Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching ‘Ship or Sheep’?

gip-geep

Gip or Geep?

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching /ɪ/ vs /i:/?

everybody who has studied English pronunciation has, at one point or other, bemoaned the lack of spelling to sound rules (see this collection of poems). Pairs of words with similar spelling but different pronunciation are plentiful (cough/dough, heard/beard, good/food), but increasingly from a teaching perspective, I feel these archaic elements of English spelling are exaggerated and English spelling can be very useful to the student of pronunciation. Nonsense words are a brilliant way of exploring this in class.

In last Saturday’s advanced pronunciation class we had the following conversation:

A  “Gip seagle feen spicken leaj?”
B  “Seef jick hib neep biller.”
A  “Feegen bick?”
B  “Sif gick dip heaz.”

It is clearly nonsense, but there is only one way to pronounce the vowel sounds within. This highlights the difference between the pair of vowels /ɪ/ vs /i:/. The mid-close /ɪ/ sound is almost always spelt < i > as a strong vowel, so ‘jick’, ‘hib’ and ‘gip’ must be pronounced with /ɪ/. In contrast, the close /i:/ sound is almost always spelt with two vowels < ee > or < ea >, but is never spelt with just one < i >, so ‘heaz’, ‘seef’ and ‘leaj’ are definitely going to be /i:/ even if we have never seen the words before.

This simple spelling rule can radically alter a student’s speech. Many students speak native languages where a written < i > would correspond to a close /i/ sound, so breaking the assumption that this will happen in English is a huge step to solving the ship/sheep problem that so many students struggle with.

along with the spelling rule, students need to learn the correct mouth positioning for the two vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/ as shown in this vowel grid.  For a full explanation see this earlier blog post.

Nonsense Words

Try pronouncing the nonsense words below – the pronunciation should be clear from the spelling:

gip  leab  seag  sib  chif  feek  piv  veize  vim  sheev  tib  bim

This material appears in class 2 of Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation. 

How to Join ‘th’ Sounds.

th-sound

‘th’ Joining & Why it’s Important.

on Saturday I taught a class of 8 advanced speakers and pronouncers of English, they could all repeat both ‘th’ sounds with no problem (/θ/ as in ‘think’ and /ð/ as in ‘those’).  Nearly all of the students would, however, make an error when speaking normally, and the ‘th’ sounds would be mispronounced as some kind of alveolar or dental plosive. A huge number of advanced speakers make this error, but there is a simple trick to avoid it as follows.

What’s the problem?

the problem arises if one of the alveolar sounds /t, d, l, n/ appear directly before a dental sound /θ, ð/. Why? Because the tongue is out of position, it is impossible to go from the alveolar ridge to the teeth in no time, so the speaker makes their ‘th’ sound in the wrong place.

How to avoid a pronunciation error.

avoiding the error is technically very simple – you simply make the previous alveolar consonant on the teeth. To demonstrate, compare the following examples:

nine /naɪn/ ninth /naɪnθ/ – the underlined ‘n’ would be dental.
blood /blʌd/ bloodthirsty /blʌdθɜ:sti/ – the underlined ‘d’ would be dental.

This also occurs when joining words together:

in /ɪn/, in the /ɪn ðə/
did /dɪd/, dɪd they /dɪd ðeɪ/

Practice

in class on Saturday we used the following sentences and looked for at least two examples of alveolar consonants becoming dental in each sentence:

    1. Aren’t the residents unhealthy living in that pollution?
    2. It’s hard to succeed in the cutthroat world of the media.
    3. Did the internet suffer a loss of bandwidth this morning?
    4. I think they should ban the wealthiest from attending.
    5. For the thousandth time Katie, join the leads together.
    6. ‘Heartthrob’ we used to call him, although he’s lost his looks now.
    7. Well it’s true that synthetic materials were all the rage.
    8. We were happy, but then her misanthrope got in the way.
    9. Do you think that the national anthem is appropriate?
    10. What the hell are you doing drinking absinth?

You can listen to the sentences here:

‘th’ joining is covered in class 1 on Pronunciation Studio’s Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation course.

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