Final /i/ and /m/: pronunciation for teachers

After receiving some positive feedback on my previous post about pronunciation, I started thinking about other pronunciation areas that I thought were problematic. These are mistakes your students will certainly make, but that you may be making yourself too.

The two sounds I have chosen have a couple of similarities to the /s/ and /z/ I mentioned last time. First of all, these are common mistakes made by Brazilian speakers of English. The final /m/ is a bilabial consonant, which means your lips touch to stop the air coming through the mouth. You can see an animation of the movement here (click on consonants – place and then on bilabial).

Now, the reason why this sound is problematic for Brazilians is that words that are spelt with a final M in Portuguese are pronounced like /n/. Take, for instance, the word também. Say it out loud, and notice that your lips don’t touch at the end. In English, saying /n/ instead of /m/ at the end of words can frequently lead to confusion.

Consider the following minimal pairs.

Them and Then

Gym and Gin

Gum and Gun

Scream and Screen

The only difference in pronunciation is that the first word in the pairs has a final /m/ and the second one a final /n/. Naturally, context helps clarify what you mean, but it usually takes me a second or two to understand what people mean.

The /i/ sound is trickier. If you are familiar with the phonemic table devised by Adrian Underhill, you might say that this is a symbol that doesn’t exist. However, if you look up a word like coffee in the dictionary you’ll notice that the final vowel sound is an /i/. This is a sound that exists between /i:/ and /ɪ/ and is often used to represent the final Y in words like study /ˈstʌd.i/, heavy /ˈhev.i/  or story /ˈstɔː.ri/.

Here comes the problem (and this was first brought to my attention by Ricardo Sili, during a pronunciation workshop at Braz-Tesol). Brazilians are often told by teachers not to pronounce the letter E at the end of words such as ‘have’, ‘like’ or ‘because’. This may end up having the unintended consequence of having students not pronounce final vowel sounds when they should be pronounced. Thus, ‘coffee’, ‘study’ and ‘story’ become ‘cough’, ‘stud’ and ‘store’.

Pay close attention to your pronunciation of these words. Don’t panic if you realise you mispronounce some of these. The /n/ instead of /m/ still rears its ugly head every now and then when I’m speaking. But being aware of the correct pronunciation will slowly but surely lead to some change.

Thanks for reading

Ricardo Barros

Ricardo Barros is a CELTA tutor and freelance teacher trainer based in Jundiaí–SP. He has taught English since 2003, working as a teacher, teacher trainer, academic coordinator and Cambridge examiner. He holds the DELTA, CELTA and a BA in History from Unicamp. He is a moderator for the BrELT facebook group and advisory council member for BRAZ-TESOL. He also blogs at ricardobarroselt.wordpress.com

3 Comments
  • Natália Guerreiro
    Natália Guerreiro
    Posted at 13:42h, 06 outubro Responder

    Two important difficulties Brazilian have, no doubt about that. Thanks for bringing them up.

    I reckon there is a Master’s thesis in there somewhere: the true causes of the mispronunciation of “coffee” as “cough” (and “emergency” as “emergence”, “difficulty” as “difficult”, etc.). My hypothesis? I don’t think it’s hypercorrection because I hear my students who say “liki” (for like) also say “emergence” (for emergency). And when I say “mede” or “evite” in Portuguese, my British husband hears “med” and “evit”, as our final unstressed vowels are very weak, esp. the final /i/. What I think is at play here is simple L1 interference: our final unstressed /i/ is weak, so we transfer it to English. It’s not really “cough” we’re saying, we do pronounce the [i] but almost breathlessly.

    Similarly, with the nasals, I reckon we nasalize the preceding vowel and either drop the nasal consonant or change it, pronouncing a different consonant and very slightly. Maybe it’s because I’m a Carioca, but I have the impression my “também” is realized as: nasal A, no M or other consonant, nasal EY (Cariocas love a diphthong where none exists) and to round off, a final NH sound (as in niNHo). I don’t think I pronounce an N where there should be an M, but I’m not phoneticist, of course.

    • Natália Guerreiro
      Natália Guerreiro
      Posted at 13:43h, 06 outubro Responder

      Mmm maybe I do pronounce a very small M when my lips are preparing for the B in também, but I’m still nasalizing.

      • Ricardo Barros
        Ricardo Barros
        Posted at 13:05h, 11 outubro Responder

        Hi, Natália. I think you are right when it comes to the final sound in ‘também’. It may sound closer to a NH than an N, but my point it that the lips don’t touch, whereas in a final M in English, lips do have to touch.
        As for a Master’s thesis, I’ll leave that to the experts (aka, you).

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