Mouth Gym Part 1: What to train

“I can’t make that sound”. Millions of language learners all over the world would have said or thought this at least once. I know many of my students have. Several have asked me what they can do to improve, so the next two posts will give some advice.

Pronunciation is hard in any foreign language, as there are usually new sounds (phonemes) to practise and master that don’t exist in our own. As Professor Dweck’s Mindset theory suggests (one of my favourite topics), adding the word “yet” to this would improve our chances: “I can’t make that sound yet”. This implies that it can be done in the future. After all, why not? What’s stopping you?

“We all have the same speech organs to produce the sounds we become accustomed to” (Kelly, 2000, p.4).

As long as you have lips, a tongue and a jaw in fully working order, there is no reason why you can’t produce all the sounds in the English language, given enough focused, consistent practice. Sounds are made by moving many parts of the mouth to shape the air we exhale. We should look at the movements of the mouth just like any other physical exercises: the more you train these muscle movements, the more natural they will become. You can do sit-ups to strengthen your abdominals; so why can’t you apply the principles of physical training to mouth movements and pronunciation? We’re going to do just that!

So, which sounds in English are most commonly mispronounced by foreign speakers?

Swan and Smith’s Learner English (2nd ed., 2001) is an outstanding resource here, as it has chapters on most major languages and how they affect the English learner. My DOS at IH Riga Ian Raby led a very useful teacher training session at the start of term on Russian L1 interference in class and gave us a copy of the Russian chapter, which has been extremely handy since. Below, I’ll focus on trends from Russian, French, Spanish and German, as these are the languages I’ve encountered most in teaching.

English Vowel Sounds often cause problems

  • /ɪ/ (hit) vs /ɪ:/ (heat)

⁃ French only has one sound, somewhere between the two.

⁃ Spanish confuses the two.

⁃ Russian shortens the long vowels – “How do you fill?” (feel)


  • /e/ (men) vs /æ/ (man)

– German problem

– French problem

– Russian problem *We spent a loooong time drilling this in class the other night, with varying degrees of success.


  • /ʌ/ (cup)

– French pronounces it as /ə/ – “Do you have mirch?” (much).

– Spanish confuses this with /a:/ (carp) or /æ/ (cap).


  • /ɔː/ (port, caught)

– German confuses it with /əʊ/ (coat)

– Spanish confuses it with /ɒ/ (pot, cot)


  • /ʊ/ (pull) vs. /ʊ:/ (pool)

French only has one sound, somewhere between the two.

– Spanish confuses both with /u/ (cup).


Completely new sounds

Many sounds simply don’t exist in learners’ L1s. To take one example that I encounter EVERY day:

  • /θ/ (think) and /ð/ (mother)

– Russian and French replace these with /z/ (zoo) or /ʒ/ (pleasure). “Zis mozher zinks zat ze zing is ze best”.

(Although, according to several sociolinguistics experts, this sound may disappear in the next 50 years.)

So what can we do?

As mentioned before, pronunciation is just the final product of exact mouth movements, so as with any other type of movement (running, swimming, sit-ups etc.), we need to practice these exact movements in order to improve them.

The next blog will address these problematic sounds with specific exercises.

Next blog post: MOUTH GYM PART 2: HOW TO TRAIN?



Kelly, G., 2000. How to Teach Pronunciation, Harlow: Pearson Education.

Swan, M. and Smith, B. (eds.), 2001. Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



2 thoughts on “Mouth Gym Part 1: What to train

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