133: t/d, p/b, and k/g at the beginning of a word

Puff practice! Stop sounds at the beginning of words.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 133rd episode.

Today I'm going to revisit stop sounds at the beginning of words. This topic seems so simple, yet it is hugely important when it comes to being understood.

First, let's review the concepts of stop sounds, and of voiced and unvoiced consonant sounds.

Stops are created when we stop the air before letting it out our mouth, and then release it quickly and without friction. English has six consonant stops: the t sound (t sound), d sound (d sound), p sound (p sound), b sound (b sound), k sound (k sound) and g sound (g sound).

The other very important point about stop sounds is that they occur in voiced and unvoiced pairs. At a broad level of description, a voiced sound uses our vocal cords during the sound's creation, and an unvoiced sound does not. To understand this better, place a few fingers against the front of your neck and say the d sound (d sound). You should feel a vibration against your fingers. Now say the t sound (t sound). Be careful to not add a vowel sound to the t sound. Don't say "tuh," just (t sound). Say them both again so you can feel the difference between the voiced and unvoiced sound: (d sound, t sound).

A voiced and unvoiced pair uses the same movement of the vocal tract to form both sounds of the pair. For instance, my tongue moves to the same place for the t sound and the d sound (t sound, d sound). Similarly, the lips have the same movement during the p sound and the b sound (p sound, b sound). This makes them a pair.

When we have a stop sound at the beginning of a word there is a difference between the voiced and unvoiced sounds that is actually more important than the voicing or not. This very important difference is how much of a puff of air is released with the sound. This puff is called the aspiration.

In English, we produce a much greater puff with the release of an unvoiced stop than with a voiced stop. This causes trouble for speakers coming from languages where this isn't true such as French, Spanish, and Dutch.

The first clue that you might not be aspirating your unvoiced stops enough is that people sometimes misunderstand you when you say words that begin with the t sound, p sound, or k sound. This seems to especially happen with the p sound.

The way to check if you are aspirating enough is by putting your fingers right in front of your mouth, very close to your lips. When you say the unvoiced sounds you should feel a pretty big difference in the puff of air that hits your finger. For example, say the words to and do. You should feel much more air hit your fingers at the beginning of the word to: to, do; to, do.

Let's practice some minimal sets between unvoiced and voiced stop sounds at the beginning of words. There are very few minimal sets that include a word for every one of the six English stop sounds, so I'm going to say sets that include two of the three pairs. I'll say the unvoiced stop first, then the voiced counterpart, then another unvoiced stop, and then its counterpart. After I say all four words, I'll leave time for you to repeat after me.

If you are unsure if you are pronouncing these sounds correctly or not, keep your fingers in front of your lips. You want to feel a much greater puff of air at the beginning of the first word and third word than at the beginning of the second word and the fourth word.


tie, die, pie, buy
ton, done, pun, bun
tuck, duck, puck, buck
tear, dare, pear, bear
post, boast, coast, ghost
polled, bold, cold, gold
tote, dote, coat, goat


All of these minimal sets, and more, are in a new exercise we put up with the Introduction to Stops lesson on Pronuncian. While all of our lessons are free to everyone, only members and subscribers get access to the exercises. The financial support we receive from members is what allows us to keep creating free content like the lessons and these podcasts. Go to www.pronuncian.com/join for details.

Meanwhile, I have linked to the free Introduction to Stops lesson from this show's transcripts. You can find that by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Pronuncian is spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

Let me remind you again that listening to an audio book while seeing the text in a physical book can really help you notice pronunciation details that are hard to catch in regular conversation. You can get a free audio book by signing up for a free 2-week trial of Audible.com. You get to keep your book even if you cancel your subscription before the trial is complete. Just go to www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. It's a great way to learn!

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.