As mentioned in this question, Gabriel Wyner attaches a lot of importance to minimal pairs in the early stages of learning of foreign language. Gabriel Wyner is a native speaker of English, and his examples are about native speakers of English who learn another language, or native speakers of a foreign language who learn English.

However, which phonemes in a foreign are confusable or not depends on the language(s) you already know. For example, I know several German learners of Standard Chinese who consistently pronounce 把 (pinyin ba; I'm ignoring the tone here) as /ba/ instead of /pa/. (The aspirated /pʰa/poses no problems.) By contrast, Flemish learners of Chinese quickly learnt the distinction between /pa/ and /pʰa/ (/pʰ/ does not exist in Belgian Dutch) instead of pronouncing 把 as /ba/.

So shouldn't the list of minimal pairs in German for a native speaker of Japanese be different from a similar list for a native speaker of English? And generally, shouldn't list of minimal paris for a given L2 be different depending on the learner's L1?

1 Answer 1


Minimal pair is a language-internal concept; it is not directly related to language learning or to existence of other languages. As Wikipedia says:

In phonology, minimal pairs are pairs of words or phrases in a particular language that differ in only one phonological element, such as a phoneme, toneme or chroneme, and have distinct meanings. They are used to demonstrate that two phones constitute two separate phonemes in the language.

So the answer to your question is yes, minimal pairs for a given language are independent of any other language. For example, /ʂ/-/ɕ/ is a phonetic contrast in Mandarin because of the existence of the minimal pair 殺 /ʂá/ - 蝦 /ɕá/, constituted of two different words. This is a fact that doesn't depend on whether your L1 is German (which doesn't have this contrast) or Polish (which has it, e.g. in the minimal pair kosz /kɔʂ/ - koś /kɔɕ/).

Of course, what you do with that knowledge is another thing. If you are a Polish learner of Mandarin, it's probably enough to confirm that the phonetic contrast expressed by the minimal pair is the same in both languages. On the other hand, if your native language is German, getting familiar with this contrast will probably require much more work. So, from the language learning perspective, some minimal pairs should receive much more attention than others. But it doesn't affect the definition of what a minimal pair is.

  • Thanks for the answer. Just one nit, though. Shouldn't the transcription of 蝦/虾 (pinyin xia) be /ɕjá/ instead of /ɕá/? Check the recording for 虾 on Forvo.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 13:24
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Right, maybe that wasn't the best example.
    – michau
    Commented Oct 12, 2016 at 13:35

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