129: Portuguese speakers special, part 2

Troublesome consonant sounds for Portuguese speakers.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 129th episode.

Episode 127 covered the vowel sound issues faced by native Portuguese speakers. Now lets get into some issues with consonant sounds.

Here is a warning: I'm about to give you a lot of information all at once. If this is the first time you're hearing all of this, you'll want to go back and listen to related podcasts, or it will just be too much to fully understand. Also, for complicated episodes like this one, reading the transcripts while listening is a good idea. You can find transcripts and links to the free Pronuncian lessons associated with this episode at www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

Here we go.

Native Portuguese speakers tend to have a fair amount of trouble with discontinuous consonants. Discontinuous consonants are all the sounds that require the air to be stopped at some point before leaving the vocal tract. In English, we have 8 discontinuous consonants: 6 are stops and 2 are affricates.

Let's start with the stops.

All the stop sounds occur in voiced and unvoiced pairs, meaning that the overall shape of the vocal tract is the same for the voiced and the unvoiced sound. The b sound, d sound, and g sound, are voiced, while the p sound, t sound, and k sound are unvoiced. The voiced sounds require our vocals cords to vibrate, and the unvoiced sounds do not. Another equally important difference between voiced and unvoiced stops is aspiration. Aspiration is the puff of air that comes out when the stop is released.

Consonant Issue 1: Not fully aspirating unvoiced stop sounds at the beginning of words

When an unvoiced stop occurs at the beginning of a word, it is given a large amount of aspiration (a large puff of air). The aspiration of unvoiced stops and the lack of aspiration of voiced stops is actually just as important as voicing or not for the purposes of understandability. You can feel the amount of aspiration by putting a few fingers in front of your mouth when you create the sound. You should notice a rather dramatic difference in the amount of puff. Say these sounds after me:

p sound/b sound: (p sound, b sound)
t sound/d sound: (t sound, d sound)
k sound/g sound (k sound, g sound)

Could you feel a difference?

Let's practice some minimal pairs of words that begin with unvoiced and voiced stops. I'm going to use the same examples that are on the Introduction to Stops lesson on Pronuncian.com. Repeat these words after me, and make sure you have greater aspiration for the unvoiced stop:

p sound/b sound: pig, big
t sound/d sound: time, dime
k sound/g sound: cold, gold

Consonant Issue 2: not stopping the air during affricates

Just a bit ago I said that we have 8 discontinuous consonants, and that 6 are stops and 2 are affricates. The two affricates are the ch sound (ch sound ) and the j sound (j sound).

An affricate is like a stop because all the air is briefly stopped from leaving the vocal tract, but when an affricate is released, it is released with friction. To put it another way, there is more sound during the release of an affricate than there is during the release of a stop. The final part of the ch sound (ch sound ) is basically an sh sound (sh sound). The final part of the j sound (j sound), is like a zh sound (zh sound).

The problem Portuguese speakers have with affricates is not in how the air is released, but that the air is never stopped to begin with. If the air is not stopped, native English speakers will hear only the sh sound or zh sound. This is a bigger problem with the ch sound because there are more minimal pairs between the ch sound and sh sound. Here are just a few of those minimal pairs (I'll say the word with the ch sound

chew, shoe
chair, share
witch (which), wish

There is only one common minimal pair between the j sound and the zh sound, but it is noteworthy. That minimal pair is virgin and version, so don't think that the j sound isn't also important.

Consonant Issue 3: Pronouncing the th sounds as the t sound and d sound

I just told you about a problem that can occur when the ch sound and j sound are not stopped at the beginning. The next problem is adding a stop when there shouldn't be one. American English has two th sounds: a voiced th (voiced th), as in the word them, and an unvoiced th (unvoiced th) as in the word think. Native Portuguese speakers (along with a huge number of other non-native English speakers) substitute a t sound for an unvoiced th sound and a d sound for a voiced th sound.

If you have trouble smoothly transitioning to and from the th sounds, try to create the sounds by placing the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth and blowing air into the back of your teeth rather than putting your tongue between your front teeth. When your tongue is between your front teeth it is so far forward that many people have trouble moving quickly enough between sounds. That causes speakers to substitute a different sound that is easier to say. Again, for the voiced and unvoiced th sounds, that is usually the d sound and t sound.

Let's practice some minimal pairs between these sounds. I'll start with the unvoiced th and t sound. I'll say the unvoiced th sound first, and I'll leave time for you to repeat after me:

bath, bat
both, boat
three, tree

And here are some minimal pairs between the voiced th sound and the d sound. I'll say the voiced th sound first, and again, I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.

their, dare
then, den
breathe, breed

Consonant Issue 4: Pronouncing the z sound as an s sound

Another pair of voiced/unvoiced consonant sounds that cause problems for native Portuguese speakers is saying the s sound when the correct sound would be a z sound. Much of this may be due to the fact that the z sound is so often spelled with an s.

In fact, all of the following high-frequency words end in a z sound, not an an s sound (please repeat after me):


Consonant Issue 5: Tapping the r sound

When I say that Portuguese speakers tap the r sound, I mean that there is a tendency to very quickly touch the tip of the tongue to the tooth ridge during the r sound. It sounds a bit like this: (tapped r). The technical name for this sound is an alveolar tap, and we actually do have this sound in American English, except that in American English it has nothing to do with an r sound. We use the alveolar tap like a quick, voiced t sound, such as in the word item, and the middle of the word water.


The r sound in American English, however, does not sound like this. Instead, we use a smooth, untapped sound (r sound). The place that it seems Portuguese speakers are most likely to tap their r sound is when it follows the unvoiced th sound. Listen to and repeat the following words after me, and be careful to not tap your r sound:


So those are the top five consonant pronunciation errors for native Portuguese speakers. If you missed the episode about vowel sounds, I covered those errors just a few weeks ago in episode 127.

If you have questions about anything I mentioned here, you can post them on our new forums located at www.englishassembly.com. I'd love to have more interaction on the forums from native Portuguese speakers since I know so many of you download these podcasts and use the Pronuncian materials. Please, join the conversations!

As I say every week, listening practice is incredibly important for improving your own pronunciation. Therefore, I'm going to remind you that you can download a free Audible.com audiobook by using our special promotion code www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. You just need to sign up for a free two week trial, pick your book, download it, and then you can immediately cancel your subscription if you want. You get to keep your book and listen to it as many times as you want.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.