Minimal pairs are words that are identical except for the one problem sound you are focused on practicing. For example, if you have trouble with the sounds /r/ and /l/ you might practice reading a list of words like read/lead, road/load, fry/fly, fright/flight, crutch/clutch and so on. Slowly say these words out loud and really focus on the sounds and the way you use your voice. Here are some helpful hints to practicing minimal pairs:
- Say the words in a mirror. Exaggerate your facial expressions. Watch your tongue, lips and jaw, and note the differences when you make the sounds. Don’t worry if you look a little strange at first! As your mouth learns how to make the sounds correctly, you won’t have to make such weird faces to produce them correctly.
- Record yourself saying the pairs. Listen to the recording and see if you can hear a difference between how you pronounce the words.
- Choose one word from each pair and say them out loud to a friend. Have your friend write down the words he/she hears. See if your friend heard the words you were trying to say. (You can also do this on your own by noting the words you choose as you record yourself saying them. Listen to the recording a few days later and write down the words you hear. Compare your list to the list of words you recorded.)
Here's a four and a half minute video explaining this exercise. It was casually recorded after a live event so if you hear me refering to a workbook, that's why!
If you are having trouble coming up with lists of your own, or are unsure whether the words you’ve chosen are correct, check out linguist John Higgins’ website. He has listed hundreds of minimal pairs in this database: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/wordscape/wordlist/
Taking time to practice your pronunciation is vital if you are to reach your goal of improving the clarity of your speech. Be patient with yourself! This process takes time, but the pay-offs will definitely be worth it.