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Blog6 Tongue Twisters to Help You Perfect Your English Pronunciation

6 Tongue Twisters to Help You Perfect Your English Pronunciation

Written by E-QIP on May 14, 2020

Over the past couple of months, we’ve written a lot about the ways that language learners can work on their skills while classes are out of session. We’ve explored how to use language apps, Netflix and podcasts to learn, and how to pick up new vocabulary on your own

These methods are all great for learning new words and improving your listening and reading skills, but what if you’re more concerned about pronunciation? 

white-and-blue-crew-neck-t-shirt-2868257Enter tongue twisters: fun, effective and easy to do on your own time. Tongue twisters can be challenging even for native speakers (just ask an English speaking friend to say “the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” --allegedly the hardest tongue twister in the English language--five times fast and see what happens) but that’s exactly why they’re useful: they can help you to give you pronunciation skills a workout and build your pronunciation muscle memory.

To that end, we’ve compiled a few of our favourite tongue twisters for English learners, which are categorized by the letter sounds they help with. All focus on sounds and letter pairs that can be especially challenging or confusing for non-native speakers. 

While we love hearing a diverse range of accents in class and would never want to change that, there are some pronunciation mishaps that can completely alter the meaning (or prevent the understandability) of what you’re trying to say, which can be a frustrating roadblock to communication; I know I’m saying the right words; why doesn’t this person understand me? The following tongue twisters should help with that!

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L and R sounds 

For native English speakers, these two letters are different in every way, from how they sound to how our mouths move when we say them. The sounds these letters make don’t exist in some languages, though, which means that some speakers—especially those from East Asian countries—struggle to differentiate between them (and who wouldn’t struggle with trying to pronounce and listen for entirely new sounds?!). Tongue twister #1 is a bit easier, while #2 prevents a bit more of a challenge (especially when repeated quickly). 

Red lorry, yellow lorry

A lump of red leather, a red leather lump

Tip: If you still don’t know whether you’re making the proper L and R sounds, pay attention to how your mouth moves while you’re reciting these tongue twisters. For L sounds, your tongue should move to the back of your top front teeth, while for R sounds, your tongue should retract and your lips should pucker. If that’s not happening, you’re probably not pronouncing these exactly right. 

Th (/θ/ and /ð/) sounds

Words containing the “th” combination can be difficult for many learners, but especially native speakers of French: the sounds these letters make simply don’t exist in the French language. And yes, we said sounds. There are two ways to pronounce “th”: voiceless (/θ/, as in the word “thick”) or voiceed (/ð/, as in the word “rather”). Unfortunately, there’s no rule that will help you know when to use which; only practice and immersion can help with that!

In the following tongue twisters, #1 features only voiceless th sounds, while #2 contains both voiceless (Elizabeth, birthday, third, Thursday, month) and voiced (the, this). 

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He threw three free throws.

Elizabeth's birthday is on the third Thursday of this month.

Tip: For both voiced and voiceless th pronunciation, your tongue will move toward the very tip of your top front teeth. For voiceless th sounds, you should feel your tongue slowly moving away from your teeth to let a bit of air through, while for voiced th sounds, the air pushes through while your tongue is still against your top teeth, which will create a slight vibrating or buzzing sensation. 

V and B sounds

In Spanish, the letters B and V are pronounced the same and both sound like the English letter B, which naturally leads to pronunciation confusion for native Spanish speakers when it comes to English words containing the letter V. Getting the hang of the English pronunciations isn’t too difficult, but remembering to pronounce V the English way can be! 

Betty loves the velvet vest best.

Tip: Say a word out loud that contains the letter B sound (in English, Spanish or just about any other language that uses the Roman alphabet) and notice how your mouth moves: you’ll feel your lips come together as you form the sound. In Spanish, this is also true of words that contain the letter V, but in English, you should instead feel yourself pushing air through your mouth as the tips of your top front teeth meet your bottom lip. 

(Non-silent) H sound 

The silent h (/ /, as in “hour”, “honest” or “honour”) is a breeze; just pretend it isn’t even there! In most other words that begin with H, however, it is pronounced, which can be difficult for French native speakers, for whom the letter H is always silent. For now, we’ll avoid opening up a can of worms and focus on the letter H when it appears on its own before a vowel at the beginning of words (known in linguistics lingo as a voiceless glottal fricative) and leave H in combination with other consonants (e.g. gh, ph, rh) for another time. 

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A happy hippo hopped and hiccupped

Tip: When you use H in the way it's used in the above tongue twister, you should feel your tongue resting at the bottom of your mouth as you push air out from the back of your throat. 

Did you know?

You may have heard that you should use the article “a” before all words that begin with a consonant and “an” before all words that begin with a vowel, but that’s not always true. The use of “an” depends on the sound a word makes, not necessarily the spelling, so for words that begin with a silent H, it’s correct to use “an” rather than “a” (for example: “We waited for an hour.” “It’s an honour to receive this award.”).  

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