When trying to master the American English accent, the devil is in the details. There are many sounds in the English language that only vary from one another through one small change. One of these changes that often gets overlooked is voicing.
Voicing refers to whether sound is simply produced using air or if you vibrate your vocal cords to make a sound. To get a better idea of how voicing works, put your hand on your throat and say “sssss” (like the sound a snake makes). Now, keeping your hand on your throat, say “zzzzzzz” (like the sound a mosquito or bumblebee makes). You should have felt vibration in your throat while pronouncing the /z/, but nothing at all while pronouncing the /s/. This is because /s/ is an unvoiced consonant, with sound being produced only using air, while /z/ also uses the vocal cords to produce sound. The sounds of /f/ and /v/ also differ only on whether voicing is used: the lips and tongue are in the exact same position, but voicing is used for /v/, and only air is used for /f/. Voicing also matters with short sounds: /b/ and /p/ differ only in their voicing, and so do /g/ and /k/, and /d/ and /t/ (/b/, /g/, and /d/ are all voiced, while /p/, /k/, and /t/ are all unvoiced).
Mastering voicing can be tricky for non-native speakers, especially if voicing isn’t used as an important contrast in your native language. However, it’s an essential skill to learn if you want your speech to be understood. There are many words in English which differ only in their voicing, so mixing up the sounds can really confuse your message. Take a look at just a few pairs of words below which differ only based on if voicing is used or not:
Voiced – Unvoiced
eyes – ice
raise – race
zoo – sue
zip – sip
van – fan
very – ferry
leave – leaf
vine – fine
One of the first steps to mastering voicing contrasts, is training your ear. Watch the video below to hear me give some examples of vocal cord vibration:
If you have questions or are interested in improving your communication skills, give me a call at 212-308-7725 or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you might have!
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