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The question I have is something that every student of a second language should have. That is about not being able to hear the difference between similar sounds, because of the first language. For example, as I know for Spanish speakers it's hard to differentiate between "v" and "b", for Japanese ones between "r" and "l", for Russian ones between "u" and "u:".

Well I watched a lot of videos explaining how to pronounce similar (for me) sounds, e.g. "i" and "i:". I know what the proper position of the tongue is when pronouncing them and I kinda can differentiate between them when a speaker says them slowly. But in fast natural speech I just can't hear the difference or might mix it. The meaning of the words in most cases is guessed from the context. I tried to listen to similar words like 20 times in a row, but it seems it doesn't really help.

So the question is: is it possible somehow to start hearing the difference as clearly as natives? Are there any trainings or tips? The trainings I've seen so far are disappointing for me. The main approach is "repeat after me - good". So even though I can accidentally pronounce the sound correctly, next time I can't. Because I just can't correct myself, can't hear what the sound ideally should sound like.

Have you heard of any cases when people learn how to hear those sounds when they are adults? The only successful cases I know are when kids (younger 12 or something) learn the second language. It seems kids can hear more sounds or the "sound range" and hence can reproduce them. It's just a matter of time and practice for kids.

migrated from ell.stackexchange.com Dec 26 '18 at 7:37

This question came from our site for speakers of other languages learning English.

  • Until you work with a real person and hear the sounds, you might not be able to hear them. The issue for Spanish speakers is not the B and the V. It is the way the letter I is pronounced in minute and chip. [in minute, the i and u are both the same sound. Here are more examples: chip/cheap or ship/sheep is the issue for Spanish speakers. – Lambie Dec 26 '18 at 1:31
  • @Lambie I have some Spanish speaking colleagues. I know the "v" vs. "b" issue from them. F.e. "victory" and "bictory" according to them sounds the same. "i" vs. "i:" is just another issue. I did have practice with a native speaker. Sometimes i was able to say it correctly but the issue is that i don't know when i do it correctly and when not. Cause i can't hear the difference. F.e. here youglish.com/getcid/19708404/live I hear more like "i:". – amigo345 Dec 26 '18 at 1:45
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    About the last part: Lots of people learn to hear new sounds when they’re older, but it’s not easy. We never lose the ability to hear them, it just becomes more difficult with age because we’re so practiced at filtering out information that’s not relevant to hearing our native languages. For more information, please see Anne Cutler’s Native Listening. – snailboat Dec 26 '18 at 7:37
  • @snailboat Thanks for recommendation. I've just checked the book's description and it seems the professor explains that L2 is affected by sounds in L1. May I ask you if you read that book if there are any evidences inside from her that an adult can learn how to hear tricky sounds (based on his L1) and if there are exact steps to make it happen? I'm asking cause the book's price is quite expensive and it would be sad to find out that the book is just proving things which I already know and doesn't provide practical steps to achieve what I need. – amigo345 Dec 26 '18 at 10:02
  • The B is teeth plus lower lip; the V is both lips. In fact, Spanish speakers can hear the difference. They cannot hear the /i/ because it does not even exist in Spanish (or French or Portuguese) which is why you need an actual, live teacher. Unless you have someone in the flesh, you might not ever get it. – Lambie Dec 27 '18 at 4:11
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In order to learn to hear the difference between similar sounds, you need to learn to distinguish so-called minimal pairs. A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ in only one sound, for example "pin" and "bin", or "cheap" and "chip" in English. The concept of minimal pairs can even be extended to minimal sets: groups of words whose pronunciation differs only in one sound, for example the different in the Chinese syllables (mother), (hemp), (horse) and (to scold), whose pronunciation differs only by tone.

In his book Fluent Forever, Gabriel Wyner stresses the importance of learning correct pronunciation from the start and one of the techniques he recommends is learning to distinguish minimal pairs. He summarised some of the research he did in the YouTube video The Research behind the Fluent Forever Foreign Language Pronunciation Trainers. The techniques comes down to writing or finding a list of pairs (or sets) of words that use the sounds you find hard to distinguish, i.e. a list of minimal pairs or minimal sets. Then you need to find recordings of these words. You can find recordings on Forvo (ideal for individual words) or RhinoSpike (mostly used for phrases and sentences). You can then create your own "minimal pair trainer" in a spaced repetition system such as Anki. For each recording, you add the sound recording, e.g. a recording of the word "pin" (in English) to a flash card together with the question "Do you hear 'pin' or 'bin'?" You do the same for the recording of "bin" and for every other pair you have collected.

Improving your pronunciation works best with feedback, but Anki cannot judge your pronunciation. However, you can record your own voice and then compare your pronunciation with the recording (e.g. of "pin" or "bin") that you downloaded. After a while, the difference between "pin" and "bin" should become more noticeable.

See also Gabriel Wyner's blog post How to Learn a Language’s Sound System with Anki (January 2013) (where you used to be able to download a sample deck of flash cards for minimal pairs in French), and his YouTube video Tutorial 3 - How to Learn Spellings and Sounds.

Minimal pair training is one of the techniques that adults can use to learn the difference between sounds that have no minimal difference in their native language.

  • The /i/ does not exist in Spanish. Unless you have someone working with you, it's hard to hear chip/cheap or ship/sheep. – Lambie Dec 27 '18 at 4:22
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    @Lambie That's exactly why native speakers of Spanish need minimal pair training on chip/cheap, ship/sheep when learning English. That is exactly the point of my answer. – Christophe Strobbe Dec 27 '18 at 10:44
  • Yes, sure. But it has to be with a real person helping them. The best ever (book) on minimal pairs is English Pronunciation Illustrated by John Trim. It is BrE but I used it nevertheless and provided the differences with AmE. It is the funniest and "funnest" little book. Now,with audio recordings, too. It did not originally have that. Cheers. – Lambie Dec 27 '18 at 14:11
  • @Lambie Having a teacher or a native speaker help you is very useful, but they will often also resort to minimal pairs and minimal sets. When I started learning Chinese, our first textbook had many exercises with minimal pairs or minimal sets for sounds of Chinese that don't exist in the Germanic languages. – Christophe Strobbe Dec 27 '18 at 21:10
  • I am not disagreeing with you about minimal pairs. I am saying that without help, one might not be able to make the sound difference. – Lambie Dec 28 '18 at 14:06

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