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The Devil is in the Minimal Pairs

Communicating in any foreign language can be an arduous task, especially when the language you are trying to speak contains phonemes 1 that are absent in your L1 2. This is the case and struggle of Spanish speakers when they learn English, and my dad is no exception…

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Language comics, languagecomics, Spanish, Foreign, English phonetics

These amusing happenstances occur because the devil is in the minimal pairs: two words that have a very similar pronunciation, but differ from one another by one phoneme in the same position in each word:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

Whereas Spanish has one phoneme for <i>, English has a long /iː/ and short /ɪ/ one. No wonder Spanish speakers are confused when they start learning English. This madness would the phonetic equivalent of going to bed with two feet and waking up with four. One needs some practice to figure out how to navigate the world with additional extremities – or extra phonemes one had never had before.

To make matters worse, you will stumble upon words that contain the same graphic vowels, yet each one is pronounced differently:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

But don’t fear, dear language learner! All it takes is a bit of practice, and you can train your ear to the different phonemes of the English language with online resources like this super cool interactive phonemic chart. If you are unsure how one word sounds, look up the pronunciation in dictionaries that include the IPA transcription and sound clips, like WordReference.

In conclusion, I think English learners should get more credit for their Herculean efforts.Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

In fact, anyone who stumbles upon words like these ↑ and doesn’t give up, deserves a standing ovation.


  1. CHK171

    I totally agree!

    On a related note…. you wouldn’t happen to have similar references for German language learners, would you? I’ve always struggled with sounds and pronunciation (I needed almost 10 years of speech therapy as a child just to learn phonemes in my L1 because of hearing problems as a baby), and I am really struggling to learn the German phonemes and when each one is used.

  2. Frank Harr

    I once had a friend who refused to understand that such a problem exists. She’s Lithuanian, by the way, and an insanely talented language learner. No matter how I tried to turn or fold the idea, it wouldn’t stick in her head. This is a situation where being able to do something is equivilent to being able to explain it. I think my mom might have been in the same category.

    Personally, I have problems wither German Ä. I can’t really hear the difference between that and /e:/ I know there is one, I seem to be able to produce it (despite my thick American accent) and I can get around O.K. regardless (my other failings are so much greater). But it just sounds the same to me.

    • tXc

      Hi Frank!

      It can take a while to differentiate sounds that you are not used to, let alone pronounce them yourself. It took me months of practice in front of a mirror to get the German /r/ straight. A bit frustrating but at some point your muscles are trained to pronounce anything! Check out the link I posted in the other comment. :)

      • Frank Harr

        No, no, I get that. I really do. It’s just this one case that I never got used to. Five years of work, nine months of it in Austria, nothin’.

        My point is that my friend couldn’t understand how it was an issue AT ALL. She was ust scary-tallented and didn’t understand the limitations of the rest of us.

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