Minimal Pairs for Japanese Speakers

How to use minimal pairs to improve your pronunciation.

by John Grant

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a good way to check your pronunciation is to use a note taking app that has a microphone and read some sentences into your phone to see if your phone can pick up each word accurately. I also touched on using minimal pairs to work on individual sounds.

Minimal pairs are words that are very similar but have one sound that is different. In this blog post, I will give you examples of sentences that focus on sounds that Japanese people find difficult.

Try reading these sentences into your phone using a note taking app to see how accurate your pronunciation is. As you read these sentences, pay attention to where your tongue is in your mouth and your mouth shape.

  1. æ / ʌ

i. It’s beside the cap . It’s beside the cup .

ii. She sang in front of people. She’s sung in front of people.

iii. It’s fan art. It’s fun art.

2. ɑː / eə

i. It’s not far . It’s not fair .

ii. It’s under the stars . It’s under the stairs .

iii. It’s under your car . It’s under your care .

iv. I don’t like to go near the bar . I don’t like to go near the bear .

3. ʌ / ɑː

i. I don’t like much . I don’t like March .

ii. Don’t get dirt in the cut . Don’t get dirt in the cart .

iii. I damaged his hut . I damaged his heart .

4. ɜː / ɪə

i. He has a blue bird . He has a blue beard .

ii. It’s not really fur . It’s not really fear .

iii. Is it actually her ? Is it actually here ?

5. ɜː / ɑː

i. Is it fur ? Is it fair ?

ii. How much further ? How much, father ?

iii. I used to own a firm . I used to own a farm .

iv. She’s used to be heard . She used to be hard .

6. b / v

i. It’s the best . It’s the vest .

ii. It’s a bet . It’s a vet .

iii. It’s a cupboard table. It’s a covered table.

7. s / ʃ

i. They didn’t suit the man. They didn’t shoot the man.

ii. Please clean the seat . Please clean the sheet .

iii. He saved your head. He shaved your head.

iv. It’s a sign . It’s a shine .

8. s / θ

i. Are you sinking ? Are you thinking ?

ii. I can see her mouse . I can see her mouth .

iii. It could be worse sitting here. It could be worth sitting here.

9. h / f

i. It isn’t hair . It isn’t fair .

ii. I can feel the horse . I can feel the force .

iii. The company wants to hire me. The company wants to fire me.

10. n / ŋ

i. She’s sinner . She’s a singer .

ii. We were sinking in the water. We were singing in the water.

11. l / r

i. You said it was long . You said it was wrong .

ii. Can you collect it and send it to me? Can you correct it and send it to me?

iii. I said I did not want flies in my meal. I said I did not want fries in my meal.

Good luck and keep practicing!



Note Taking Apps for Pronunciation


Hello, I’m John Grant and I would like to show you a great way to practice and check your pronunciation.

A common question I’m asked by my students is how they can check their pronunciation of certain words or sentences by themselves. If you don’t have English speaking friends, this may seem quite difficult. Luckily, technology has an answer.

Have you ever heard of note taking apps on your smartphone?

These are applications that you can use to jot down memos to yourself. On iPhones, the app Notes (メモin Japanese) is already installed on the phone. If you’re an Android user or have a different phone, you can download Evernote or a similar app. I use my note-taking app for shopping lists and things to do.

So how do we use it to help with our pronunciation? With these apps, you can click on the microphone to record your voice and it will transcribe your words into the app.

First of all, make sure your keyboard is switched to English.

Now try to read a few sentences into your phone. You can choose a model answer from a textbook or a script from a TOEFL or IELTS listening task. Your phone should pick up the same words that are in the script. Make a note of any words that your phone misunderstood and practice those words. You can use Google pronunciation to practice those words.  I have discussed this in a previous blog post.

This is a great way to check your pronunciation by yourself, especially those that will take the TOEFL test. As you may know, the TOEFL test is now graded, or rated, by a person and a computer program called Speech Rater®. So you have to speak clearly or the Speech Rater® will not understand what you are saying. This can adversely affect not only your Delivery mark, but also your grammar and vocabulary rating.   By using the above study tip, you can check if a computer AI can understand you.

This method is particularly useful for working with minimal pairs. A minimal pair is a pair of similar words with just one sound different, typically a sound that is difficult for students to produce. An example of a minimal pair would be light/right or sink/think.  I’m sure many of you have struggled with these sounds, and now you have a way to check if you are saying them correctly and practice them until you get them right.

In my next post, we will go through these pairs, focusing on ones that Japanese speakers find challenging.