How to use your body to pronounce English better

Chris Parker
An article that teaches ESL learners proper pronunciation by using the body, as well as the differences between vowels and consonants

While learning English as a non-native speaker, you may be struggling to correctly pronounce certain sounds, which can confuse other English speakers and cause misunderstandings. Most of the time, these issues are due to not knowing how to use your body to make these sounds, though, with a little know-how and practice, it can easily be corrected. So, if this is something that you’ve been having trouble with, here are some tips on how you should use your body to improve pronunciation.

Articulators: what are they and how are they used?

Articulation is simply the concept of using different parts of your body to produce distinctive sounds, and articulators are the specific parts you use. Your tongue, nose, and vocal cords are all examples of articulators, as well as your teeth and the hard palate in the roof of your mouth.

As an example, to make the /l/ sound, such as the first sound heard in the word “lap,” you’re using multiple articulators. To make this sound, you must press your tongue up against the roof of your mouth while you simultaneously push air out of your lungs and make a sound in your larynx, which involves the vocal cords. So, to produce the /l/ sound, you’re using many different articulators (your tongue, lungs, larynx, and the roof of your mouth).

Vowels and consonants: how are they articulated?

To further understand articulation, you have to have at least some basic knowledge of both vowels and consonants, as well as how consonants can differ by group. These are common parts of speech found in the English language, and articulation is how we pronounce them differently.

Vowels

A vowel is any speech sound that is made without stopping airflow, though they still involve the use of articulators, such as the vocal cords. The articulation of vowels is often easy for English teachers to demonstrate, and you may be able to see this yourself when speaking in front of a mirror because the mouth is typically open while the lip movements involved are visible. 

Consonants

These are speech sounds made by obstructing air, whether partially or fully. These can be a bit trickier for someone else to demonstrate to you or see when in front of a mirror because most of the articulation is taking place inside the mouth, which isn’t always visible.

Consonant Groups

Consonants can be separated into different groups based on how your body produces the sounds. There are many different consonants, but they all fall under one of the following five groups.

Plosive

A consonant that’s made by using an articulator (e.g. the lips or teeth) to stop airflow before suddenly releasing it. In the word “pin,” the /p/ sound is a plosive.

Fricative

A consonant where air is only partially obstructed to create friction, such as the /f/ sound in “fire” and the /z/ sound in “zebra.”

Affricate

A consonant that starts with fully obstructed airflow, similar to a plosive, but then involves a release of airflow, similar to a fricative. The /ch/ sound in “cheese” and the /j/ sound in “jump” are both examples of affricates.

Approximant

A consonant where one articulator is brought close to another to allow air to escape, but without any friction. The /w/ sound heard in the word “wet” is an approximant.

Nasal

A consonant where airflow is completely obstructed in the mouth and released through the nose. The /n/ sound at the beginning of the word “nice” is an example of this, as is the /ng/ sound heard at the end of the word “song.”

Distinguishing minimal pairs with articulation

Minimal pairs can be quite confusing for those learning English as a second language. These are any two words that mean completely different things but that only have a very minor difference in how they are pronounced.

“Tip” and “dip” are two examples of minimal pairs, as their pronunciation only differs at the beginning of each word, and they otherwise sound similar. Articulation, or using different parts of your body, is what makes the difference between how these two words sound.

Articulation techniques

One of the best ways to learn how to articulate different sounds, especially consonants, is by learning the following techniques and practicing them with different minimal pairs.

Technique #1: Voicing vs. voiceless

When saying the /t/ sound in the word “tip,” think of this as having your voice “turned off.” You’re not using your vocal cords to produce a sound. All of the sound is coming from the front of your mouth where your tongue is pressed against the roof just behind your top front teeth, and air being pushed out from your lungs is helping to produce the sound here.

Now, when you say the /d/ sound in the word “dip,” your tongue is in the exact same position, but your vocal cords are also being used to produce the sound. Your voice is therefore turned “on,” and if you hold your hand to your throat while saying this word, you’ll feel a slight vibration that you won’t feel when saying the word “tip.”

Technique #2: Fronting vs. backing

Other minimal pairs might sound different because of the position of your articulators. The words “torn” and “corn” both sound similar aside from the first sound of each word, and unlike the previous example, neither of these two sounds use voicing.

The /k/ and /t/ sounds are both voiceless sounds where your voice is “turned off,” and it’s the position of your tongue that makes the difference here. To pronounce the /k/ sound, your tongue is pressed against the back part of the roof of your mouth, whereas it’s pressed against the front part near the upper teeth when saying the /t/ sound.

This concept of repositioning the tongue in different areas of the mouth is called fronting and backing. The /s/ sound in the word “snake” is another example where fronting is used, while the /k/ sound in the word “kite” is an example of backing.

Technique #3: Rounding

Another way we can distinguish some sounds is by rounding our lips into a circular shape. The minimal pairs “sip” and “ship” sound similar except for the initial /s/ and /sh/ sounds. These two sounds are different because the lips are only rounded when making the /sh/ sound.

If you push air out from your lungs through your mouth while making the /s/ sound and then transition to the /sh/ sound without stopping this airflow, you can easily notice the difference if you’re doing it correctly because your lips will go from a widened and horizontal position to a more circular or oval one.

Technique #4: Stopping

With many of the previous examples, there was also the technique of stopping involved. Stopping is when you use your tongue, teeth, or other articulators to stop airflow, which produces a distinctive sound. Think of how “sip” and “tip” sound differently, as the /s/ sound still allows more air to escape the mouth than the /t/ sound.

Oral stops vs. nasal stops

When airflow is obstructed in this way, as it is with the /t/ sound, it’s called an oral stop. When it’s obstructed completely in the mouth but can still flow out through the nose, it’s called a nasal stop. The /n/ sound when saying the word “night” is an example of a nasal stop, as well as the /m/ sound in the word “mouse.”

Combining multiple articulation techniques

In many cases, you’ll need to combine multiple articulation techniques to pronounce words differently. When saying the words “cot” and “dot,” it’s both the concepts of voicing vs. voiceless and fronting vs. backing that make the difference between the sounds of these two words.

The /k/ sound in “cot” is pronounced with the tongue in the back of the mouth (backing) while not using the vocal cords (voiceless). The /d/ sound in “dot,” however, involves moving the tongue to the front of the mouth (fronting) while producing sound between the vocal cords (voicing).

The /d/ sound in “door” sounds distinctively different from the /t/ sound in “tour” because it combines both voicing and stopping techniques, whereas the /t/ sound is voiceless, so it therefore only involves the technique of stopping.

Pair these techniques with replication

Learning correct pronunciation by using your body can take time, as articulation is an acquired skill that usually takes months of practice for adults and years for young children. You should take the time to learn the different English consonants and vowels and practice the previously mentioned techniques as you learn each one. While doing this, you should also be paying attention to how native speakers pronounce sounds and use what you’ve learned in this guide to replicate what you hear.

See also:

Written by Chris Parker for EnglishClub.com
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.
© EnglishClub.com

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