Thursday, February 20, 2014

Listening Training for /r/ Versus the Trilled /r/

by Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP
Pronouncing the American /r/

If there is one sound that nearly all my students have trouble pronouncing, it is the American English /r/. It's a difficult and unusual sound, and most English learners tend to substitute their own language's version of /r/.

Since the best place to start is with listening training, Here are practice recordings for the American /r/ contrasted with the "trilled" or "rolled" /r/. Many, many languages use the "trilled" /r/: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Polish, Thai, Afrikaans, Greek, Czech, Dutch, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, some dialects of German and French, some dialects of English, and more! If one of these languages is your native language, and you still have trouble with /r/ in English, then this page is for you!

Without looking at the answer, listen to each pair of words, and decide which word is correct, the first or second one. Don't peek at the answer until you have decided for yourself!

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Listening Training for /r/ for Chinese Speakers

by Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP

In this post I talked about how important it is to practice if you want to change your pronunciation habits. I also mentioned that the best place to start is with listening training. If you can't hear the correct pronunciation of a sound, you will not be able to tell whether you are pronouncing it correctly yourself!

Here are some recordings designed to help you develop an ear for the English /r/, designed especially for Chinese speakers. Without looking at the answer, listen to each pair of words, and decide which word is correct, the first or second one. (Since these recordings are designed for Chinese speakers, the incorrect word will have something like the Chinese equivalent to /r/.) Don't peek at the answer until you have decided for yourself!

1. Hover here to see answer

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pronunciation Guide for English Vowels

by Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP

What is the hardest part of learning English?

Compared with other languages, probably the spelling. It's so unpredictable that even one spelling sequence ("ough") can be pronounced 10 different ways!

And what is the hardest part of English spelling?

The vowels. The way vowels are spelled is much more inconsistent than consonants.

So, I made you a Pronunciation Guide for English Vowels, including diphthongs, complete with recordings.

Link to Pronunciation Guide for English Vowels

Friday, December 13, 2013

4 Rules for Pronouncing Grammatical Endings

by Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP

Knowing how to pronounce all the different grammatical endings in English can be confusing.  Here are some guidelines to help you know how to pronounce regular plural, possessive, and past-tense grammatical endings.

1.  If the end of the word is a voiceless sound, pronounce the plural or possessive as s and the past tense as t.

packs                           cat’s                           biked

2.  If the end of the word is a voiced sound, pronounce the plural or possessive as z and the past tense as d.

stoves                       dog’s                       robbed

3.  As an exception to these rules, if the end of the word is s, z, sh, zh, ch, or j/g2, pronounce the plural or possessive as ez.  (The reason for this is that those sounds are too similar to /s/ and /z/ to pronounce back-to-back.)

mazes                  cases                           beaches                  George’s

4.  If the end of a word is t or d, pronounce the past tense (-ed) as ed.

dotted                  melted                  traded                  plodded

Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Practice Pronunciation

by Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP

I can tell you how to hold your tongue to pronounce r or th.  But even if you understand me perfectly, unfortunately you won't walk away and never have those pronunciation problems again.

The reason is that pronunciation is a result of muscle memory, and muscle memory doesn't change without practice, practice, practice.

Not just any practice will do, either.  Here are some steps for correctly learning any new pronunciation skill.  Be sure to master each level before moving on to the next!

1.  Be able to hear the difference between the target sound and the sound you confuse it with.
For example, listen to the words "read" and "lead" (if r and l sound similar to you), and decide which one had r.  This step is essential, because you must be able to tell if you're pronouncing a sound right in order to practice correctly at the more advanced levels!
2.  Learn to pronounce it by itself.
For example, "rrrrr."  This post is an example of the kind of training you need to pronounce a sound by itself.  At this level, a trained speech professional is most helpful to let you know whether you are pronouncing the sound correctly or not.
3.  Pronounce it in single words.
Try different words to make sure you can pronounce it in a variety of contexts. For example, "robot," "rag," "read."
4.  Pronounce it in sentences.
Again, use various words and sentences. For example, "I read the review on robots," and "Robert really likes rain."
5.  Pronounce it in conversation.
Once you have mastered all the previous levels, you reach the hardest part.  Using new pronunciation skills in conversation the most difficult part because you have to think both about what you're saying and your pronunciation!
You can think of this stage like learning to drive.  When you first learn to drive, the number of things to think about seems overwhelming.  You must pay attention to the pedals, the steering wheel, the rearview mirror, the speedometer, traffic signals, and so on.  Managing all these things takes a lot of focus, and you will definitely make mistakes at first.  Nevertheless, the more you drive, the more automatic it becomes, and soon you can drive with hardly any mental effort.
Using new pronunciation skills in conversation is like driving, because at first it will take a lot of effort.  But the more you practice, the easier and more automatic it will become.  If you keep trying and don't give up, using correct pronunciation will not take any effort!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Introduction to English R

by Amy Schiwitz, M.S., CCC-SLP

The phonemes represented by r in English and most other languages are very, very different. People learning English must learn to position their tongue in a completely new way. This sound is almost always the most challenging sound to pronounce for English learners, whether they are from China, Germany, Kenya, or anywhere else!

Here's a model tongue showing how to position your tongue for American English r:

  • The back of your tongue is high and bunched up, especially along the sides. The sides of the back of your tongue should be pushing up against the bottom of your top teeth (where the black lines are).
  • The tip of your tongue should be low.
The tongue position is relatively the same for r, whether it comes at the beginning of the word ("rain"), after a consonant ("grain"), in the middle of a word ("herd"), or at the end ("wear").

[Note: You may find some pictures of an American English r with the tip of the tongue raised. This is because some Americans slightly raise the tip of their tongue during r--however, they never raise it enough to modify the sound. If English is not your native language, I HIGHLY recommend focusing on keeping your tongue down for r. This is because most people learning English often tend to substitute sounds that depend on the tip of the tongue being raised. Keeping the tip of the tongue down encourages a correct American English r while preventing other incorrect sounds.]

Some examples of incorrect sounds commonly substituted for r in English include:
  • w
  • "rolled" r
  • the Chinese phoneme /ɻ/ (which sounds like /l/ to most American English speakers)
To learn to pronounce r correctly takes lots of practice. Now that you know what position your tongue should be in, you will need to practice hearing and pronouncing the sound yourself.  Next blog post will include sound recordings and/or videos with exercises for learning r.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Free Seminar in Birmingham Area

Free Seminar: 

How to Reduce
Your Foreign Accent

with Amy Schiwitz, MS, CCC-SLP
September 5, 2013  7:00 – 8:00 pm
Emmet O’Neal Library

In this seminar, you will learn:
·      Where an accent comes from
·      The best ways to modify your accent
·      Strategies for improving communication
·      How to pronounce the most difficult sounds in English
Emmet O’Neal Library
50 Oak St
Mountain Brook, AL

Limited seats available: Reservation Required
call (205) 701-3192 to reserve your seat
or email

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Top 10 Pronunciation Problems for Chinese Speakers of English

by Amy Schiwitz, M.S., CCC-SLP

As anyone knows who has tried to learn both English and Chinese, the 2 languages have very different pronunciation!  This is true whether you compare English to Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language.

Here are the top 10 pronunciation difficulties for Chinese speakers who learn English:

1.  Intonation, Stress, and Rhythm

Intonation and rhythm are different in English than in Chinese.  Also, Chinese words usually only have 1 syllable, whereas English words can have up to...well, 19, if you count "Pnuemonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis!"

Of course most words in English aren't that long, but it is common to have 5-6 syllables in an English word.  Many Chinese speakers tend to rush through these long words, trying to say them very fast, which causes them to mispronounce the word.

Practice pronouncing long words slowly, giving yourself time to pronounce all the sounds. Listen to the intonation and rhythm of the English speakers around you, noticing how they use intonation for different meanings.  Try to imitate these patterns as much as you can.  I plan to make a blog post just about intonation soon!

2.  /r/ as in "right."

The consonant /r/ is similar to the Chinese /r/ in some dialects, but still quite different.  To an English speaker, the Chinese /r/ may sound more like the English /l/ sound.  In other words, when you say "right" with a Chinese /r/, English speakers may hear "light."  Depending on your dialect of Chinese, your "right" may sound like "white."

The best thing to do is usually to keep the tip of your tongue low, so that your /r/ won't sound like an /l/.  If your /r/ sounds like a /w/, make sure to keep your lips stretched back and not purse your lips while pronouncing /r/. (I also plan to make an instructional Youtube video about /r/ soon!)

3.  /θ/ as in "think" and /ð/ as in "that"

Chinese does not have these two sounds.  Many of my Chinese students actually know how to produce these sounds, but forget when they are speaking quickly, especially since the /ð/ shows up a lot in small words such as "this," "the," "that," "those," "there," and so on. 

4.  "Consonant clusters," or more than one consonant in a row.

Chinese does not have any "consonant clusters," or more than one consonant in a row.  For example, the words "blue," "truck," and "spring" have consonant clusters.

5.  Consonants at the end of words, especially /b/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/, and /k/.

These sounds are called voiced and voiceless stop consonants, and Chinese has no voiced consonants at the end of words.  English speakers usually differentiate between voiced consonants (/b/, /d/, /g/) and voiceless consonants (/p/, /t/, /k/) by producing a longer vowel for voiced consonants and a shorter vowel for voiceless consonants.

For example, the words "mop" and "mob" would be pronounced exactly the same except the vowel in "mop" would be shorter than the vowel in "mob."  (I also plan to make a video about this concept, since it is hard to demonstrate in writing.)

6.  The consonants /v/ as in "van," /ð/ as in "breathe," /z/, /ʒ/ as in "measure," and /dʒ/ as in "judge."

These sounds are called "voiced fricatives and affricates," and Chinese does not have them.  If you put your fingers on your throat, you should be able to feel your voice vibrating during these sounds.  For example, if you say "fffffff," your voice should not be vibrating, and if you say, "vvvvvvv," you should feel your throat vibrate.

7.  Differentiating between /l/ and /n/.

In my experience, Cantonese speakers and Chinese speakers from the south of China often have trouble differentiating between /l/ and /n/.  In other words, if you say "need," an English speaker might hear "lead."  It is important to keep in mind that for /n/, sound should be directed through your nose, and for /l/, sound should be directed around either side of your tongue.

8.  /l/ at the end of words.

To produce a /l/ at the end of a word like "little," make sure the tip of your tongue is curled up, barely touching the tooth ridge, and that your lips are not rounded.

9.  /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/ at the end of words.

Chinese does include these sounds at the end of words, but they tend to be much shorter.  Emphasize the final consonant in words like "arm," "sun," and "sing."

10.  Pronouncing these vowel pairs differently from each other:
/i/ vs /ɪ/
/e/ vs /ɛ/
/u/ vs /ʊ/
/e/ vs /æ/

Chinese speakers tend to pronounce each of these vowel pairs in an identical way.  Therefore, "sheep"/"ship," "mate"/"met," "shoed"/"should," and "mate"/"mat" may sound the same.

If you can master these 10 things, your English will be very clear!  Learning English pronunciation as a Chinese speaker (or Chinese pronunciation as an English speaker, for that matter) is challenging, and will take lots of practice.  With determination and some guidance, I believe you can do it!  That's why I offer personalized courses over Skype for anyone in the world who is ready to master English pronunciation.  Call +1 (205) 701-3192 today for a free consultation.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Word Stress and the Schwa Vowel

Word stress is very important to English pronunciation. If you can master word stress, it will really help you sound more like a native speaker!

In this video I address how to use word stress and the "schwa" vowel.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spelling and the Phonetic Alphabet

by Amy Schiwitz, M.S., CCC-SLP

Spelling in English is really unpredictable, more so than the spelling of other languages. In some languages, such as Spanish and Polish, each letter usually stands for one predictable speech sound.

In contrast, spelling in English is a rough guide to pronunciation, but it is not reliable! For example, in the these words, seven different letter combinations (underlined) stand for the same vowel sound.

to   two   too   through   chew   blue   shoe

In these words, the same letter a stands for five different vowel sounds.

cake   mat   call   any   sofa

And in these words, the same letter s represents three different consonant sounds.

say   pleasure   design

Sometimes there are letters that make no sound at all! These letters are called “silent letters.”  The underlined letters in the following words are all silent:

bomb   cake   pneumonia   knee   though   debt   receipt

Fortunately, some letters are more consistent than others. Spelling for consonant sounds tends to be more consistent than spelling for vowels sounds in English. The letters b, m, and n only make one sound (but they can be silent). The letter p is always the same way (unless it is combined with the letter h, when it is pronounced as /f/).

Some consonants change pronunciation according to the vowel following it. For example, c is pronounced /s/ when it comes before i, e, or y, as in the words:

citrus   circus   certain   central   cent   cyst

But c is pronounced /k/ when it comes before a, o, and u, or at the end of a word, as in the words:

cake   call   coat   core   cuff   cup   drastic

Predicting how to pronounce vowel sounds is difficult, and sometimes the easiest method is simply to memorize how each word is pronounced!

The Phonetic Alphabet

Because English spelling is so unpredictable, it’s best to use a phonetic alphabet when talking about pronunciation. In a phonetic alphabet, each symbol represents ONE sound, and each sound is represented by ONE symbol.  The International Phonetic Alphabet can be used to represent the pronunciation of any language, and is completely different than spelling!

When you see symbols between forward slashes, they represent speech sounds and are different from the spelling of a word. For example, even though these words all represent the sound /u/ with different spellings, when they are written using the phonetic alphabet, the vowel is written with only one symbol.

 to    two   too   through   chew   blue   shoe

/tu/   /tu/  /tu/  /θru/     /tʃu/  /blu/  /ʃu/

On the other hand, the different sounds represented by the letter s in these words would be represented by different symbols. Compare underlined letters to symbols below:

 say     pleasure   design

/seɪ/   /plɛʒɚ/    /dɪzaɪn/

It isn't necessary to be proficient in the phonetic alphabet to study pronunciation--but it IS helpful to understand what the phonetic alphabet is.

And remember to never, ever trust English spelling if you aren't sure how to pronounce a word!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What to Do When You Don't Understand

by Amy Schiwitz, M.S., CCC-SLP

For someone speaking their second language, the possibility of not understanding what someone says can be stressful, especially if they are in a high-pressure career setting. However, you should remember that native speakers have to clarify their message to each other sometimes too! When you are speaking your own native language, how often do you have to say, "What?  I didn't understand."  Probably every day!

Whether you are just learning your second language, or whether you have become very fluent, you can adopt some strategies that will help you "repair conversation" when you don't understand.

It's important to realize that there are several reasons why confusion can happen during conversation. Most obviously, the listener may not know the vocabulary used by the speaker. But also, the speaker may assume the listener is familiar with a topic even when they're not.  If I assume that my listener is familiar with some popular movie, if they're not they will be confused when I speak about it.  To prevent confusion, I need to briefly explain the movie before discussing it.

If you don't understand something in conversation, it's a good idea to ask questions of clarification. Again, remember that you probably do this even in your native language!

The simplest question of clarification is "What?" This is okay to say if you know someone well, but be careful--a simple "What?" may sound rude in a formal setting.  More polite options are, "Could you repeat that?" or "I'm sorry, I missed that."

However, the best questions of clarification repeat back to the listener at least part of what they just said.  For example:

"During spring break last year I went ~~~~~~."
"I'm sorry, during spring break you went where?"
"I went fishing at my cousin's lake house."

This method is best for clarifying because 1) it shows the speaker you are listening carefully, and 2) it tells the speaker precisely what you missed, so they can repeat that part clearly.

Another way to help prevent confusion is to pay attention to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. Non-verbal cues supplement verbal communication and can fill in the gaps when you don't understand.

You may already use these strategies in your native language without thinking about it. Nevertheless, becoming conscious of conversation repair strategies should help you become an active listener in any language!