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Improving American English Pronunciation: Voice and Voiceless Sounds

One of the most difficult parts of learning English is mastering all of the subtle differences in pronunciation. Learning how to produce sounds with an American English accent is what makes the difference between sounding like a non-native English speaker, and sounding like you’ve mastered the language. Today, we’ll discuss one of the trickier parts of the American English accent: voiced and voiceless sounds.

There are many sounds in American English that only differ in voicing. “Voicing” refers to whether or not 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 a voiceless sound (no vocal cord vibration), while /z/ is voiced (the vocal cords vibate). The sounds /f/ and /v/ also differ only on whether voicing is used: the lips and tongue are in the exact same position, but /v/ is voiced and /f/ is voiceless. 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).

Voicing makes a big difference when learning American English. Take a look at the following pairs of words. For each pair, the two words only differ in the voicing of a single sound. Can you tell which is voiced and which is unvoiced?

ice – eyes

race – raise

van – fan

do – too

Sue – zoo

leaf – leave

One of the first steps to mastering voicing contrasts, is training your ear. If you’ve purchased our book Talking Business: When English Is Your Second Language, you already have access to downloadable audio files of each of the sounds of American English, including practice for words that use either the /s/ or the /z/ sound. If you haven’t purchased our book yet, you can get your copy here.

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