Working with the confusion between /p/ and /b/

I have just returned from a most interesting and enjoyable trip working with teachers in Beirut, Amman and Ramullah. Organised by the British Council, the purpose was to explore ways of working with pronunciation to make language learning more vivid, motivating, and successful I these regions. And of course the needs of Arabic speakers learning English was a focal point. One of the questions that commonly arises there (also put by Sue Pownall on the Oxford Distance Diploma Course I mentioned in the previous post) is: What advice would you give to tackle the confusion between /p/ and /b/?
Regarding the confusion between /p/ and /b/, as always the first thing is to get below the grip of the mother tongue phonetic set, which affects not only the muscles, making them habitually default to mother tongue versions of any spoken sound, but affects the hearing too. The ear too is in the grip of the mother tongue phonetic set, which is part of the problem with the listen-and-repeat approach to pron (and the best way to re-educate the ear is to get the mouth making a different sound. Once you can say it, suddenly you can hear it. Have you experienced that? This is especially interesting as it is the opposite of the typical Behaviourist paradigm, which says that hearing comes first, and the ear teaches the mouth, etc etc).

OK. Lots of ways of approaching /p/ and /b/. Most of them are what I call physical, ie helping the learner re-establish the link with the particular muscle set that make the difference. The first step is for you the teacher to find in your in mouth what is going on with /p/ and /b/. No pron work can be done without you the teacher going and exploring the territory first, not in books but in your mouth, because otherwise all you will be able to do is variations on listen and repeat.

So, say the two sounds /p/ and /b/ yourself. Do them fast, and then slow, and then very slow. Do them without a following vowel (adding a vowel makes them both sound voiced) so you can notice the voice difference. Hold the palm of the hand against the Adam’s apple, notice the vibration on /b/. So that directs you to voiced and unvoiced. Go to the much safer /s/ and /z/ contrast to help students see this voice / unvoice distinction and to operate it at will, then transfer the insight back to /p/ and /b/. But is voice/unvoice the only difference between /p/ and /b/? Easy to find out: just whisper the two and see if there is still any difference. OK, right….so there is. Yes, and what is it? Put the palm of the hand close to the lips. Say /p/ and /b/. What do you notice? Do the same with a sheet of paper. See how it moves? That is telling you that with /p/ there is more build up of breath force behind the lips prior to the breath release. With /b/ there is less. Explore this difference. For example, say /p/ so slowly that you can feel the build up of air behind the two lips before it is finally released.

This means two things, 1. If muscles move it is probably visible. Say it slowly enough and detect a mini pout of the lips felt by you, and also visible to the student, as the closed lips are pushed forward by the unreleased air pressure. Get them to see it, and this will inform their muscles. 2. It also means that the muscle tone in your lips for /p/ and /b/ is a bit different. For /p/ the lip muscles are a little softer, more stretchy, so the air can build up and eventually ‘pop’ the lips apart. For /b/ the build up of pressure is actually behind the vocal cords rather then the lips, thus the lips need not be as flexible, they do not ‘pop’ and they do not blow the sheet of paper.  But these are all words. You have to find the physicality of this in your own mouth, only then do you know exactly what you need to ask the students to do. Only then do you qualify as ‘guide’. Here are some things you can do and later get your students to do:

1. Make a voiced/unvoiced distinction (maybe start with /s/ and/z/)
2. Make a strong/weak breath force distinction (called fortis/lenis) so that the paper moves for /p/ and does not for /b/.

3. Get students to observe and imitate the mini pout for /p/
4. Say either of the sounds yourself and ask student to point at the corresponding box on chart. The other students agree or not
5. The reverse. Student says either sound and you point at what you actually hear. At first they can’t do it. Be honest so that they struggle a bit. If they make a sound which is not either /b/ or /p/, draw for that a temporary sound box on the board with a made up symbol in it, thus extending the chart to include one locally produced ‘wrong’ sound.  Now you can also point to that sound when ever they say it. They need this feedback to re-educate muscles and ears.
6. Point silently on the chart making words with /p/ or /b/, and invite the class to say them. At first maybe they can’t. That’s ok. The first step of correction is not that the student is corrected, but that they see something they did not see before. They get an insight, usually into the muscles. The second step is (gradually) to turn insight into correctness, which may take days, and the teacher has to keep up the gentle pressure.

I’m sure readers have many further interesting and novel approaches to /p/ and /b/….

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3 Responses to Working with the confusion between /p/ and /b/

  1. Sana' says:

    You are very great Prof. Adrian

  2. Hanan says:

    A bunch of thanks…… Very very useful.

  3. Colleen says:

    Fab thanks

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