Consonant clusters: the bane of your life

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English as a Foreign Language (EFL) By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: English » English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
Last updated: 16/10/2012
Tags: consonant clusters, english as a foreign language (efl), english pronunciation

In the time I've spent teaching EFL, a difficulty my students have had time and again is the pronunciation of consonant clusters. It isn't enough that English has individual consonants that don't exist in other languages, we have to go and mix them together, unseparated by vowels. This can leave the most advanced student with their tongue tied in knots, stuck on an apparently simple piece of vocabulary, such as 'asked' or 'strongly'. I feel we might have done this on purpose at some point in our history, and I apologise for that.

There are, luckily, a few tricks that you can employ in order to learn to pronounce consonant clusters with greater accuracy and confidence. The first is repeating tongue twisters containing plenty of clusters. These range from relatively easy ones, which tend to be shorter and contain a small variety of vowel sounds and a variety of consonant clusters that exercises the whole mouth ("I asked Marx to throw me the charts"), to tongue-twisters that can damage even a native speaker's vocal chords ("The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick". According to the Guinness book of World Records, this is the English language's "hardest tongue twister").

Choose a tongue twister, and repeat it a few times. Think about what sounds you find difficult. Once you and your teacher have identified these sounds, you can move on to the second trick, minimal pairs. These are pairs of words in which one sound is changed. To practice the final /skt/ sound at the end of 'asked', for example, you could repeat 'asked' and 'mask' several times. Both words have the same vowel, /a:/; 'mask', however, is missing the final /t/. Start slowly, and pay attention to the way your mouth feels as you say each one. As you become more confident, speed up, and then stop, and say each word individually. Choose a couple of minimal pairs each week, focussing on sounds you have trouble with, and repeat them for five minutes every day until your mouth becomes used to the sounds it needs to make.

You will sound ridiculous when you do this, which is unfortunate, because my final trick is fairly loud. Once you have identified the problems in your tongue twister, practised the sounds with minimal pairs, and are able to get through the full thing without much difficulty, then you shout it. As loudly as you can. If you feel musical, then you can even sing it. The louder you speak, the easier it is to enunciate clearly, and this will (honestly) build your confidence with the sound. If you are too shy to do this, then that is not a problem. There is another way. Clap your hands at an even speed. Fit the rhythm of the tongue-twister to the speed of your clapping. By concentrating on the rhythm, you stop thinking too hard about the pronunciation of the words, which anyway you can do fine by now. If you have learned the tongue-twister properly, then this should show you that your mouth is now able to make the sounds you need without your having to think about it at all.

Some good tongue twisters are available here:, and here:






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