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