jargon they're called voiced and voiceless sounds.

BAKER: "When we talk about voiced and voiceless sounds, what we're talking about primarily are consonant pairs in English where you have two sounds that are identical, except that one has vibration in the throat and the other doesn't."

AA: "Like park and bark."

BAKER: "Park and bark. Peach and beach. Pears and bears. Arabic speakers, for the most part -- generally the Arabic language does not have a 'phh' sound, the p, at the beginnings of words. So it is hard for an Arabic student to pronounce a word like 'pears.' So if an Arabic speaker says 'there are bears in the garden,' he might think that he's referring to a fruit. But what an English speaker hears is that there is a big scary animal.

"If a German speaker says 'I'm choking,' the German speaker might mean that he is, in fact, joking. But Germans are not able, for the most part again, to pronounce a 'j' sound at the beginning of words, because the German language just doesn't have that. So what they'll do is substitute the 'ch' at the beginning of the word. And then you have the comprehension difficulty. Is he saying 'I'm choking' or 'I'm joking,' see? [laughter] So this could potentially lead to some unintended consequences."

RS: "So what do you do? You first recognize that you've got a problem or there's an issue?"

BAKER: "Well, you can't take that step for granted. The first step, in fact, is consciousness raising, where when you have people learning English, it's important to make them aware of the sound differences between their language and the English language. They don't know that there is a problem -- that, you know, English has two sounds where their language has only one sound. So the first step would be to simply make them aware of these differences."

RS: "They can actually feel it, right?"

BAKER: "That's right. You can feel it. The way to do is -- and all the people in our listening audience should play along with me now -- open up your hand and put it on your throat, and say 'bhh.'"

RS & AA: "Bhh."

BAKER: "Now what do you feel in your throat?"

AA: "Vibration."

BAKER: "Vibration. You feel something moving. You know what that is? That's your vocal cords, and there are two vocal cords, and they actually vibrate like the strings on a violin or a guitar. Now, in contrast to that, say 'phh' -- "

AA: "Pah."

BAKER: "Now don't say 'pah.' Because of the vowel. You see, all vowels are voiced. So just say 'phh.'"

AA: "Yeah, no vibration."

BAKER: "No vibration."

RS: "Nothing there."

BAKER: "Or here are some other voiceless sounds: ssssss."

RS & AA: "Ssssss."

BAKER: "No vibration, right?"

AA: "No."

RS: "Nothing."

BAKER: "Now say 'muh.'"

RS: "Oh, there you can feel it."

BAKER: "You can feel it. So it's very easy to help students to distinguish between voiced and voiceless sounds just by having them do this physical action of putting their hand on their throat. And you can practice starting with minimal pairs like peach/beach, jeep/cheap for German speakers, or leaf/leave. Speakers of many languages have difficulty with the voiced/voiceless pair of 'f' and 'v,' especially at the ends of words, OK?

"And then you start expanding into phrases and finally into sentences. And you can do this in a very controlled way, in the form of drills. But eventually what you want to do is give students more open and communicative contexts in which some of these minimal pairs might arise."

RS: "You can feel the difference. But can you hear the difference?"

BAKER: "After this consciousness-raising phase, where students become aware of the existence of voiced and voiceless pairs, the next step would be to do exercises where we're asking them to hear the differences. So one of my favorite activities is, I'll say something like 'there are pears in the garden.' And what I'll instruct them to do is to hold up one finger if they hear the voiceless -- the 'phh' -- and hold up two fingers if they hear the voiced, or 'bhh.' It's a wonderful activity, because the students are getting feedback from one another, instead of the teacher having to say 'that's right/that's wrong.'"

AA: Lida Baker writes textbooks for English learners and teaches in the American Language Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

RS: You can find her previous segments on our Web site, And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.