Some sounds in English are problematic for most learners, and some sounds cause difficulty only for speakers of certain languages. In my own teaching recently, two private students have challenged me to create multiple sets of exercises to target /r, ɚ/ in different positions and in different combinations. The students are set apart not only by geography, but also by their first langauges, and yet I can use some of the same materials for both of them. On the other side of the globe, there is an EFL teacher who wrote to me about a challenge faced by Polish and Spanish speakers. Their /h/ comes out too harshly. Has anyone made similar observations? What suggestions do you have for teaching /h/?
In a previous post on consonant sounds, I suggested the use of a mirror at close proximity to the mouth. The release of breath on the /h/ would fog up the mirror, and the contrast between words like what-hut would be more noticeable. However, this teaching tip was designed to help those learners who always drop their h’s or aren’t sure when an h should be silent in a word.
To help learner produce a softer /h/, I’d suggest reviewing the basics:
- /h/ is a release of breath and it’s voiceless;
- /h/ releases into a vowel sound (a voiced sound) and as the /h/ is said the mouth is already in position for the following vowel sound;
- /h/ doesn’t require us to block the airflow anywhere, especially not in our throat or the back of our mouth.
Suggested steps for production:
- Ask students to sigh gently. As they do, they can place a hand in front of their mouths and feel the warm, soft flow of air.
- Ask them to take a deep breath and give a longer sigh, but this time move directly into /aɪ/ on the same breath.
- Ask them to produce a shorter sigh and move more quickly into /aɪ/. This should result in a simple “hi”.
- Try the same steps with other vowel sounds to produce: he, hoe, hey, who, how.
- Find a short text and omit all the instances of /h/. Have students read the text aloud and ask them to consciously think of the basic steps of production as they insert the /h/ to complete words. Example: _umpty Dumpty sat on a wall. _umpty Dumpty _ad a big fall. All the king’s _orses and all the king’s men couldn’t put _umpty together again.
- If you’re working with Russian students, you can try the trick of comparing a strong Russian accent with a more accurate accent in English. A single student can provide both samples. How? I’d suggest writing a few lines of a joke or simple tale in English using Cyrillic letters. This will encourage the English text to be read with a strong Russian accent. Then hand out the same text written correctly with the English alphabet. This should force a different mindset to move in place. The point is that an H-sound in another language cannot necessarily transfer to English. Example: Хамти Дамти сэт он а уалл… / Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…