Having selected common problematic sounds in English, the most important thing is what we can do to improve these things. The foundations of this whole exercise should adhere to principles of Dweck’s Mindset theory: focused practice, belief in the possibility to improve, re-labelling “failure” as a stepping stone to success. Once we move the tongue and lips correctly, the sounds will be produced. We can train our bodies to get fitter; we can train our mouths to pronounce English in the same way.
As discussed in the previous blog post, English vowels cause problems for learners over a range of first languages. Standard practice is to train these vowel sounds in alphabetical order: A E I O U, and tackle others individually. However, this doesn’t align with the biomechanics of how we produce sounds. Instead, the MOUTH GYM groups vowel sounds according to tongue position. Get the lip shape right too, feel the position of the jaw, and you’ll be there. Excuse my mucky lips and 5 o’clock shadow in the short videos, but nothing I could find on google could do the lip shapes justice!
So, let’s go. Tongue position + lip shape + jaw = sound.
Group 1 – Close Vowels
Tongue is quite high in the mouth.
front ———— – – – – – – -back (Where sound is produced in mouth)
/ɪ:/ /ɪ/ /ʊ/ /u:/
tea tin good fruit
- Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Notice how your lip shape changes for each one, starting off spread and becoming rounder for each sound.
- Try repeating this sentence more and more quickly: tea tin full of good fruit
Group 2 – Mid Vowels
Tongue is in the middle of the mouth (not high or low).
front —————- – – – – – – – – -back
/e/ /ə/ /3:/ /ɔː/
egg banana sirve fork
- Drill the individual sounds like in the video – Adrian Underhill calls /ə/ and /3:/ the ‘idiots’ sounds’, so make a face like an idiot (feel how relaxed everything is) and push out some air. /ɔː/ has the tongue as far back as possible, and the lips as far forward as possible – feel that distance!
- Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: eggs and bananas served on a fork. Elastic lips!!
Group 3 – Open Vowels
Tongue is low in the mouth.
front —————- – – – – – – – – -back
/æ/ /ʌ/ /a:/ /ɒ/
cat uncle aunt dog
- Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Again, feel how the lip shape changes, how far the jaw is open or closed. Not quite right? Modify, try, modify, try…
- Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: cat’s uncle is aunt’s dog.
Group 4 – Diphthong Vowels
Lips and tongue move – start with the first sound, finish with the second.
/eɪ/ /aɪ/ /əʊ/ /ʊə/
rake fight don’t cure
- Drill the individual sounds like in the video. Feel the transition for the first sound to the second – /e/…/ɪ/…/eɪ/
- Try repeating the sentence more and more quickly: rake fights don’t cure.
Not to forget the pesky sound that doesn’t exist in Russian or French…
Group 5 – th
It’s all about the tongue! Get it between your top and bottom teeth! You’ll be pleased to know that my own mouth just didn’t show the tongue position clearly enough, so here’s a diagram instead:
Notice how the voiced /θ/ comes from between the teeth, and the unvoiced /ð/ comes from the voice box somewhere down the throat. Put your hand on the throat and feel the vibration!
- Start with a /f/ – feel the top teeth bite down on the bottom lip. Make the sound. Put your tongue where your bottom lip was for the /f/ and repeat – you should now be making a voiced /θ/.
- Practice the two individual sounds alone, again and again: TH th TH th TH th TH th TH th TH th. Fell that throat and how it buzzes for the voiced th!
- Try some tongue twisters (no z or zh sounds!) like this: Those THousand THinkers there were THinking how the other THousand THieves got THrough.
PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT, BUT PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
- TONGUE POSITION
- LIP SHAPE
REMEMBER, IF YOU’RE NOT MAKING THE SOUNDS CORRECTLY, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH YOUR MOUTH, YOU JUST NEED TO MOVE SOMETHING A LITTLE AND TRY AGAIN.
I HOPE IT’S USEFUL!