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/p/ versus /b/: A Helpful Tip For Teachers Of Arab Learners

by Sulaiman Jenkins

‘Want some Bebsi?’
‘Teacher, I don’t have a bencil.’
‘I was late because the bolice stopped me.’

Do these expressions sound familiar? How often do you see these awkward spellings? If you are a teacher in the Middle East or in parts of North Africa, you are more than likely going to hear and see these mistakes quite often from learners because they are predominantly native Arabic speakers. In an effort to help correct your student’s pronunciation you might return, “Abdullah, it’s Pepsi not Bebsi” and keep repeating it until you think he hears the difference. He might say, “I know teacher. That’s what I said. Bebsi.” You soon realize that your concentrated efforts have not immediately paid off and Abdullah continues to pronounce English vocabulary that begins with /p/ as /b/. Consequently, you search for more solutions until ultimately you think there is nothing more you can do. Well don’t give up just yet. This article attempts to offer one more solution to help solve this linguistic problem.

Linguistic Background

Part of helping to solve the problem is in understanding the root of it. Why do Arab learners often make this mistake? To understand why, we must first delve into and analyze the problem within the context of the student’s native language. In Arabic, there are approximately 28 letters and of those 28 letters none of them represents the linguistic formation of the English letter /p/ which in linguistic terminology is an unvoiced bilabial stop. The letter /p/ is ‘unvoiced’ (‘voiceless’) because the vocal cords do not vibrate upon articulation, ‘bilabial’ because it can only be articulated by bringing the two lips together, and a ‘stop’ because articulating this letter temporarily ‘stops’ the flow of air into the mouth. The closest letter which mimics the English letter /p/ is the Arabic letter ب, which is most often transliterated in texts into the English letter /b/. The close Arabic equivalent is similar in all features of the English /p/ except that the Arabic letter ب is ‘voiced’. Essentially, Arab learners have difficulty pronouncing and hearing the English letter /p/ because it doesn’t exist in their language so they articulate and interpret the closest letter to it which exists in their language, which is the ب, often transliterated as /b/.

Simple Solution

So how do we help our students? Often we may think that if the students hear the correct letter repeated over and over again, they may eventually be able to distinguish /p/ from /b/. To some extent, that is true. If a learner is exposed to the correct form of language, in this case by hearing it, eventually he/she will internalize it and I think this is the case especially when students are learning English in a predominantly English speaking country. However, I think in contexts where English is taught in a foreign country and the students’ exposure to English is necessarily limited, this process may take a little longer. Thus exposure in and of itself isn’t sufficient. The students need to actually see the difference. That’s right, see it. When simply trying to hear the difference fails, perhaps visualizing it provides more tangible assistance.

A technique that I have adopted, which is also used in CELTA/DELTA teacher training programs, is by holding up a piece of paper or tissue as I write the letters /b/ and /p/ on the blackboard. I instruct the students to look at the letter /b/ and say it. After they say it, I hole the paper to my mouth and say the letter as well. Then I ask them if they noticed anything happening to the paper. They usually respond that nothing happened, which is correct. The pronunciation of /b/ does not produce an explosion of air from the mouth that might alter the position of the paper. Then I repeat the same procedure with the letter /p/ and ask them if they noticed anything. They will respond that the paper moved every time I said the letter /p/. At that time you may hear a few ‘oooohhhs’ and ‘aaaaahhhs’. What you have just showed them is that in pronouncing the letter /p/, there must be an explosion of air coming out of the mouth. If that isn’t happening, then the learner knows he/she isn’t pronouncing the letter correctly. Often you will find students practicing immediately to see if in fact what you just showed them was true. Lo and behold it was, and so many of the students appreciate this simple practical tool which helps them pronounce the letter /p/ correctly and also serves as a self-assessment tool by which they can measure their own pronunciation accuracy.


2001 The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics Language Files. The Ohio State University Press. Columbus, Ohio.

Author’s Bio:
Sulaiman graduated from Amherst College undergrad and attained his Masters in TESOL at New York University. He is now the Academic Advisor at a private educational consulting firm, Golden Gate Saudi, in Riyadh. His TESOL interests include language acquisition and linguistics as well as cultural identity.

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