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The minimal pair training seems to be the best way for adults to distinguish the sound difference on a foreign language that doesn't exist in his/her native language. According to Fluent:

But it’s not all bad news. Linguists have been studying this phenomenon for years and they’ve found a way to help learners hear and pronounce the difference between these tricky sounds.

This method, known as minimal pair training, involves listening to a word that has the sound difference you want to learn (like ship or sheep), deciding which one you think it is, and getting immediate feedback about whether you were right or wrong. After a few sessions, you’ll hear the difference more easily and be able to pronounce them better.

I installed Anki deck (French and English) and tried using it for several days. However, I could not understand many of the sound differences, even in English which I have learned for more than 10 years. For example it's the difference between letter and latter or men and man, as both vowels don't exist in my native language. I failed so many times and while I also tried pronouncing them using the IPA but didn't understand the difference at all, since what I thought I heard and pronounced as A was actually B, and vice versa.

Eventually, I got right not because I was able to detect the difference but because I memorized the sound pattern. It is like this female voice that is a bit high-pitched should be the former word!.

Then, after I tried to hear the word in other voices by searching them on the Internet, I found I could not understand the difference at all. That is understandable as I wasn't able to understand the sound, just memorize the sound pattern to game the system.

I'm actually not even sure why the minimal pairs work. But if you don't understand the difference to begin with, is there still anything you can do, to make your ears detect the sound differences?

  • I think the minimal pairs approach is best, you just need to persevere. I believe the idea behind this approach is that, if the only thing that changes is the vowel sound you are trying to learn, you cannot be distracted by other changes. Maybe you could find an interactive vowel chart online and listen to the problem vowels on there first, knowing which one you are listening to... but hearing the difference between man and men is something your ears / brain can do - you just need more practice. – user7085 May 18 at 9:46
  • @Minty I read that even with the minimal pairs the success rate improves only up to 80% (source: FluentForever). That’s close to what I have experienced, and for the other 20% (actually in my case it’s less than 20%), it sounds practically impossible to distinguish. – Blaszard May 22 at 22:08
  • Well, if you've already decided it's not going to work for you, it probably won't work for you... with men / man or letter / latter, what happens if you copy the sound you hear without worrying which one it is at first, and pay attention to how much your chin moves? – user7085 May 23 at 2:14
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The fix is studying the IPA chart in depth. Once you do it, you'll be able to differentiate the sounds without doubts. "A practical introduction to phonetics" by John C. Catford is a very short and simple book that should give you the training you require.

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