Why you shouldn’t buy books to help you with your pronunciation

There are lots of books out there that say they can help you learn good pronunciation. But can you actually learn pronunciation from reading about it? On the one hand, it seems intuitive that to learn good pronunciation you need a teacher who can hear how you are speaking now and who can tell you exactly what you need to change and how to change it. Adding to this, a book can’t let you hear the correct pronunciation or let you see how your mouth should be moving. On the other hand, if you don’t have a teacher, then a book is better than nothing, right?

So can written instructions help people to improve their pronunciation? I haven’t been able to find any studies that looked at this, so I decided to do one myself. I needed a specific pronunciation issue to tackle, and as I am an English teacher for Dutch people, I knew immediately which issue I wanted to address!

Dutch people do this thing…

Dutch people do this thing where words which end in voiced consonants like /d/, /g/, and /z/ will sound like their unvoiced counterparts /t/, /k/, and /s/. In practice, this means “bed” sounds like “bet”, “dog” sounds like “dock”, and “eyes” sounds like “ice”. It’s commonly known as final devoicing, though this suggest it is all about the sound of that last consonant. You’d think that, but it’s actually the vowel length that’s much more important.

I have been fascinated by final devoicing ever since a Dutch talent-show contestant called Dewi released a single in 2003 featuring the lyric “being here with you is paradise, I can see forever in your eyes”. For me, as an English native speaker, “paradise” and “eyes” do not rhyme.

Final devoicing also happens to Dutch people with otherwise impeccable English. One of the Dutch presenters of the Eurovision Song Contest gave me a perfect example to prove my point just a few weeks ago; Chantal Janzen speaks excellent English with an accent modelled on RP (“queen’s English”). But at 2:55 in the final she nonetheless asked permission to “move to the first face of the results”.

It’s not only Dutch people, by the way, Germans do it too, as do most speakers of Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish. Wikipedia has a good list.

I made Dutch people say “eyes” and asked English speakers if they heard “ice”

Glass, Eye, Drink, Weird, Creepy

In May 2021 I asked 73 Dutch people to record five words: “book, eyes, mango, bed, label”. I then presented them with some written pronunciation tips, and asked them to record the same five words again.

24 people were in a control group, and the only tip they read was that it was a good idea to articulate properly, and that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their accent (most Dutch people hate the way they speak English, they think the Dutch English accent is ugly and unrefined, an idea perpetuated by the media. But actually, research has shown that English speakers think the Dutch English accent is fine.)

The experimental groups got a specific tip on how to pronounce words like “eyes” and “bed”, which many Dutch speakers will pronounce like “ice” and “bet”. These instructions can be found here (in Dutch). The main point made is that the trick is not to concentrate on making the /d/ in “bed” more voiced (in other words more like a /d/ and less like a /t/), but instead to make the vowel longer: “beeed”. This helps much more to make it sound more like “bed” and less like “bet”. The instructions were almost exactly the same for the two groups, except the first group got the instructions with audio examples, and the second group got the instructions in writing only.

Judging the experiment: playing the recordings to English speakers

I then put all 146 recordings (two per speaker) of those Dutch people saying “book, eyes, mango, bed, label” into a questionnaire which was filled in by 411 English speakers (not English native speakers per se; people from any country who spoke English). The software randomly selected six of the recordings per participant, and asked them to select what they heard, and how sure they were. The question looked like this:

One remark I got from some of my respondents, was that by giving multiple choice options between “ice” and “eyes” and “bet” and “bed”, I was leading the question.

And the answer is that indeed I was! The thing is, I wasn’t looking to answer the question “how well did this Dutch person succeed in saying eyes“, I was looking to answer the question “how much better did this Dutch person succeed in saying eyes after the intervention.” Because I wanted to be able to compare, I purposely allowed my judges to think that the person might have been saying ice. Firstly by making the answer options multiple choice, secondly by starting the answer options with ice. This way, if the word the Dutch person was saying was even a little bit close to ice, I’d be able to see it in my results.

Another remark I got was that the sequence of five words was too unnatural.

I agree with this. The ideal way of running this experiment would have been to get my Dutch English speakers to say a sentence like “She has green eyes,” then cut only the word “eyes” from the sentence and present that to my judges. And then do the same with “bed”. But this would have meant cutting up 292 audio files, and while I was designing my study I felt this was not a feasible workload considering I had a deadline. In hindsight, I have to say that the part of the study where I was fiddling with audio files was actually less work than I had thought, so perhaps I should have done this after all.

The sequence of words (“book, eyes, mango, bed, label”) might seem really random, but it was actually chosen very carefully. “Book”, “mango” and “label” are words that present no real pronunciation problems for Dutch people; I didn’t want them thinking too much about words that didn’t matter (the speakers did not know that it was only “eyes” and “bed” that I was interested in). All five words are nouns, short, well-known even for Dutch people with a low level of English, and none of them have confusing spelling such as, to name an example that haunted my teenage years, “draught” (for the non-native speakers reading this; it’s pronounced “draft” and, yes, English spelling is spectacularly awful).

The first sounds of “mango” and “label” (sonorants, for the phonetically inclined) interfere the least with the “s” of eyes and the “d” of bed; if the words had been “eyes, cat” then the voicelessness of the /k/ sound would have bled over into the last sound of “eyes”, making it potentially sound more like “ice”, and if the words had been “eyes, bottle” the inverse would have happened.

Then there were also the judges to keep in mind; had I chosen five words such as “water, eyes, sleep, bed, label” then the “water” might have made people more prone to choose “ice” over “eyes” and the “sleep” might have made people more prone to choose “bed” over “bet”. So I made sure to choose words that had nothing to do with eyes, ice, beds or bets.

What were the results?

I had only one statistically significant result, and it was this: If you tell people to mind their pronunciation, then their pronunciation will improve. A bit.

But, importantly, I did not find a difference between my control group and my experimental groups, meaning the specific instructions to combat final devoicing had no effect.

I won’t go into the details of my statistics, but how it worked was basically this: The choices of my judges were transformed to scores: “It’s definite ice” became 1, “I’m pretty sure it’s ice” became 2, “I think it’s ice” became 3, “I think it’s eyes” became 4, “I’m pretty sure it’s eyes” became 5 and “It’s definitely eyes” became 6. That way I could work out averages. If a certain speaker was rated on average as, say 4.6, then that speaker did a reasonably good job at pronouncing “eyes” like “eyes” and not like “ice”, but it could have been better. Then I averaged all the average scores for all the speakers in one group, so I could compare the groups. SPSS is a program that can tell you if the averages are different enough to be real, and not just a coincidence.

As you can see, there’s hardly any difference between the recordings that people got before the instructions (time 1) and the ones after (time 2) – it’s still just big enough to be statistically significant, though. The difference between conditions is not statistically significant.

Why didn’t my written instructions work?

I had a strong suspicion that I would see these results the moment I started listening to the audio recordings I had gathered, especially for “eyes”. Why? Because I had an awful lot of Dutch people whose pronunciation of “eyes” and “bed” was absolutely fine in the first recording. When I went to listen to the second recording of these near-native speakers, for quite a few of them I heard a deterioration of the pronunciation; they were now thinking about it, trying to do a good job, trying to make the vowel longer, but in trying to make the vowel longer, also making the /s/ longer, so they ended up saying “eeeeeeeyssssssss”. Which sounds more like “ice” than the way they were saying it before. And indeed when I looked at the numbers I could see that lots of people who got a good score in the first recording got a worse score in the second. Not the majority, but a good chunk.

“Bed” had less of this problem, as it is not possible to make the sound /d/ any longer than it already is. But something about concentrating on the pronunciation of the word made some people pronounce it less clearly nonetheless.

The moral of the story

The main problem with written pronunciation instructions is that they cannot work if the person trying to improve their pronunciation doesn’t know 1) if the issue that is being discussed is in fact an issue for them, and 2) if they are applying the instructions correctly.

To check this idea I looked at only those respondents who got a bad “grade” in the first recording. Doing this is statistically extremely dubious, because I was left with very, very small groups (between 9 and 14 speakers per group), not to mention this is a classic example of P-hacking. But I can look at a “trend” (a popular word among students-without-significant-results the world over). For “bed”, especially, the graph looks much more like you would expect if you only give instructions to people who actually need them.

Crucially, these people move from “I think it’s bet” (3) to “I think it’s bed” (4) which was the whole point of the pronunciation lesson.

Conclusion: it’s all up to teachers

In my study, I attempted to give a one-size-fits-all pronunciation lesson in writing. But when I listened to my audio recordings what I mostly wanted to do was crawl through the internet cable and coach the speakers personally, because they were all doing slightly different things, and had I been there in person I would have been able to say “you don’t need this tip, your pronunciation was fine!” or “Your “bed” sounds like “bad”, let’s work on that first.” etc.

I also keep thinking of the English teacher who made a great remark in my pre-study: She said that it was already a challenge to get her young high school students to speak English at all, and that correcting their pronunciation would just make them even more intimidated and unwilling to practice speaking. I think she was absolutely right; there is a time and place for pronunciation training, and it is up to the teacher to decide if the student is ready for it.

I think pronunciation tips on paper can work, but there needs to be a person to guide the learner, tell them which tips they need, which ones they don’t, and monitor their progress.

I also now think teacher training is very important. When I did my master’s in Utrecht to become an English teacher, giving pronunciation training was not addressed at all. So I see some room for improvement there.

And the conclusion of the conclusion:

Dear English teachers: your work matters.

Note: This article is a re-working of a much longer previous version that I published on this website just after I got my statistical results but before I had put my thesis together. It was way too long and very rambling.

Note 2: I got 85% for my thesis, yay! I’m not totally happy with it (is anyone ever?); it’s an interdisciplinary thesis and I found the tightrope between psychology, linguistics and educational science a difficult one to walk. But if you are curious, you can download it here.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

“Sir, the dock ate my homework!” – How do English teachers in the Netherlands address final devoicing?

For my master’s thesis, I am looking at one very particular issue of Dutch people’s pronunciation: final devoicing. (Why? I explain that here.) In Dutch, voiced consonants like /d/ and /v/ become voiceless when in end position. So “honden” in singular becomes “hont” (though spelled “hond”) and “dieven” becomes “dief” (here the spelling does follow the pronunciation). Because this happens in Dutch, Dutch people also do it when they speak English, and end up pronouncing “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like “proof” etc.

In a nutshell, I want to figure out the best way to get Dutch people to stop doing this. While doing research I found out that I could not find any information about how English teachers are dealing with this in practice. So I thought it would be a good idea to ask them.

(Something else I found out while doing my literature research, is that final devoicing is not actually final devoicing! It’s actually better referred to as “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation” If you want to know more about that, you can read my article about it here. For clarity, I have decided to just keep calling it “final devoicing” in this article, because as I think you will agree with me, it rolls off the tongue a little more easily than “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.)

So how are English teachers teaching Dutch people the correct pronunciation in practice?

I put out a survey in two Facebook groups and on Reddit to find out.

To keep the survey as short as possible, the only information I asked of my participants what their educational background was and when they graduated.

The survey was filled in by 137 teachers. Most participants (60%) had a bachelor’s (HBO) degree from the Netherlands, 28% had a master’s degree, 4% had a TEFL or similar and 8% filled in “other”; most of these had done a degree in another country or had moved on to a master’s degree after finishing a bachelor’s first.

Most teachers were reasonably fresh out of college, having graduated in the past decade. 18% were still studying to become a teacher.

Do teachers know about final devoicing?

I then explained about final devoicing, giving examples and giving a number of names for the phenomenon, namely “Auslautverhärtung”, “eindklankverscherping” and “final position fortis/lenis neutralisation”.

Only 6% had never heard of the phenomenon, and 38% knew what was meant but hadn’t heard any of the names mentioned.

It seems university master’s degrees give more attention to the subject than HBOs:

An even more striking effect is that degree programmes are clearly paying more attention to the subject nowadays than they used to. Though of course this might also have to do with forgetfulness; teachers who got their degree a while ago might have simply forgotten about final devoicing.

How do teachers help their students when it comes to final devoicing

I asked the teachers who had heard of final devoicing if they addressed this issue during their lessons, and if so, how. Teachers were able to tick several boxes for this question.

13% of teachers who know what final devoicing is do not address it at all, 58% make sure that their own pronunciation is correct as often as possible, 69% will correct or recast* their students pronunciation if it fits in the lesson at that moment, 27% will give an explanation about final devoicing if the subject happens to come up, 7% has developed a specific lesson about the subject and only 3% note that “final devoicing” is reviewed in a course book.

*when a teacher recasts an issue, they don’t mention the mistake explicitly (“it’s ‘went yesterday’ not ‘have gone yesterday'”) but instead they make sure the student hears the correct form within the conversation (“ah, so you went to Amsterdam yesterday, did you have fun?”)

In total, 28% of all the teachers who filled in my survey teach their students explicitly about final devoicing, either by talking about it when an opportune moment presents itself, or by having it be part of their curriculum. 18% don’t do anything with it at all, either because they have not heard of it themselves, or just because they choose not to. The other 54% pays attention to correct pronunciation, but does not address final devoicing directly.

One of the things I did not ask in my survey, because I wanted to keep it short, was in which classes teachers addressed final devoicing explicitly. A number of teachers noted that explicit teaching of this feature was only done with older students, in 6VWO for example. This means that the 28% number does not by any means mean that 28% of students will have learned about this feature explicitly, only that 28% of teachers teach it to some of their students.

For the teachers that explicitly talk about final devoicing, what do they talk about?

Of the 28% who directly address final devoicing, almost all (82%) give their students a clear example of correct pronunciation and asks them to listen and repeat. 55% talks about vibrating vocal cords, 50% gives the advice to make the vowel sound longer, and 18% gives the advice to add a tiny schwa to the end of the word to make it easier to produce a voiced consonant.

18% filled in “other”; most of these noted that they make use of a list of minimal pairs (dog/dock, eyes/ice, prove/proof, bed/bet) to practice. Some teachers noted that they attach their explanation of final devoicing to a discussion of verb tenses, as the final devoicing feature is important to make a good distinction between lend and lent, spend and spent etc.

Final devoicing in the course books

Of the 137 teachers who filled in my survey, only 4 noted that final devoicing is discussed in the official teaching material they use. One teacher notes Gateway as a course book that pays attention to this, another mentions Stepping Stones 2HV, which surprises me as Stepping Stones is a popular method so I would have expected other teachers to mention it too. Unfortunately I cannot get my hands on the book to check myself.

I had read in an article that the online teaching material of New Interface deals extensively with pronunciation, but no teachers have mentioned this. One teacher very kindly sent me her own materials for teaching final devoicing; a list of minimal pairs and a newspaper clipping from 2010 that mentions the issue. Thank you, I am very grateful! I am no longer looking for copies of the material (that ship has sailed) but I would still be very curious to hear if you think, like I do, that 3% seems very low for this pronunciation issue to be dealt with by course books.

Teacher’s extra remarks

For my last question, I asked the teachers if they had anything to add. Some teachers mentioned that they felt final devoicing was a very individual issue; some students struggle with it while others don’t, making it less suitable for a whole-class intervention. Some teachers of younger students noted that their goal was simply to minimise fear of speaking English, and that making too many remarks about pronunciation issues would just make their students more worried about making mistakes. Some teachers said they thought it was a minor issue and wasn’t worth my time, and some teachers said they were so glad I was looking into such an important issue. Go figure 😉

Do Dutch students know about final devoicing?

Just to have an extra “check” on my data, I also asked some Dutch people who weren’t English teachers to fill in some questions about final devoicing. Unfortunately, this part of my survey got quite a low response and the sample wasn’t random, as most people came via my own social circle. I have written a short article about their responses here.

What is interesting to note about this part of the survey here, is that I also asked my respondents what the most valuable advice had been for them to deal with this pronunciation issue. Of the 18 people who filled this in, 9 people answered “listening to native speakers”. Four people mentioned making the last consonant sound soft and one person mentioned making the vowel longer. No one mentioned anything about the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

So what happens now?

I’m going to run an online experiment to test a simple intervention to get Dutch people to do a better job when it comes to final devoicing. It may seem like testing such a small thing should be very simple, but as I am finding out, it takes a lot of time and planning! Of course I’ll share my results on this website when I’m done.

What do you think?

If you are reading this article and have any thoughts on this, please let me know in a comment. I’d be happy to get more input!

Sources

The article that mentioned New Interface as one of the only method that pays sufficient attention to pronunciation was Hattum & Rupp (2014).

Hattum, J. Van, & Rupp, L. (2014). English pronunciation teaching at Dutch secondary schools: Taught or caught. In Pronunciation Matters; Accents of English in the Netherlands and Elsewhere (pp. 69–81). Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/38622204/Rupp_Pronunciation_binnenwerk_DEF.69-81.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Do Dutch people know about final devoicing?

For my master’s thesis I asked 137 English teachers how they tackle the pronunciation issue of “final devoicing” in their classroom. You can read about the results here, and you can read about why I chose this subject here.

Just to have an extra “check” on my data, I also asked some Dutch people to fill in some questions about final devoicing. 53 students and ex-students filled in the survey. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very random sample; almost 50% of respondents had graduated between 1991 and 2000, a clear reflection of the fact that that is my own generation and it was mostly my friends who filled in the survey. (I did try to circulate the survey outside of my own circle, on Reddit, but got hardly any response there, so most respondents came via my own Facebook page.) However, the results can still give us a little bit of insight.

Do Dutch people know what “final devoicing” is?

When I explained to my respondents what “final devoicing” was, and asked if they were familiar with it, quite a lot (19%) of them did, which again might be a reflection of my own social circle; I am a languagy person, so of course many of my acquaintances are, too. (I am also a bit of a know-it-all, and like attracts like, so I also rather suspect my friends of saying “sure I’ve heard of that thing, yep, it sounds totally familiar”)

Of the 31 people that recognised the phenomenon, most claimed they had noticed it themselves. Interestingly, only 3 people said they had learned it at school; but this again my be a case of failing memory as two of those three people were currently still in school.

The most valuable advice for avoiding final devoicing, according to regular Dutch people

I also asked my respondents what the most valuable advice had been for them to deal with this pronunciation issue. Of the 18 people who answered this question, 9 people answered “listening to native speakers”. Two mentioned being laughed at or criticized by others which motivated them to really try to change their pronunciation. Four people mentioned making the last consonant sound soft and one person mentioned making the vowel longer. None of them talked about vibrating vocal cords.

A big thank you to my respondents

If you filled in my survey, I am very grateful! Even though you were not a random sample, you still helped me a lot 🙂 And if you have any thoughts to add, please feel free to add a comment.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

I’m fascinated by ‘final devoicing’. Is my brain weird?

Let me tell you the story of how I chose the subject of my master’s thesis because I sometimes misunderstand my boyfriend…

I am looking at final devoicing, which in a nutshell is the tendency of Dutch people (and German people, Polish people, Russian people…) to pronounce “dog” like “dock”, “bed” like “bet”, “prove” like proof” etc. (“Final devoicing” is actually a misnomer; you can read more about that here.)

I chose this particular issue because in my own life I have noticed that it is these words that lead to misunderstandings. My partner speaks excellent English and we hardly ever have misunderstandings, but when we do, it’s usually because of final devoicing. I remember he was once telling me that during a conference he had met someone in the “lounch”.

“In the what?” I said. “In the lunch? In the launch? Like a rocket launch? That makes no sense.”

“No, in the lounch, the lounch,” he said, frustrated. “You know, like, a place with sofas for relaxing.”

“Oh, lounge!” I said.

“That’s what I said!” he said, angrily.

And just recently I was listening to a Podcast where one of the Dutch presenters talked about people skating on a “pont”. It really took me quite a while to realise he was talking about a “pond”.

In both these examples the context should have made it clear to me right away. You can’t meet people in a “lunch”, after all, and “pont” isn’t even a word in English. But for some reason my brain just shorts out when it comes to these kinds of mispronunciations. When vowels get pronounced differently, it’s fine. When “think” becomes “tink” and “that” becomes “dat”, it’s fine. But when “pond” becomes “pont”, my brain just refuses to process.

So I dove into the literature, and though I did not find any confirmation of native speakers finding this one particular issue as confusing as I do, the issue of final devoicing is certainly at the top of very many lists for pronunciation issues in Dutch English that cause intelligibility issues.

So my brain might be weird, but I found enough reason to make this a good choice for my thesis subject!

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

Turns out final devoicing isn’t actually final devoicing

Dutch people pronounce “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet” and I had always learned that this was called “final devoicing”. But when I started researching this phenomenon properly for my master’s thesis, boy did I fall into a rabbit hole.

(It’s not only Dutch people that do this, by the way, but also Germans, Poles, Russians, Catalonians, Lithuanians and more.)

First lets do a quick review of what voicing is: a voiced phoneme is when the vocal cords are vibrating while you are making the sound. Touch your throat while you say “sssssss” and then “zzzzzz”. You will feel a vibration for “zzzzz” but not for “ssssss” – that’s the vocal cords vibrating. When they vibrate, we call the sound voiced, when they don’t, it’s voiceless. Final devoicing, then, is when a sound at the end of a word that should be voiced, like “eyes” (which is pronounced as eyezzzzz) comes out voiceless, like “ice”.

So far so good. However (this is the entrance to the rabbit hole) it turns out that, like so many things in life, context is everything. Take these three sentences:

“I opened my eyes.”

“I kept my eyes closed”

“I kept my eyes open.”

In the first sentence, the /z/ sound is followed by a pause, in the second, the /z/ is followed by a voiceless sound /k/ and in the third the /z/ is followed by a voiced sound /əʊ/ (vowels are always voiced).

It turns out that native speakers usually do NOT voice the last sound in “eyes”. They only make a voiced /z/ sound at the end of “eyes” when it is followed by a voiced sound, and even then, only a third of them do! The other third does something called “partial devoicing” which in this case means the very beginning of the /z/ sound is voiced but the rest of it isn’t, and the other third doesn’t have any voicing at all.

It happens for plosives (/d/, /b/ and /g/), too, though the effect is less striking.

So if final devoicing is not final devoicing, what the heck is it?

When a native speaker says “I opened my eyes”, it is clear that the last word is “eyes” and not “ice”, even though the last sound is actually a voiceless /s/. So what’s going on?

First thing to know is that apart from voiced and voiceless, you can also divide these kinds of obstruents* into fortis and lenis. Fortis obstruents are the voiceless ones, such as the /s/ in “ice”, which are called fortis because they are made with a lot of force, i.e. a strong burst of air. Lenis sounds are ones like the /z/ in eyes, but in this case we’re not talking about the vocal cords vibrating, but we’re only talking about the fact that the airflow isn’t as forceful as it is with lenis consonants. So that explains the graphs above where the /z/ turned out to be pronounced in a voiceless way so often: the vocal cords aren’t vibrating, so it’s not voiced – but it is lenis. This means that even though the /z/ in “eyes” isn’t voiced, it still sounds different to the /s/ in “ice”. It’s pronounced more softly, with a milder burst of air.

*obstruents are plosives such as [p, t, k, b, d, ɡ], fricatives such as [f, s, v, z] (and affricates, but let’s leave those out for now). There’s also another type of consonant, namely the sonorants, like [m, n, l, r]. These are always voiced, and fortis or lenis doesn’t apply to them – you can’t make the [m] sound different by putting more force into your puff of air (if you are like me, you will now try this out, and sound very funny in the process 😉 )

The fortis/lenis thing means that we shouldn’t actually talk about final devoicing when we talk about Dutch people pronouncing “dog” as “dock” and “bed” as “bet”, because the voicing doesn’t really matter. The phenomenon is more properly described as “fortis/lenis neutralisation“, and during my literature research I saw that newer studies indeed refer to it this way.

Interestingly, the Dutch word for final devoicing is “eindklankverscherping” and the German word, which I also sometimes see used as an international word, is “Auslautverhärtung“. These two terms are correct representations of what is actually happening. I’m so used to using English terminology for everything that it hadn’t even clicked with me that these words were saying something different to the English term, and I spent all this time getting confused about something that I could have just understood in one go if I had been doing my research in Dutch. Serves me right for not putting more trust in good old Dutch!

But wait, there’s also vowel length

So is that it? Should we stop teaching Dutch people about voicing and start teaching them about forceful air flow? Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story. There’s another reason why “dog” and “dock” sound different to native speakers, which according to research is actually more important: the vowel length. The /o/ in “dock” is much shorter than the /o/ in dog for native speakers, but not for Dutch people. Dutch people make these vowels the same length, and according to the books and articles that I’ve read, that’s actually what is causing the confusion.

So what should we be telling Dutch people to get them to stop saying “dock” and start saying “dog”

It would seem then that the best advice is to make the vowel a bit longer and the last sound a bit softer. “Doooock”. Something like that. I have tried this out on exactly one test subject, my boyfriend, who was the main reason I started researching this thing in the first place, and I have to say it has really made a difference. But he’s just one person, so that’s just anecdotal evidence. For my master’s thesis, I’ll be asking more Dutch people if this is the advice that makes a difference, and I’ll be giving it a slight twist. I’ll post updates on this website, so watch this space!

I have already asked 137 English teachers what they do to help their students. It turns out that most just make sure their own pronunciation is correct and that they address it when they hear their students make this kind of pronunciation error, but they don’t do much else. Of the 28% of teachers that tell their students explicitly about final devoicing (which we now know is not in fact final devoicing), 55% talk about vibrating vocal cords – which, as we also now know, is not actually very good advice. 50% give the advice to make the vowel longer, and I don’t know how many teachers advise to make the last consonant softer because unfortunately when I made the questionnaire I hadn’t figured that bit out yet so I didn’t ask. I did ask some Dutch people about tips they had had in their life to combat this pronunciation issue and a fair few of them did answer “make the last consonant softer” so it does seem to be advice that exists in the world.

I’d love your input!

If you are reading this and thinking “what is this woman talking about, the best piece of advice to give someone is clearly …” then by all means, let me know in the comments!

Sources

The graphs are from Gonet (2012), and a great explanation of the fortis/ lenis and vowel thing can be found in the excellent master’s thesis by Anne van Leeuwen (2011).

Gonet, W. (2012). Voicing of word-final obstruent in English connected speech. Speech and Language Technology, 14/15, 181–190. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/download/47195689/Gonet_-_From_Jassem_Volume_-_Voicing_of_WF_Obstruent.pdf

van Leeuwen, A. (2011). Mastering the temporal pattern of English. Retrieved from https://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/210344/thesis_annevanleeuwen.pdf

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.