As I learned other languages I realized that some phonemes which are common in one language are not so familiar in others. There are even cases where some phonemes do not exist in other specific languages.

Keeping that in mind, how can I teach someone, who's learning a new language to pronounce those previously unknown phonemes? I know there is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), but it is not widely known by the general public. Suppose this new language learner is not aware of the IPA.

If that question seems a bit vague, let's be more specific. How can I teach someone who only speaks German to say the French J (like in je, or jaune)? Or how can I teach a Spanish speaker to pronounce the Portuguese ão (like in mão or avião)?

  • 3
    Don't the answers to this question answer yours? IPA does not teach one how to pronounce and can be of any help only if one has previously been made aware of the various sounds the symbols represent.
    – None
    Apr 12, 2016 at 5:52

1 Answer 1


There are a number of things you can try:

Trial and Error

The simplest technique for teaching an unfamiliar sound, but still often quite effective. Produce the sound yourself, or play a recording of it, and then have them try to reproduce it. Repeat until they are successful.

Minimal pairs

The same idea as above, but instead of just pronouncing the phoneme alone, find a pair of words (real or made up), one of which uses the correct phoneme and the other of which uses another similar phoneme. The idea behind both of these techniques is to isolate the sound of interest from distracters, so that the student can focus their attention on improving their pronunciation of just that one sound.

Describe the correct mouth/tongue position

In some cases, you can teach a novel phoneme to someone by describing the individual features of how to conform the mouth/tongue in order to produce it. That's essentially what IPA does, but you don't need to know the IPA in order to take advantage of this.

Describe it as a mix of features of two other sounds

Even if the phoneme isn't present in somebody's native language, they might still have a number of phonemes that are close, but not exactly correct. Describe how the target phoneme differs from another similar phoneme that they do know.

  • The minimal pair technique has been really helpful to me. My teacher would write the words on the blackboard, say one, and have a student point to the one they'd heard.
    – zzxjoanw
    Apr 14, 2016 at 20:46
  • +1. Minimal pairs are also an important part of Gabriel Wyner's advice on pronunciation.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 23, 2016 at 20:51

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