Let me tell you about Veronique:


She’d studied English for three years. She had great vocabulary and she understood English grammar (She even knew how to use present perfect!). But she hated talking to English speakers.


Why? Because she couldn’t understand spoken English, and when she spoke, people couldn’t understand her. Sound familiar?


In this article I’m going to show you some exciting and effective new ways of improving your speaking and listening skills… So, let’s get started.


How many sounds do you know?


Imagine you wanted to play beautiful music on the piano. Which of these pianos would you buy: a piano with all the keys, or one that has some keys missing?


Well, you’d choose the one with all the keys! It’s obvious that if you want to play beautiful music, you need the piano that has got all its keys.


The same thing is true with learning a new language. There are 88 keys on a piano, and there are 42 vowel and consonant sounds (phonemes) in English.  Each language uses a different set of phonemes. Some sounds will be the same as your first language, some will be different.


This means that learning a new language always involves learning new sounds.


For example, if your first language is Russian, there are 10 English phonemes that will be new to you. Sounds you don’t use in Russian. Or if you’re a native Italian speaker, you’ll need to learn 18 new sounds.


If you find it hard to understand spoken English and your own pronunciation makes it hard to be understood, then it is incredibly frustrating – because, after all, learning a new language is all about connecting with other people, being able to talk about things that matter to you in the best way you can.



You can’t become a good piano player just by listening to other pianists.


And like with English, you can't become a good English speaker just through osmosis (unconsious absorption of knowledge, ideas, or language)! Remember Veronique? She had studied English for three years, mostly using her eyes, hands and brain to read and write. She hadn’t spent much time training her ears and tongue to listen and speak.


Sure, she’d listened to lots of spoken English, but her attention was always on the meaning, not the sounds she was hearing.


If you were learning piano, there are three things you would need to do:


#1 Really understand the sounds of piano music…


#2 Hear new sounds clearly so you can tell them apart…


#3 Then train the muscles in your hand to produce those sounds as fluently as possible.



You can improve your speaking skills in exactly the same way. Here's how:


#1. The first step is all about getting to know the phonemes that exist in English, but don’t exist in your first language.


I really recommend getting support and feedback with new sounds – here’s why:


Our brains are amazing, they help us learn new things every day. But the brain likes to organise new information by comparing it to things it already knows. When the brain learns something new, it remembers the new information better if it can match it with something it already knows.


SO, when you hear new phonemes, the first thing your brain will assume that the new sound is actually the same as one it already knows. AND if the brain doesn’t recognise the phonemes as new and different then it’s nearly impossible to train the ear to hear the difference.  AND if the ear can’t hear the new phoneme then it’s impossible to train the tongue to produce it.


Here are two examples:


  • Korean and Japanese languages don’t distinguish between the phonemes /r/ and /l/. The two sounds are not differentiated in these languages: /r/ is known, but /l/ is not.
  • French speakers have a similar difficulty with /i:/ and /I/. There are two different phonemes in English, and in French there is only one.


BEFORE we can learn how to hear and produce new sounds, we need feedback to help us conceptualise the new sounds. The best person to help you here is your teacher: We all study phonetics as part of our training, so ask your teacher for help and advice.




Listen to the audio recording here. It contains two exercises comparing related phonemes:


  • The first exercise looks at the difference between the /ae/ sound in ‘bad’ and the /e/ sound in ‘bed’. This often causes problems for native speakers of German, Scandinavian, Russian and most South Asian languages.
  • The second exercise looks at the difference between the /p/ sound in ‘pen’ and the /b/ sound in ‘big’. This often causes problems for native speakers of Arabic and Chinese languages.


If you find it hard to hear the difference, then this is an English sound you need to work on with your teacher. When you have compared the two sounds in each exercise, why not try recording yourself as well?  




#2 The second step is all your ears: Learning to hear sounds is important.


Remember Veronique – her problem was that when she was learning English she only listened for meaning, not sound. Of course, it’s really important to listen for meaning, BUT, learning to hear sounds is important too.


Your teacher will probably use ‘minimal pairs’ with you to help you hear the difference between pairs of words where just one sound is different. These are very useful – have a look at these examples:

/i/ /I/   /p/ /b/

/f/ /v/  
been bin   pour bore   safe save  
heat hit   prick brick   foul vowel  
sheep ship   cup cub   leaf leave  
feel fill   triple treble   refuse reviews  


English speakers talk very fast, and the spoken English habit of ‘swallowing our words’ makes it even more important that you can quickly recognise different phonemes. Once you’ve trained your brain to conceptualise these new sounds, you’ll begin to hear them clearly.


Practice regularly, and this will really help you improve your listening skills.




Click here for a short audio recording to help you practice some pairs of phonemes.  Look at the texts below: You will hear me read each text twice. The first time I will read the whole text, but the second time, I will just focus pronouncing a pair of phonemes. Listen, and try these for yourself.


A:  People bring big presents for babies. Harper gets upset when Bob disturbs his camping table.

phonemes: /b/ and /p/


B: Maria’s an amateur. She cures fear. She uses pure beer to clear insecure ideas.

phonemes: /ɪə/ and /ʊə/


Practise the phonemes first, listening carefully until the sound is right, and then try reading the whole text… Can you hear the sounds more clearly?



#3 The third step is training your tongue and vocal muscles.


It will feel awkward at first.


When you speak your first language, you move your tongue and other muscles automatically. You don’t have to stop and think about where to put your tongue to make the sounds in your first language. With new sounds, you need to train your tongue to make different movements.


Different phonemes are produced by changing the position of the tongue, lips and other speaking muscles. Think about how you are moving your tongue when you learn new sounds. It will help you produce new English sounds.


Practise the /i:/ and /u/ sounds (seat – suit) – you’ll be able to feel your tongue moving backwards. Then practice /i:/ and /æ/ (seat – sat). Can you feel your tongue moving down to the bottom of your mouth?


Take plenty of time to practice the phonemes that are new to you, and you’ll soon be able to them to your muscle memory and improve your speaking skills.




For this activity, you’re going to practice some tongue twisters. These are like gym practice for your vocal muscles. It will feel awkward at first, and after a practice session your vocal muscles will ache, and your throat might feel sore. That’s normal.


Listen to the audio activity here, and see if you can feel the tongue moving in your mouth as you produce these sounds.


Red lorry, yellow lorry


A proper copper coffee pot





I hope I’ve encouraged you to think differently about learning to hear and produce English phonemes. Veronique made lots of progress using exercises like these – What about you?


I’d love to hear your feedback – please do leave comments below ????


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