As anyone will know who has studied Latin or who speaks a Romance language, the term ‘bilabial’ comes from bi- (twice, double), and labialis (having to do with the lips). In the pronunciation of English, the three consonant sounds that are made by bringing our lips together are /p/, /b/ and /m/ as in pat, bat and mat, respectively.
The action of bringing our lips together is natural. Mammals breastfeed their young, who bring their lips together to draw nourishment, and I wasn’t surprised some time back to discover that in a significant number of quite different languages the word for ‘mother’ begins with or contains the /m/ sound. Similarly, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these three sounds figure in most of the world’s languages, if not all.
On paper, then, these are sounds that shouldn’t cause too much problem. In practice, life’s not quite so simple. Even a sound as primeval as /m/ has its problems for speakers of English from some first-language backgrounds. It can’t appear at the end of a word in Spanish, for example, so the name ‘Adam’ is often pronounced with a final /n/ in Spanish-accented English. It’s not that Spanish-L1 learners can’t pronounce /m/, but that a deep-seated, subconcious rule transfers across and prevents the automatic pronunciation of /m/ in that final position. Greek-L1 speakers, in contrast, don’t pronounce /m/ before /b/ and so ‘gamble’ will sound like ‘gabble’ [Almost immediately after publishing this post, I learned that this is NOT correct. Please see Daniel Barber’s comment at the end of the post, and my reply to Daniel for the correct description of the problem]. Again, this is not a question of having to show learners how to make /m/. Rather, it’s about creating exercises with vocabulary that targets the /m/+/b/ consonant ‘cobbination’, and so helps students to overcome their first-language habit. Patience is an asset in both cases. Lots of patience.
Where things really get tricky, however, is with /p/ and /b/. Quite often the pedagocical focus with these two consonants is placed on voicing (the vibration of our vocal chords when we speak). /p/ is described as voiceless (i.e. there is no vibration of the vocal chords) and /b/ as voiced (i.e. the vocal chords vibrate as we pronounce the sound). However, the difference between words like pat or bat does not lie in voicing, since when it comes before a stressed syllable, /b/ is only very lightly voiced, or is totally devoiced. The key difference between these two sounds when they come at the beginning of a stressed syllable, and hence the focus of our teaching, lies in the fact that in English /p/ is significantly more strongly aspirated than /b/.
Aspiration is a small puff of air that is released as the lips separate as we finish making /p/ . (Go to Google Images and type in ‘aspiration’ if you need to know more). Though aspiration is the key difference between /p/ and /b/ in English, it is not a distinguishing feature of these sounds in many other languages, including Arabic, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Polish, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish. Learners from these language backgrounds will need our help here.
The finger is also pointed at voicing for the difference between cap and cab. This leads teachers to focus on the voicing of the final /b/, and, although it embarrasses me now to admit to it, I can remember getting my own students to put their thumb and first finger on their throats and feel the voicing in ‘cab’ that was absent from ‘cap’. Unfortunately, final /b/ in English is only weakly voiced (if at all), and so once again, we’re left momentarily wondering how we manage to distinguish between these two sounds when they occur at the ends of words.
The answer lies not in the consonant themselves, but in the preceding vowel, which is shorter before /p/ than it is before /b/. This shortening effect (technically know as fortis clipping), is actually what the ear notices when it has to distinguish between similar pairs of words like cap and cab. The vowel in cab is significantly longer than the vowel in cap, and with learners whose first language is German, Polish or Russian, for example, we need to focus their attention on generating and perfecting this ‘extra’ vowel length rather than artificially voicing the final /b/.
A third, less frequent problem, is the confusion of /b/ with /v/. Spanish and Japanese speakers, for example, come to English with sounds that are neither /b/ nor /v/ but that can be understood as either. This classic pronunciation problem is usually illustrated through the confusion of words like boat and vote or berry and very, and arises because neither Spanish or Japanese have the phoneme /v/, and in its absence speakers from both language backgrounds use /β/, a bilabial sound which not in the pronunciation of English and which is usually heard as /b/ even though it is not the same.
This problem reappears in the opposite direction, however, when /b/ comes between vowels, as in words like habit or global. Here the influence of their first languages causes Spanish and Japanese speakers to use /β/, which this time is frequently heard as /v/, changing the intended word (habit = have it), or creating a nonsense word (global = gloval). Either way, communication is threatened. Something similar happens with Korean speakers of English, whose attempts at /f/, a sound that Korean does not have, can sound like /p/, making coffee sound like copy.
So, this was going to be an easier post. Nothing as abstract or potentially controversial as the two posts on accent. However, when you get past a basic treatment of even seemingly simple sounds, you discover that, as with accent, you’ve entered a bit of a minefield. And a post like this isn’t going to get you out of it, though if the post has served its purpose, it will at least have made you conscious of where you are.
To help you get out safely there are a number of books that have sections dedicated to the problems that learners from specific L1s have with the pronunciation of English. These include:
- Teaching the Pronunciation of American English. Peter Avery & Susan Ehrlich. Oxford University Press.
- Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. Michael Swan & Bernard Smith. Cambridge University Press.
- Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Robin Walker (Yes, that’s me.) Oxford University Press.
You can also find information on the internet but not all of it is reliable because it hasn’t always been edited by a professional. Editors are the bane of any writer’s life, but they do make you check your facts. (Wish I had one here now, in fact!)