In this short article we will focus on two very familiar sounds in English: /p/, represented by the letter ‘p’ in words like ‘pen’, ‘paper’, ‘papaya’ and /b/, represented by the letter ‘b’ in words like ‘bin’ and ‘baby’.
These two sounds are almost identical in English, because we use the same partof the mouth to produce them. What makes /p/ different from /b/ is that with /p/ more air comes out of your mouth.
You can test this difference by putting a tissue in front of your mouth whilst making /p/. You will notice that the tissue will move suddenly. If you do the same with /b/, the tissue will not move much. You can also try the same by putting your hand in front of your mouth. You can feel more air hitting your hand with /p/ than /b/.
In English, /p/ can sometimes sound like /b/. For example, in the word ‘speed’, even though it has a ‘p’ letter in it, the ‘p’ here has a /b/ sound. You can listen to the words below (some words are ‘nonsense’ words, to help compare the sounds) and decide if the /p/ sound sounds more like a) or b).
- a) ‘pin’ b) ‘bin’ – ‘spin’ /sbɪn/
- a) ‘pen’ b) ‘ben’ – ‘spend’ /sbend/
- a) ‘pine’ b) ‘bine’ – ‘spine’ /sbaɪn/
- a) ‘pread’ b) ‘bread’ – ‘spread’ /sbred/
- a) ‘plash’ b) ‘blash’ – ‘splash’ /sblæʃ/
We can see from the examples above that if you have ‘p’ inside letters (or consonant clusters) like ‘sp’, ‘spr’ and ‘spl’ at the beginning of words it sounds more like a /b/ sound. The reasons why /p/ sounds more like /b/ is because it is much easier to make the /b/ sound than the /p/ sound in ‘sp’, ‘spr’ and ‘spl’ than /p/ because /p/ requires more effort (remember more air comes out when you make the /p/ sound).
Why might this be useful for teaching?
Many students can find consonant clusters (letters grouped together) in English quite difficult to pronounce. So, if we can make it easier for students to pronounce these clusters the easier they will find it to produce the words when speaking. It will also help students understand the relationship between letters and sounds in English better (because they can sound different sometimes). As a result, your students may find it easier to recognise words during listening exercises.
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