Did you know that there are well over 100 different distinct sounds that can be produced by the human vocal system? Yet the average language only uses a couple dozen of them. The sounds used in a given language are known as phonemes, or the smallest unit of sound used to distinguish between utterances in a language. They do not have any meaning themselves, but boy, can they have an impact on the meaning of a word if you put the wrong phoneme in the wrong place!
When two words differ by only one phoneme*, they are called a minimal pair. For example, take the English words “bad” and “bat.” Phonetically, they are almost identical, with the only difference being “d” is voiced (you vibrate your vocal chords) and “t” is voiceless (you don’t vibrate your vocal chords). Otherwise, they are produced with the same tongue positioning in the same part of the mouth.
Because some of these phonemes are so similar, it can be hard for speakers of one language to distinguish the difference between them. That is why a native Japanese speaker has a hard time with “l” and “r” in the English language, because physically, they are very similar in how they are produced. The English “r” is a voiced alveolar approximant, and “l” is a voiced alveolar lateral approximant (see the IPA chart below. I will give more of an explanation of the IPA chart in a later post). [note-they have trouble making the sound because they don’t hear the difference because they don’t have the sounds in their language.]
I ran into a lot of problems with minimal pairs when I was learning Russian. For example, they have a difference between “hard” and “soft” consonants. I frequently said the word mat, which means “obscene language,” when I wanted to say the word mat’, which means mother. The only difference in the pronunciation was a very slight expiration of air after the “t” in mat’ that softened the sound and was almost indistinguishable to me.
Minimal pairs don’t always have to involve similar phonemes. The main thing is that they are almost identical except for one phoneme. For example, I also confused the words razvyelis, meaning “they have gotten divorced,” and razdyelis, meaning “they have gotten undressed.” This led to some pretty awkward conversations! Again, it was only one phoneme that changed everything, though as you can see on the IPA chart above, they are at very different places in the mouth (“v” is a voiced labiodental fricative and “d” is a voiced alveolar plosive).
So as you can see, pronunciation matters! Even a slight difference, even one imperceptible to you, can completely change the meaning of what you are saying. It takes a lot of practice and listening to tell the difference between some phonemes, but the results are worth the effort. My suggestion is to find out what some of the sounds are in the language you are studying that are difficult for non-native speakers and find ways to listen to native speakers pronouncing them repeatedly, especially in contrast to similar sounds or in minimal pairs. Get a recording of this and listen to it until you can hear the differences, and then work on pronouncing those sounds like your native-speaker friend.
* Technically, a minimal pair can differ by tonemes and chronemes as well, but we’ll cover those in a later post, or if you can’t wait, check out this great article here.