Deliberate Practice 4: Place

So far, I’ve talked about 2 of the 3 big phonetic concepts that determine how we pronounce sounds: manner and voice. Now it’s time for the third one: place!

Personally, I think place is the simplest to understand, especially when it comes to consonant sounds. Place tells us exactly where in our mouths a sound is produced or what parts of our mouths that sound uses. For example:

“p” is made by putting your lips together. So is “b”. As I talked about in the previous post, these two sounds share place and manner, but differ in their voicing. In terms of place, sounds that are made with two lips are called “bilabial” - meaning “two lips”.

On a side note, if you’re looking for some good word study work, the world of phonetics is vocab-rich. That’s because phonetics is a science, so many of the terms have Greek and Latin origins, are compound words or concepts, and relate back to anatomy and physiology (check out the list below for a place to start). Good phoneticians and speech therapists have to study a lot of anatomy!

Let’s take a look at a very technical chart that holds a bunch of symbols called the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Some of these symbols are letters in the English alphabet and some are not—but every symbol on the chart represents a consonant sound that belongs in at least one language.

Here’s something crazy—there are hundreds of living, spoken languages right now. And yet, there are relatively few consonant sounds (only about 60). That means all those languages have a ton of overlap!

Here are a few things to understand about this chart:

  • It is only consonant sounds (I'll talk about vowel sounds next week)
  • The row across the top holds the "place" labels
  • The column down the side holds the "manner" labels
  • Two symbols in the same box are a voiceless/voiced pair
  • The green boxes are all the meaningful consonant sounds used in English
  • Every sound on this chart is used in a meaningful way in at least one documented, living language

I am not going to explain the sound that every symbol represents, but some should be obvious. If you are interested in knowing more about IPA, there are lots of resources online (and we can always dive into it more later!).

What I want you to pay attention to are the "place" labels across the top:

  • Bilabial = two lips
  • Labiodental = lip and teeth together
  • Dental = teeth (with tongue)
  • Alveolar = on the alveolar ridge (just behind the teeth)
  • Postalveolar = just behind the alveolar ridge
  • Palatal = tongue is against the hard palate
  • Velar = tongue is against the velum or soft palate
  • Glottal = back of the throat

It may suddenly feel weird as you try to make these sounds or are aware of these places in your mouth. But if you are a typical speaker, especially if you are fluent in English, these sounds are completely normal. 99% of the time, we don't think about where or how we make them!

Here's the tricky part of learning a new language-you have to learn some new places. This is especially true when languages are "far away" from each other, meaning that they don't share a close linguistic relative. For example, English and Spanish are relatively close because they both have Latin roots. English and German are also close because they share Germanic roots. But English and Arabic?

There are actually a lot of originally Arabic words in modern English (like coffee, sofa, and mattress), but they have been "anglicized", so they feel more English-y than Arabic now. Most languages do that when they borrow words. It's one of the most effective ways a language's vocabulary can grow!

But other than borrowed words, English and Arabic have grown fairly far apart on the linguistic tree. So there are a few sounds that happen in each language that don't exist in the other. All the red boxes are shared sounds, but the purple boxes are Arabic Only. And boy, are they difficult!

My focus this week was on the Arabic alphabet letters that contain those difficult sounds. You are probably starting to notice some repeated sounds that I'm focusing on. That's because there is usually more than one reason that a sound is hard to learn. If the manner, voicing, and place are all new, then each of those features has to be worked on intentionally!

And if you’re wondering what some of those sounds are, I go through them at the beginning of my video, followed by the whole Arabic alphabet.


The same intentionality principle applies to teaching our kids. There are multiple difficult things in the world of gaining literacy. We have to know spelling, pronunciation, meaning, grammar-and that's just at the word level! As we move into sentences and paragraphs, all those factors are still important, but they are layered with more meaning requirements and deeper comprehension, more complex grammar demands, potentially unfamiliar words, greater dependency on background knowledge, and more.

It's like listening to a foreign language and trying to repeat everything you heard-you might get some of it right, but you're probably going to resort to guessing pretty quickly. So how do we help?

We break it down. That's the whole point of deliberate practice.

We highlight the unfamiliar sounds and work on the place, manner, and voice. In literacy terms, that means we spend time in each area: a little explicit grammar, a little explicit spelling. We focus on the parts that are tricky by identifying what we don't know. Then, little by little, we make each unfamilir thing into a familiar thing.

~ Claire

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