Category Archives: Enunciation

Frickin’ Fricatives

Not too long ago, I made a shocking discovery….

When I first started teaching English as a foreign language, I was constantly  reminding students about “subject-verb agreement.”  This means plural subjects like “they” or “my students” are paired with plain, plural verbs. For example, “They like pizza,” or “My students are dedicated.” On the other hand, singular subjects like “he” including mass nouns like “my family” require singular verbs, which often have an s ending. For example, “He likes pizza,” or “My family is supportive.”  But this article is not about subject-verb agreement!  Keep reading…

I had mistakenly believed that the s ending on singular verbs was confusing. What surprised me however, was that my students were leaving off s endings when they were reading aloud.  At first, I thought that this pattern of leaving off the s was so ingrained that the students were just in the habit of not pronouncing it.  That’s when I made a shocking discovery…

“My students were pronouncing the s, just not forcibly enough for my English ears to hear!

Now, I teach my students to use enough power to make their S audible. Click To Tweet

FHW Santa 2012 006


Frickin’ Fricatives

The s sound belongs to a class of sounds called fricatives.  Fricatives require air to pass forcefully through a narrow opening.  A lot of these sounds present challenges to English language learners. Let’s take a look at these frickin* fricatives:  

f, v, th, s, z, sh, and zj

Phonetic representations, and examples of words with these sounds at the beginning, middle and end:

f (unvoiced) /f/ as in fin, elephant, and laugh
v (voiced) /v/ as in vase, seven, and love
th (unvoiced) θ as in thin, marathon,  and with
th (voiced) ð as in the, father, and breathe
s (unvoiced) /s/ as in see, listen, and voice
z (voiced) /z/ as in zoo, busy, and nose
sh (unvoiced) ʃ as in she, ocean, and push
zj (voiced) ʒ as in Jacques, usual, and beige

Some linguists include /h/ as a fricative. The h  sound is produced with an open mouth naturally allowing more air to pass and making it easier to produce the correct sound. So, for this reason I have excluded it. H is friendlier than the frustrating frickin’ fricatives listed above.

Finding your voice

The first step to speaking good English is to adopt good English-speaking habits. Many English language learners are still using first language rules, especially politeness rules.

Think about it.  Is your English being sabotaged by any of the following ideas?

∗It’s impolite to show your tongue. In English the short a /ae/ vowel as in fast, man, and cat is open so wide that the tongue can be seen.  Additionally, both the /th/ sounds require the tongue to go all the way in between the front teeth.

Watch Rachel’s English demonstration of the /th/ sounds below:

∗Don’t show your teeth. This idea is similar to the one above.  A proper f , v, and long e sound should show your teeth.

∗Don’t allow others to feel or smell your breath when you speak. Keep your mouth clean and breath fresh so you can confidently enunciate fricatives and push air strongly through small openings using the teeth, lips, and tongue.

∗Don’t speak too loudly. A good rule of thumb* is to match the level of those you are speaking with.  Professional speakers and singers have learned to speak from the diaphragm, the muscle in the center of  your chest. Learning to use this muscle gives you more power and reduces stress on your voice.

Watch Rachel explain where sounds are placed in American English:

∗DO ignore these unhelpful rules which are interfering with your English pronunciation.

Develop your English persona

Sometimes when a student has a so-called* “accent problem,” it is due to a strong sense of self rooted in their first language. A successful professional may feel undignified, foolish, or even rude making some of the mouth and tongue positions required for clear English sounds.

If your accent is causing you concern, allow yourself to create an English image.  Your English persona is allowed to break the speaking “rules” that your native-language self uses. Students have even told me that their personality changes a little when they are speaking English.  Those students have an English persona!

Don’t get me wrong!* I’m not advocating a personality change.  I’m saying speaking  and politeness rules differ across languages.  I’m encouraging you to break free of constraints. Be true to who you are.  Just be an English-speaking you!

Note: English is active!  Think of English as a sport for your face!  Grab some gum and watch my Double Bubble Train Your Face video to practice making the tongue positions opening your mouth wide enough for clear English.

Lessons for Learning/Teaching

Now let’s practice those frickin’ fricatives.

Here is a fun role play I found at ESL  Work in pairs (students play one role while another student or tutor plays the other).

A: Call to order a pizza.

B: Wrong number. You sell pitas, not pizzas.

Final F Bingo, 4 players  (print out the Bingo cards and cut out the three colored tiles at the bottom of the page). One player is selected as the “caller.” Each of the other three players have a picture card.  The caller draws one tile at a time and calls out the word. The other players mark the corresponding picture.  The first player to get three in a row (in any direction, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal) calls out “Bingo!” and must read back the words on the winning row. Players take turns being the caller.

Medial F Bingo this game is played like Final F Bingo, but with words with the /f/ sound in the middle

Shop and Chop: Practice with fricatives and affricates, by Jennifer Lebedev of English with Jennifer. Several activities using  sh/ʃ/ and zj/ʒ/.  Print the instructions and student worksheets here.

And last but not least* Tongue Twisters are excellent (and fun) for pronunciation training and practice.

Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEG  That’s it!  Michele

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Double Bubble Train Your Face

English is a sport for your face! Proper pronunciation requires A LOT of movement of the tongue, lips, jaw and diaphragm.  I am excited to present a video tutorial which will show you a FUN and effective way to train your face for English!  This is great training for English language learners, singers, people who  have to communicate over the phone or Skype a lot, and those who speak in public.

After watching several impressive teachers in action (Bill Acton, Marsha Chan, and the fictional Mr. Miyagi) I was reminded of several truths. First: Stretching is essential for any activity.  This is true for speaking and singing as well.  Another important point not mentioned in my video tutorial is:  Breathing from the diaphragm will give you more oxygen, will help you relax and give you more power for speaking, singing, and living! (How to Breathe With Your Diaphragm).  I was also inspired by Tim Gallwey, a tennis coach who has become famous for his concept and book titled, “The Inner Game.”  Gallwey realized that athletes were over-thinking things and their mind was actually interfering with what their body “knew” to do naturally.

So, by focusing on something other than pronunciation, you will be able to build strength and flexibility in the muscles you need for better enunciation.*

Tips For Blowing a Good Bubble
  • Start with a clean mouth   Food particles will damage the integrity of the gum; the food will absorb some of the gum and the gum will literally fall apart. 
  • Gum can be over-chewed   Once the gum gets too hard it is more difficult to smooth and flatten into your “gum pancake”
  • More gum is better for double (or triple bubbles) But the thicker the bubble, the more difficult it will be to see the second bubble inside.
  • Don’t give up!  Any new skill takes practice. If your jaws and face get tired, you know they got a good workout!  Keep on training!


Here are the varieties of gum that I tested for this tutorial (please share in the comment section below if you have a favorite that is not listed):

Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEGSeal of Approval   Bubble Yum sugarless, and Extra Classic Bubble sugarfree…This gum was a nice rubbery consistency after just a couple of minutes of chewing! This means you won’t have to spend 20 minutes or more chewing out all of the flavoring.  One piece works for a single bubble.  I used two pieces for a double bubble.

Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEGSeal of Approval   Hubba Bubba  I tried the Bubble Tape as well the “MAX” Strawberry Watermelon flavor you see in the video.  I used about 16″ (sixteen inches = 40.6 centimeters) of the tape variety, which has a lot of powder that got all over my hands and subsequently my keyboard.  🙁  I used two pieces of the MAX, either variety works well for double and triple bubble blowing.

Orbit Bubblemint flavor, sugar free.  I found this gum to be similar to the Project 7 gum that I demonstrate in my video.  It is soft and chewy but doesn’t hold up* well and doesn’t make large even bubbles.

.       The Gum Wall, Seattle, WA

Project 7 Gourmet Gum sugar free… This gum helps support a good cause: anti-bullying programs.  As a general rule, gum that does not say “bubble gum” doesn’t work well for blowing bubbles.  Unfortunately, Project 7 gum (although delicious) is not ideal for bubble gum blowing.

Trident sugar free bubblegum….took 3 pieces and wasn’t very hard, had to chew it for a long time (over ten minutes). Again, not ideal for bubble gum blowing.

 My Take On it

My training is in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.  I have given many lectures, made presentations, and was a travelling singer and radio newscaster in college. I have NOT been trained to do speech therapy.  So, if you have TMJ, Down’s Syndrome, have had a stroke, or brain injury, or have any other physical or medical concern which affects your ability to produce sound, or open and close your mouth, talk to your doctor or therapist before beginning this training.

And have fun and take my double bubble challenge!

Thanks, Michele