• Tom Garside

Targeting Pronunciation - issues for speakers of specific languages


Targeting pronunciation

When teaching pronunciation, it can be hard to decide what specific sounds or sound patterns to focus on. The best way to plan a focused pronunciation session is to think about the learners in your class, and target the issues which come from their first languages.


Not all languages have the same range of sounds, so learners from certain language backgrounds may not be able to produce the sounds of English accurately without guidance. In order to prepare for a lesson focused on specific problem sounds, it is important to know which sounds are likely to cause issues for specific learners. This will help you to prepare words, phrases and examples for practice, and activities which meet the needs of the language speakers in your classes.


Here is a quick list of common problems for speakers of the most widely spoken languages in the world (that is, spoken or accessed from the widest range of regions in the world), organised into groups which are commonly confused. Use the International Phonetic Alphabet to sound out the phonemes marked in /oblique brackets/

Mandarin Chinese - Vowels: /æ/ (as in hat) - /aɪ/ (as in height) - /e/ (as in let)

/ɜ:/ (as in work) - /ɔ:/ (as in walk)


Consonants: /θ/ (as in thing) - /s/

/ð/ (as in mother) - /z/

/ʒ/ (as in treasure) - /j/ (as in yes)


Other features: consonant clusters (/spl/ - /spr/ - /skr/ etc), syllable timing and weak forms generally, connecting words together, especially connecting to words which start with vowels

Spanish - Vowels: /i:/ - /ɪ/

/u:/ (as in boot) - /ʊ/ (as in foot)

/a:/ (as in far) - /æ/ (as in hat) - /ʌ/ (as in up)

/aʊ/ (as in how) - /əʊ/ (as in know)

Consonants: /s/ - /θ/ (as in thing)

/n/ - /ŋ/ (as in sing)

Other features: syllable timing and use fo weak forms, adding /e/ before words starting with /s/, correct pronunciation of pas simple -ed endings as /t/, /d/ or /ɪd/

French - Vowels: /aʊ/ (as in how) - /əʊ/ (as in know) - /u:/ as in shoe)

/ʌ/ (as in but) - /ɜ:/ (as in hurt)

/i:/ (as in sheep) - /ɪ/ (as in ship)

Consonants: /ʃ/ - /s/ (in -tion endings)

/θ/ (as in thing) - /s/

/ð/ (as in this) - /z/

/r/ often from the throat rather than with the front of the tongue

/ʃ/ (as in shell) - /s/ (especially in -tion endings)


Other features: syllable timing and weak forms, sounding out words phonetically, rather than applying stress patterns or connected speech features (weak forms): /æn/ - /ən/ - /ɒn/ (as in important / information)

Arabic - Vowels: /ɪ/ - /e/

/ɒ/ (as in cot) - /ɔ:/ (as in caught)

/eɪ/ (as in late) - /e/ (as in let)

/əʊ/ (as in hope) - /ɒ/ (as in hop)


Consonants: /r/ is often pronounced with the tongue touching the area behind the

teeth, or rolled

/p/ - /b/

/v/ - /f/

/g/ - /k/

/θ/ (as in thought) - /t/ (as in taught)

/ð/ (as in this) - /d/ (as in did)


Other features: Pronunciation of ‘silent’ letters, as in ‘knee’ and ‘listen’, and -ed endings as /ed/, rather than varying between /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/

Consonant clusters, especially with /p/ and /g/ (pl- / pr- / gl- / gr-, etc.) are difficult, as these do not exist in Arabic

Portuguese - Vowels: /i:/ - /ɪ/

/e/ - /æ/ (as in hat)

/a:/ (as in heart) - /æ/ (as in hat) - /ʌ/ (as in hut)

Consonants: /θ/ (as in thought) - /t/ (as in taught) - /s/

/ð/ (as in this) - /d/ (as in did) - /t/

/p/ - /b/

/g/ - /k/

/t/ - /d/

/tʃ/ (as in chair) - /ʃ/ (as in share)

/dʒ/ (as in fridge) - /ʒ/ (as in vision)

/h/ at the beginning of words is not pronounced


Other features: issues with syllable timing and short / weak forms, adding a short /i/ sound on to the ends of words, which affects the connection between one word and the next


Russian - Vowels: /ɜ:/ (as in work) - /ɔ:/ (as in walk)

/æ/ (as in hat) - /e/

/ɔ:/ (as in taught) - /ɒ/ (as in log) - /oʊ/ (as in low)

Long vowels are often pronounced as short vowels


Consonants:/w/ - /v/

/θ/ (as in thin) - /s/

/ð/ (as in these) - /z/

/h/ is pronounced with the back of the throat closed rather than open

/θ/ (as in thin)- /s/

/ð/ (as in these) - /z/


Other features: /j/ (as in ‘yes’) is often inserted before vowels

By targeting these pairs and groups of sounds in activities where the sound difference is identified by learners, the production of problem sounds can improve dramatically over a short period. Focus on one set of sounds per week, and find activities using minimal pairs and topic-based vocabulary containing those sounds, and planning your pronunciation lessons with focus and relevance will get easier.



If you would like some tried-and-tested pronunciation activities to work with these sounds and others, Pronunciation Card Games is a teacher-friendly resource pack which is adaptable to any set of sounds in the language classroom.


Pronunciation Card Games includes:

  • A phonology primer, including example words and phonemes

  • A guide to the features of connected speech, to increase fluency and confidence in student production

  • 10 starter activities to engage your learners

  • Activity instructions and variations for teachers

  • 44 cut-out-and-use British English phoneme cards, printed on sturdy card

  • Expansion set of cards including stress and intonation marks, American English sounds and reduced sounds for higher-level teaching of connected speech

  • A full glossary of phonological terminology

Go to https://www.languagepointtraining.com/product-page/learn-english-pronunciation-with-pronunciation-card-games for more information and to buy a copy for your students.


Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.


If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.

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