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Voiced and Voiceless in English Pronunciation

The VoiceVoiced and Voiceless (sometimes Unvoiced) describe the two different ways we can make sounds in our mouths.

The basic difference is this:

  • voiced sounds occur when the vocal chords vibrate
  • voiceless sounds occur when the vocal chords are still

An Example of Voiced & Unvoiced

The best way to explain this is with an example. Take these two words:

van – fan

To make both the /v/ sound and the /f/ sound we have our mouth and lips in exactly the same shape; in fact, the only difference between these two sounds is that /v/ is voiced and /f/ is unvoiced.

If you hold your hand lightly against your throat and make the two sounds /v/ and /f/ you can immediately feel the difference.

Try it and see!

Voiced & Voiceless Pairs

These are the most common voiced/voiceless pairs of sounds in English along with a few minimal pairs to help practice them:

voiced unvoiced minimal pair
/b/ /p/ by – pie
/v/ /f/ van – fan
/ð/ /θ/ this – thistle1
/d/ /t/ do – too
/z/ /s/ zed – said
/ʒ/ /ʃ/ genre – shone2
/dʒ/ /tʃ/ gin – chin
/g/ /k/ god – cod

1 this isn’t a minimal pair but it’s close enough
2 nor is this

Voiced, Voiceless and TEFL

It’s sometimes useful to teach these two words (voiced/voiceless) to your class when you come across a particular pronunciation problem which involves this. It’s also useful to show them exactly how we make those sounds – use the fingers on the throat method (but probably best not to put your hands round their throats).

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