How to Use Minimal Pairs to Improve your English Pronunciation
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
By Dr. Linh Phung
While sounding like a native speaker may be an unrealistic and unnecessary goal for many English learners all over the world because of the nature of international communication, it is important to improve your pronunciation so that your speaking is clear and understandable. In addition, many English speaking exams have the pronunciation criterion in their grading rubric. For example, pronunciation is one of the four criteria in the IELTS speaking exam with the other three being (1) fluency and coherence, (2) lexical resource, and (3) grammatical range and accuracy. While pronunciation includes many features including syllable stress, word stress, intonation, and prosody, the pronunciation of sounds also plays an important role in making a speech more comprehensible.
To acquire and improve the pronunciation of sounds in English, the first step usually involves being able to hear the differences among sounds of the target language. Some of these sounds may not exist in your first language, making it more difficult to hear the differences and pronounce the differences among them. Failure to pronounce certain sounds may cause funny sentences in English although a sensitive listener should not make fun of this. For example, “She’s sleeping” has a totally different meaning from “She’s slipping.” “Let’s heat it” is different from “Let’s hit it.” These sentences have these minimal pairs: sleep/slip and heat/hit.
What are minimal pairs?
Minimal pairs are words that differ because of one sound in each word. Let’s look at a few more examples.
Minimal pairs with two different vowels
Minimal pairs with two different consonants
How to use these minimal pairs to practice English pronunciation?
When learners have difficulty with hearing the differences among these pairs of sounds, they can make use of these minimal pairs to practice. Here are a few activities with minimal pairs that I suggest.
1. List the minimal pairs and find pronunciation of those words
If you’d like to practice the long ee sound as in sheep and the short i as in ship, you may search for minimal pairs on the internet or make your own list. Notice that I’m not using IPA (International Phonetic Association) transcription here just because it’s easier to write the sounds with letters like this. It’s not because I don’t know IPA. Here is a list of 12 pairs.
Long ee Short i
When you have a list, you may use an online dictionary with pronunciation to hear these words. If you’d like to hear more examples of how people say these words, search for videos on Youglish.com, and you may find thousands of videos using these words by many different voices and people. In fact, research has shown that the more voices and accents you hear, the more likely you’ll notice the differences and acquire the sounds.
2. Practice with a friend
Now that you have a list of minimal pairs, you may practice with a friend by sharing the list. One of you will pick a word from a pair to read aloud, and the other person will need to identify the word they hear. If there’s disagreement, you may discuss why. You may also create sentences with these minimal pairs like the examples below.
I’m feeling it.
I’m filling it.
Let’s heat it.
Let’s hit it.
Similarly, one person can try to read a sentence, and the other one has to pick a sentence based on what they hear.
This activity will push you to pronounce these sounds more accurately so that the listener can identify what you mean to say. In language learning, struggling with the language is beneficial. So is interaction with others.
As a gift, I created some colorful cards with these minimal pairs for English learners or parents and children to use together. You may download it HERE, print it, and make your cards to practice and play together. Please feel free to share this handout, but please credit Eduling. A link is also posted on our webpage: www.eduling.org/resources.
3. Create tasks with these minimal pairs
If you want to go further with these minimal pairs, create some tasks in which one person gives instructions and the other person does something based on the instructions. The listener has to listen carefully because of minimal pairs in the instructions. Likewise, the speaker has to pronounce certain words carefully so as not to confuse the listener. My app Eduling Speak may add these kinds of tasks in the future for you to “struggle” with these sounds together in order to acquire them. Stay tuned for our new tasks on the app.
There are many videos on pronunciation on YouTube, so I’m sure you’ll be able to search for suitable ones to listen to. In terms of the ee and i sounds, I find this one easy to follow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gme2kr9hhXg&t=192s
If you’re determined to understand dictionary transcription, the IPA chart may be helpful. Here’s a good website explaining it: https://www.cambridge.org/features/IPAchart/
I personally like the Color Vowel Chart by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson if you’d like to master the vowel system in American English. You may download the chart here: https://americanenglish.state.gov/resources/color-vowel-chart
What sounds are you struggling with? Do you have ideas or materials to share? Head out to Eduling’s Facebook group to ask questions and interact with other learners. If you’d like to practice speaking in pairs using topics and games already prepared for you, try the Eduling Speak app. There are conversation topics, IELTS topics, picture description tasks, crosswords, and many more games and tasks there.
More about Dr. Linh Phung: Dr. Phung has been teaching English to international students at a university in the US for over 11 years. She is also the founder of Eduling International and creator of the Eduling Speak app. With Eduling, has been teaching students online from many parts of the world. Apart from teaching and creating, she does research in task-based language teaching, learner engagement, and other second language learning topics. She’s also a children’s book author with the book Tug of Words (English only) or Tug of Words: Trò chơi kéo co ngôn ngữ (English-Vietnamese) available on Amazon. She’s a volunteer leader of TESOL International Association.
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