To B or Not to V? THAT is the question

(At least…its one of your questions, if your L1 [first language] is Arabic, Burmese, Cebuano, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Javanese, Korean, Marshallese, Navajo, Persian/Farsi, Spanish, or Tagalog)


Last week I talked with Jennifer England of English Laboratory in Lleida, Spain, about the best way to help L1 Spanish speakers master the B – V problem in their English pronunciation.  I’ve written a longer article that will be published in the Radical English Newsletter this winter, and I’ll let you know when it comes out, but here’s a summary.

For talking about and teaching sounds, Jennifer uses Judy Thompson’s EPA [English Pronunciation Alphabet], a much simpler and more logical way to teach English sounds than the standard IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet].  Peggy uses Judy’s EPA or whatever her (adult) clients are accustomed to.

Since B and V are the same in Spanish, raising awareness of their difference in English is key.  Developing an awareness of new sounds means more than just telling students about it.  It means making our bodies (articulation muscles) aware, giving them lots of practice opportunities to try out these new positions, and returning over and over to these new positions, so they become natural and habitual.  The challenge here seems to be dividing one Spanish sound into two English sounds, but if we think about it this way, we will always be using Spanish as our first reference system and chances of permanent change lessen.

We need a different reference system where we can anchor these different, new articulation patterns.  To develop awareness visually, I use The University of Iowa’s Phonetic Site.  Here we can see B and V within a system of English sounds, and we can also see B within a system of Spanish sounds, so there are lots of opportunities to compare and contrast them.  In addition, there is a clear difference between the sounds of Spanish B and English B.  Showing your adult students this will strengthen their ability to differentiate Spanish B, English B and English V.

Next, we develop awareness physically by comparing our movements and ‘positions’ with the models’, using a mirror to examine what we are really doing with our mouths and lips, and noting how it should look and sound when we make an English B or V, versus a Spanish B.  Doing this ties the visual (mirror) with the physical (articulation positions); now we’ve linked two senses: sight and feel, so we’re doubling the strength of our learning.

We must teach our speaking muscles to take on these new positions more easily, through repetitive practice.  Just like going to the gym, just like practicing dance steps, we get stronger and more fluid and more comfortable with repetition.  Even adult Spanish speakers (perhaps I should say especially adults) need to do this repetitive practice until it becomes habitual.  We do this through minimal pairs practice, working on speaking (for strength and fluidity) and on listening (for comprehension but also because the more links we make, the quicker we process and incorporate these new sounds).  I use Pronunciation Contrasts in English because they give the target sounds (e.g. B and V) at the beginning of a word, in the middle, and at the end.  Sometimes pronunciation problems only occur near certain other sounds, or in certain locations.  To strengthen our command of the sounds, I use the listening discrimination exercises at the ManyThings website to reinforce awareness of the difference between B and V.  Now we’ve linked sight, feel and sound awareness; we’ve tripled the strength of our learning.

English B and V are not natural for Spanish speakers, so they must use them often in order to maintain the difference.  Practice pronouncing B vs. V words just as you practice going to the gym or you practice a new dance movement.  Once the difference is understood, and mastered, maintenance work is a must.  A short list of minimal pair words with a modeled pronunciation to hear and mimic, then to chime in with, is the best practice.  Research by Dr. Olle Kjellen supports the neurophysiological benefits of choral recitation.  Just by chanting along with the model, our own articulation gradually improves.  Drilling these word pairs with regularity will keep the physical feel and difference alive in our bodies and our minds.

‘Obrigada’ to my colleague, friend and co-conspirator, Teresa Almeida D’Eca, for the catchy title of this post!  

Peggy Tharpe teaches, coaches, and publishes about English pronunciation and intonation. She believes that if you understand why something is happening, you're better able to address it and change it. She teaches the "why" of pronunciation as well as the "what" and "how".

To B or Not to V...THAT is the question for many English language learners. Click To Tweet