Word Comparisons for Chinese Students

In this video, I go over the difference between five different sets of similar words:  town/tongue, south/source/sauce, down/done, pool/poor, bike/back.

YouTube blocked? Click here to see the video.

Video Text:

I recently received the following email: I found I still have some difficulty pronouncing the following words. When I talk to American people, they often ask me to repeat. I feel these words sound very similar. I asked other Chinese people and they all agreed: it is hard for them to differentiate. I wonder if you could demonstrate in your blog if it’s possible.

So, she has listed five word pairs, and I am happy to do it. The first one: the words town and tongue. These two words are different not only in the vowel, but also in the final consonant sound. Town ends with an N [n], and tongue with an NG [?]. So, I’ve already done a blog entry on the difference between those – town, tongue – but basically on the word ‘town’, it’s this part of the tongue that touches, and it touches more forward: nn. And on the NG in ‘tongue’, it’s a further back part of the tongue that touches, and it touches further back. Town, tongue.

The vowel sound is different as well. The first is the ‘ow’ as in ‘now’ [a?] diphthong. You have to be careful to make both of those sounds. Town. Ow. So, your lips need to get smaller. Town. Tongue is the ‘uh’ as in ‘butter’ [?], which is more open and more relaxed. Uh, tongue, tongue, town. So in general on the word ‘tongue’, the sound is a little further back. First the vowel, uh, and then the consonant ng. Town, ow, ow, the sound is further – in this part of the face, and the consonant sound is also further up. Town, tongue, town.

The next set of words were three words: south, source, and sauce. Now, the first, south. Again it has the ‘ow’ as in ‘now’ diphthong. Ow, south, south. So you have to make sure that you get those two sounds in there. Source is also written in IPA with a diphthong, the ‘oh’ as in ‘no’ [o?] diphthong, but it’s followed by an R [?], and R’s are notorious for changing the color of the vowels that come before. Source. I would not say ‘oh’ – rr. It’s more of a one vowel sound, I find. I think the R kind of takes over the second part of the diphthong. Source, source. So rather than having a very defined ‘oh’ as in ‘no’ – source, source, o- – it’s the first part of that diphthong into an R. Source.

The last: sauce. This one has no diphthong. It has a single vowel, the ‘aw’ as in ‘law’ [?]. So, aw, the sides of the cheeks come in a bit, aw, the corners of the mouth come in just a bit and this part comes away from the face just a touch. Aw, sauce, sauce. An important thing to note is that the first word, south, ends with a TH. I have noticed that it can be a mistake for people from China to pronounce the TH as an S, in which case it would be sou-ss. I can see how that sounds so much like sauce and source. Sou-ss. So that is going to be a major way to differentiate and make sure that you are pronouncing it correctly, is if you say ‘south’, and put the unvoiced TH [?] on the end where you tongue comes through the teeth. South, source, sauce.

The next pair of words: down and done. Just like the first pair, town and tongue, the vowel sounds here are the ‘ow’ as in ‘now’ and the ‘uh’ as in ‘butter’. However with down and done, they both end simply in an N, whereas with town and tongue, tongue ends in the NG sound. Ow, uh. Down, done. So the important thing here to differentiate it to make sure you make both of the sounds of the diphthong. Ow, ow. Down, done.

The next set of words: pool and poor. Both of these words can be difficult to pronounce on their own. And I know that for people whose native language is Chinese, the L and the R can be especially hard to differentiate. The word pool: the vowel sound is the ‘oo’ as in ‘boo’. But it is a dark L, which means you go through another vowel-like sound before the L sound. Poo-uh-l. Pool. Poor has a diphthong sound, it is the ‘ur’ as in ‘lure’ [] diphthong sound.And it’s so hard because the diphthong almost has the R sound in it, because as I’ve said in previous entries, the R is a vowel sound and a consonant sound both. It’s the R ‘ran’ [?], and the ‘ur’ ‘her’ [?] sound. Poor, pool, poor. So, the important difference here is what the tongue does at the end. In the word pool, the tip of the tongue comes up an touches here. Pool- ul. Poor, rr, when it ends in the R sound, the tip of the tongue is not touching anything at the end of the word, and the tongue has raised and the sides of the tongue are pressing against the insides of the teeth. Pool, poor. So the vowel sounds in IPA would not be written the same, but that is definitely not the most important difference between these two words. The important difference is the final tongue position, and therefore the final consonant sound.

And the final request is for the words ‘bike’ and ‘back’. Bike has the ‘ai’ as in ‘buy’ [a?] diphthong, and I actually just did a pronunciation evaluation with a Chinese student and I noticed that this diphthong caused some problems. He often didn’t make the two separate sounds. Ai, ai, bike, bike, ike, ike. So that’s going to be the important thing that really forms this word, making sure you pronounce both sounds of that diphthong. Back, back has simply the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ [Ê] sound, aa, where the jaw is going to drop a little bit more than in ai, ai. Aa, the corners of the mouth come up, ai, the corners of the mouth stay more relaxed in the first sound of the diphthong. Back, bike.