Action and Reaction in Pronunciation

British English pronunciation uses a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. The sounds of RP are aspirated from the front of the mouth. But what exactly does that mean?

During my early days of teaching pronunciation, I remember teaching the plosive sound /t/ to a Japanese student. For native speakers, producing this sound seems effortless. Yet, my Japanese student experienced deep frustration in his attempts to articulate this sound. The harder he tried, the worse he sounded. In fact his speech started to sound more Korean or Chinese. It became evident that the more he exerted himself, the worse the outcome. It seemed he was overexerting, which is precisely the problem.

Now let’s break this down to try and understand exactly what’s going on. The /t/ sound is a plosive sound and a stop consonant. A plosive sound is a consonant sound made by stopping airflow and then suddenly releasing it.

The important concept to understand here that is the stopping of airflow. Why is this pause significant? First we trap the air holding the tongue into position. Then we release the tongue upon the /t/ sound.

In physics, Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This principle is akin to the dynamics of the /t/ sound. The action, represented by the effort to trap air, leads to the reaction of releasing it, resulting in the aspirated sound. This effortless release follows the initial effort made fractions of a second prior to articulating the /t/ sound. This elucidates why native-like pronunciation becomes more accessible once this pattern of trapping and releasing air is recognized.