Minimal pairs

One assignment for my mostly-Chinese ESL class was to transcribe the words of the song “Danny Boy” from a Youtube clip.  The results were fascinating both for the way they constructed meaning out of the sporadic hints they gleaned from the clip, and for the way they created words out of similar hints.

One line is, “…from glen to glen and down the mountainside,” which seven students transcribed as “…from gland to gland and down the mountainside.” I can think of a many ways to discuss this choice of words, but focused on the minimal pair – “e” and “a.” The Chinese students could not hear the difference.  (One study has suggested that if students are not exposed to sounds very young, they will not be able to distinguish them.)

A colleague, Bekah Palmer, suggested I do some work with minimal pairs, and that sounded like an excellent idea.  I devised a list of e/a minimal pairs, they were: bad, pet, men, Hal, gland, lag, send, thresh, glen, beg, pat, man, rap, rep, leg, hell, sand, and thrash.  I read these words aloud and they wrote what they heard. Some students had one error; some had eight.  The most difficult was Hal/hell.

Tomorrow, I will read a list of another set of minimal pairs, this time “p” and “t”.  They will be:  tie, die, write, ride, set, tear, hat, had, tunes, dread, said, trunk, dill, dip, drunk, dare, tip, tread, and till.  I will be interested to see if they catch “tread,” which is a word from “Danny Boy.”

Since none of these students heard these sounds as babies, it is very difficult for them, but it will be interesting to see if they become somewhat more proficient at distinguishing these sounds from one another.




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