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.

Using Natural English – by James Cort

Hello and welcome to the instructor blog! I’m James Cort and I teach TOEFL Speaking and Pronunciation and Fluency (発音矯正) at Agos.

The year is finally coming to an end, and the winter holidays will soon be upon us. Many of us are looking forward to some time off work or school, some may be travelling overseas and others preparing for important examinations. Whatever your plans, before we forget the year at the next忘年会 (end-of-year party), let’s reflect on our academic progress and consider how to make next year even more successful.

“Well… I can understand you, but it doesn’t sound natural.” Have you ever heard this from a native English speaking friend, colleague or instructor? You might then note down the corrected sentence that your teacher offers. However, you may not understand where you went wrong or how to sound more natural in the future. Today I’m going to talk about naturalness: What is natural English? Why is it important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests? How can you learn to use it?

What is natural English?

Natural English simply means the English that native speakers actually use. This can be quite different from the English you find in many textbooks, and drastically different from English directly translated from Japanese.

Unnatural English is often caused by several types of errors. Have a look at the examples below.

Error Example Natural English
Inappropriate vocabulary choice ‘My friends and I gathered at the bar.’ ‘My friends and I met up at the bar.’
Word order ‘I went to a Japanese traditional restaurant.’ ‘I went to a traditional Japanese restaurant.’
Register (formality/context) ‘There were many people at my birthday party. Moreover, it was very enjoyable.’ ‘There were loads of people at my birthday party and we had a good time.
Direct translation ‘I entered university in 2010.’ ‘I started university in 2010.’
‘Textbook’ English For the first time, I ate dinner at Cici’s some days ago. It was so-so.’ I tried Cici’s the other day – it wasn’t great.’
‘Japanese’ English ‘I went to the hot spring to refresh my mind.’ ‘I went to the hot spring to unwind.’
Wrong collocation (collocations are words that go together) ‘The temples in Kyoto are very amazing.’ ‘The temples in Kyoto are absolutely amazing.’

If you’re told that your English sounds unnatural, then it’s likely that it contains at least one of these errors.

 

Why is natural English important for the TOEFL and IELTS tests?

The ability to use natural English is vital for both TOEFL and IELTS. This is especially true for the speaking sections, where you have limited time to think about and plan your response. TOEFL speaking is graded holistically, which means the grader gives you a score based on their overall impression of your response. Of course, more natural speech will make a better impression, so you’ll get a higher score. The IELTS speaking examiners use very clear and detailed grading criteria, and producing more accurate and natural speech will help you to reach the higher bands.

How can you learn to use natural English?

So, how do you improve? Memorising the corrections your teacher gives you is vital, but this can be a slow process. Here are three important steps you can take to speak more naturally.

  1. Increase your exposure to natural English

The first step is to expose yourself to a lot of natural English material. Tedtalks, Youtube and online radio are great free resources. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon video are useful paid resources. Most of these have English subtitles available that can help you with new language. After listening or watching, make a note of new language, practice shadowing, make your own sentences and say then say them aloud. The material doesn’t have to be difficult. The important thing is to expose yourself regularly to natural English, and try to copy how the native speakers use the language.

  1. Consider the Context

Whenever you hear new words or phrases, think about the setting. What is natural in one context may sound very unnatural in another. Ask yourself: ‘Was the setting formal or informal? Was it at work, home or school? Was the topic serious or light-hearted? What’s relationship between the speakers? What’s the emotional state of the speaker and listener? How is the speaker using intonation? Etc.’ Questions like this will give you clues as to when and where you can use this language.

  1. Get out of your comfort zone

It’s easy and safe to use what you learnt in high school. But if you act in the same way, you’ll always get the same results, you won’t make progress and your TOEFL or IELTS scores won’t improve. Get out of your comfort zone and try out what you’ve learned in the real world. Use the new language with friends, with co-workers, in class, for homework and eventually on your TOEFL and IELTS tests!

 

Try these tips and see if you can start sounding more natural in 2017, and improve your TOEFL or IELTS speaking scores!

 

Improve your pronunciation and get higher scores! – by Michael Thundercliffe

Hi everyone, welcome to the instructor blog! I hope the summer heat isn’t causing you too much夏ばて.  I’ve been living in Japan for 11 years, and I’m still not used to this weather! I miss the mild English summers…

I’m Mike, and today, I’m going to be talking about the importance of ‘delivery’ (pronunciation and fluency) in the TOEFL and IELTS speaking tests. A lot of test takers in Japan don’t realise how important this is, but delivery is a third of your mark in the TOEFL test, and in IELTS, pronunciation is 25% of your grade! In both tests, these areas tend to pull people’s scores down.

‘Delivery’ is probably the biggest difficulty for Japanese speakers – but why is this? Well, at school, you probably learnt a lot of grammar and vocabulary, and you probably did a lot of reading, writing, listening and speaking practice too. However, you probably didn’t learn that much about pronunciation.

Let’s listen to an example. Here’s a recording of a Japanese speaker and a native English speaker saying the same sentence:

‘I want to go out tonight to eat with my friends.’

Japanese speaker:

Native English speaker:

As you can hear, there’s a big difference! The native speaker sounds more like this:

‘ah wanna go wow tonigh tah wee wi mah frens’

Sometimes my students ask me – do I really have to sound like that? Well, you don’t need to be perfect, but you need to be as close as possible to improve your speaking scores!

So how can you improve? The most important thing is to listen to a lot of English. This could be recordings from your Agos class CDs, podcasts, radio programs, Youtube videos, films, TV shows, drama or anything else. Try shadowing to say the words exactly like native speakers, paying close attention to stress, intonation and how the speaker links words together smoothly. Becoming a good listener and a good mimic will really help – you can do it!

We also have a Pronunciation and Fluency class (発音矯正)at Agos – if delivery is a problem for you, then this would be a good place to start!