This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of CONNECT.

Christian Jalim (Ehime)


A simple teaching strategy to sharpen English pronunciation

Throughout my time as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), there have been certain patterns that I have seen repeated ad nauseam. These patterns even bled into various aspects of English as a second language (ESL) acquisition. From my observation, students’ heavy reliance on “Katakana Eigo” is responsible for the issue.


Limits to Katakana Eigo

Learning a new language can definitely be quite daunting. However, diving into a new language with an entirely new writing system and more phonetic nuances is an entirely different ball game altogether, hence students use katakana to bring some calm to the chaos. However, an over-reliance on Katakana Eigo can only be beneficial until a certain point before other aspects of language acquisition, retention, and reproduction are adversely affected. For example, I have seen my fair share of misspellings all stemming from students internalising English solely through Katakana Eigo, confusing themselves in the process.


Minimal Pairs to the Rescue

As a way to break the pattern, I introduce to you, using minimal pairs as a method to improve students language ability. 


Firstly, let us examine what minimal pairs are. 


Speech pathologist Jane Rosenlund described minimal pairs as a “focus on the contrasting difference between phonemes.” It is a tool used by speech pathologists during speech therapy with children enduring speech sound disorders. Due to the structure of the Japanese language, students are not exposed to certain sounds produced in English phonics. So by using katakana, many pairs of words sound the same, when the reality is—even to the untrained native English speaker’s ear—there is quite a noticeable difference. Some common examples are: first/fast, but/bat, hurt/heart, lake/rake, sheet/seat, vet/bet, and many more. 


If you place any of the aforementioned pairs in front of a Japanese student who is extremely reliant on katakana and ask them to pronounce each word in the pair, you will start noticing the target areas that need to be addressed. 


As an ALT, moreover a native speaker, this is where we come into play and are monumental in facilitating English education. We can offer our expertise of knowing the nuances of phonetics and therefore scaffold and train students to understand said nuances of pronunciation. 


How do Minimal Pairs Work?

For myself, I use a two-fold approach to utilising minimal pairs during my lessons. Over two sessions, I focus on only one minimal pair for about five to 10 minutes each session. In the first session, I show the students the pair of words and do some practice and repetition. After the introductory phase, I do five rounds of listening in which I randomly say one word from the pair. During this time, students listen to the pronunciation from me, and raise their hand corresponding to the word in front of them. If they think I said the word that is to their right, they raise their right hand. If they think I said the word that is to their left, they raise their left hand. Sometimes I say the same word consecutively because students will often expect you to say the other word in the next round. 


If after five rounds of listening, you notice that the majority of students still have problems with listening and understanding the differences between the sounds and words, do some more practice and extend the number of sessions. Then, rinse and repeat for the next class session.


If your students have no problem, however, the next session is all about them. With the help of my JTE, we have the students each say the pair one at a time. My small schools definitely have the advantage of that individual attention. Based on how accurately and clearly they were able to pronounce each word distinctively, they would be evaluated and given comments. It is a great opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of speech and sounds. Minimal pair practice is an important part of helping students understand phonics and how sounds in English work.


As for how to manage the difficulty as per the grade level, start with simple pairs in elementary school, such as: bet/vet, right/light. As you go into higher grades, slowly introduce slightly more difficult pairs such as: hurt/heart, trouble/travel, letters/lettuce, volley/ballet. 


So having established the what and how, let us examine the why by looking at the domino effect aims of this activity.


Why Minimal Pairs?

Firstly, exposing students to the nuances of phonetics in English helps sharpen their pronunciation and listening skills. By showing and teaching these nuances, students can understand the workings of phonics and make correct associations of sound with speech.


Through this level of understanding of the language, we can attain a second goal where students can slowly reduce their dependence on katakana as they learn to navigate the intricacies of English phonics. 


Students are now expected to have unfaltering confidence in their potential to speak and internalise English words without relying too heavily on katakana as a guide. They are expected to improve their pronunciation and confidence in speaking English words by just reading and not resorting to something that simply feels familiar and comfortable. However, in the long-term, these high expectations can be detrimental to their actual language skills development.


This leads to the third goal of using minimal pairs. When students reduce their dependence on katakana to help them understand the phonetic workings of English, it is expected that they slowly associate sounds with spelling. As they gradually wean off their first language pronunciation dependence, they develop proper word-sound association and become more proficient in their second language retention, and reproduction.


Hope for Phonetic Instruction

Having illustrated the value and process of using minimal pairs, I hope that other teachers or assistant teachers of English will also try to employ minimal pairs as a practice in their lessons to help advance students’ competency in spoken English. In closing, I would like to suggest that as English instructors existing in Japanese spaces, English spoken by Japanese people should be carefully observed and used for minimal pairing. This would bring relevance and cultural appropriateness to the English lesson and help improve students’ skills in word-discernment and fluency.


Chris(tian) Jalim hails from the sunny isles of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean paradise. He majored in International Relations and Global Studies and has completed three levels of Japanese Proficiency Tests. In his free time, he enjoys many things including, but not limited to, language learning, cooking, video games, cosplay, anime, and documentaries about space or ancient civilisations.

Feature image photo credit: Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash