Remember our old friend, the glottis?
The glottis is at the top of your windpipe and made up of two snotty folds of mucous membrane known as the vocal cords. As mentioned before, these vocal cords open up when you breathe to let air pass through.
When you contract the muscles in your throat to bring your vocal cords together, they start to vibrate. The resulting sound is your voice! The presence or absence of voicing is the third major defining feature of consonants, and the technical term for it is phonation.
Voiced vs. Voiceless
- When your vocal cords are vibrating, the phonation of that consonant is voiced.
- When your vocal cords are NOT vibrating, the phonation of that consonant is voiceless.
Some pairs of consonant sounds already have the same place and manner of articulation. In these cases, the phonation is what makes them different.
Phonation Pairs in English
Below, I list all the phonation pairs of English consonants. In these pairs, the first consonant sound is voiceless while the second is voiced.
As you follow along, try to make these sounds out loud to feel the difference.
Phonation in Your Target Language
In some languages, the difference between a voiced and unvoiced consonant results in a difference in meaning. In other languages, this is not the case. If you are learning another language, you may not be able to hear the difference initially.
But that’s just on the perception side. There is still a question of developing the coordination needed to produce these sounds.
I have found that in general, students have more difficulty producing voiced consonants in their target language.
This makes sense when you think about it, as the vibration of vocal cords means voiced consonants need more coordination than voiceless ones.
Imagine that you are a native Spanish speaker who is learning English. In Spanish, there is the voiceless /s/, but its voiced equal /z/ does NOT yet exist for that person. So the native Spanish will struggle at hearing the difference between the words “zap” and “sap.” That’s part of the reason why native Spanish speakers always tend to mispronounce these sounds in colloquial English.
But as I have said before, anyone can learn to appreciate any sound with enough targeted exposure. If the Spanish speaker practices hearing “zap/sap”, “sit/zit”, “sag/zag” enough times, eventually they will start to notice the difference.
For example, many Spanish learners struggle with the alveolar trill – /r/. You create this by guiding air over the tongue at just the right speed so that the tongue starts to vibrate on its own.
I have a “bootcamp” section dedicated to the Spanish alveolar sounds in my Spanish Master Class, and I find that most people first breakthrough with this sound is with the voiceless trill.
Once they master the articulation of the voiceless trill, the next task is to coordinate the trill movement with voicing.
The exact same problem arises for French learners on a different consonant- the Uvular Fricative.
The uvula is a place of articulation not relevant to English (it’s that dangly thing at the back of your throat).
French has both voiced and voiceless fricative sounds that occur here.
Just like my Spanish students, they typically master the voiceless version of this sound first. Then they move on to practicing the consonant with the added task of voice.
Here are the important takeaways from all this:
- You WILL have difficulty producing unfamiliar sounds in your target language
- With a physical awareness of your mouth, you CAN learn the motor skills needed to create these sounds.
Always remember that there is nothing magical about speech. You’re just smashing up a bunch of mucous-covered tissue together while you blow breath out your lungs.
Take some time to understand the core mechanisms behind all human speech and and I promise you that you WILL be infinitely better-equipped to achieve fluency in any human language.
Now let’s review and wrap everything up.