Pronouncing a Sound You Can’t Hear

Written by: Megan Smith / Articulation / July 2019

Many sound pronunciation errors come from a misunderstanding of what that sound should sound like. There are several situations that might make this possible, such as speaking a different dialect (think of Canadian vs. American vs. British vs. Australian English accents, for example!) a different language (e.g. Mandarin vs. English), or differences in how you learn language at a young age.

Learning to pronounce sounds can be significantly more difficult if an individual cannot hear the difference, as they will always be dependent on someone else to tell them if their attempt was good or not.

For some sounds, like F, people can be coached about where to put their bottom lip to make the sound well, though without knowledge of what they are aiming for the task will be difficult. For other sounds, especially vowels, hearing is critical for good pronunciation, as there is no landmark for the tongue to touch in order to make the sounds well. Listening to how they sound is the best way to learn them.

Why can’t people hear the difference between sounds?

Here are two explanations from research on speech sound learning and treatment that can help explain why people can’t hear the difference between certain sounds:


  • When infants first learn to understand speech, their learning about sounds comes in two parts: learning which sounds they should hear as different from each other (e.g. the vowels in “day” and “doe”), and learning when to ignore the differences between sounds (e.g. the AY sounds in “day” and in “fail”). If someone grew up speaking a language other than English, they likely learned to ignore the difference between two vowels in English. At the time, that was the correct thing to do!

  • Some people with speech sound disorders, such as a lisp or a distorted R sound, may have learned a different lesson in their childhood about what a “good” version of that sound is. Sometimes, they can hear the difference between their version of that sound and the version that others use, but they may have trouble hearing the difference between versions of that sound that are “great,” “okay,” and “not quite okay.”

However, there is another, implied reason that informs a strategy to teach the difference between similar sounds: the sounds are very, very rarely heard directly in contrast with each other! It would be easy to look at two different colours in two different places and think that they are the same. Just think of how many shades of white and off-white there are at the paint shop. Would you really recognize the difference between Benjamin Moore’s “White Dove” and “Cloud Cover” unless you held them side by side? For a Spanish speaker, the same could be true for the vowels in “seat” and “sit.”

So, how do I learn to say what I can’t hear?

Different speech-language pathologists may have slightly different strategies, but there is evidence that the following (or similar) can help:


  • Start by learning to hear the difference! Once you can hear it, you’ll know when you are saying it well. This will make your independent practice far more effective, especially for vowel sounds.

  • Next, learn how to hold your jaw, lips and tongue in order to make the sound work well! This may feel very foreign at first, if the placement for the best version of that sound is quite different from what is typical for you.

  • Finally, ramp up the difficulty. When you can say the sound by itself, start practicing in syllables, words, reading and conversation. This stage may take some time, as you are training the muscles of your face and mouth to abandon their old habits and adopt new ones. Everyone knows that stopping a bad habit, or adopting a good one to replace it, can be quite difficult.


What would this look like in practice?

Here is a sample session with an accent modification client, targeting the difference between the /i/sound (like in “bean”) and the /ɪ/ sound (like in “bin”):


  1. Reviewed home practice over the last week, discussed of what went well and what was still difficult, and chatted about things that the client thought were important to know about before starting our work for the day.

  2.  I chose randomly from the list of contrast words (such as bean-bin, seed-Sid, eat-it, feel-fill, etc.), and the client practiced pointing to a picture of a bean or a picture of a bin to indicate which sound she heard.

  3. When the client became very accurate at this task, she practiced saying the /ɪ/ sound and /i/ sound using the cues that worked best for her (in this case, smiling to help make a clear /i/).

  4. Finally, the client practiced reading the pairs of words on the contrast list, making her /ɪ/ sound and /i/ sound different from each other, with feedback on how to make them more different when needed. After a little practice, she began to also listen to the sounds to independently judge whether they sounded the same or different.

  5.  For homework, the client brought home a recording to practice her listening skills, and the contrast list to practice her pronunciation.

Learning to hear the difference between sounds can be a very daunting task to accomplish independently! For many pronunciation difficulties, there are self-learning resources like apps and youtube videos from accent coaches that may help, but these assume that you are able to hear when you produce the “correct” version.

If you are interested in a well-trained, helpful ear to guide you through this process, you can call our clinic at 697-795-5277 or book your initial consultation using the link below.