Tongue Twisters for ESL Learners

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Tongue twisters are short, memorable lines that are difficult to pronounce, especially rapidly, because of alliteration or a slight variation of consonant sounds, and are especially useful in pronunciation when focusing on related phonemes, or sounds.

In other words, there are several "s" sounds such as "sh," "z" and "tch," and a tongue twister focuses on the minor changes in the mouth required to move between these sounds. By changing back and forth a number of times to the different sounds, students can improve their knowledge of the specific physical movements required for that particular phoneme set.

Learning a tongue twister employs musical intelligence, which is one of the multiple intelligences of learners. Another example of this type of learning includes grammar chants. These types of exercises build up muscle memory related to speech, making it easier to recall later.

Fun but Not Necessarily Accurate

Tongue twisters are lots of fun, but they often don't make much sense, so it's important to warn students before introducing them to tongue twisters that they're not meant to be learning guides for using proper grammar. Rather, they should be used for exercising pronunciation muscles.

For instance, in the old nursery rhyme tongue twister called "Peter Piper," the content of the story may make sense in terms of narrative, but the phrase "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," doesn't actually work because you cannot pick already pickled peppers. Similarly, in "Woodchuck," the speaker asks "how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood," which would make sense if only woodchucks didn't chuck wood with their teeth.

For this reason, when introducing an ESL student to English tongue twisters, it's doubly important to go over what the limericks mean in the context of the piece as well as in the context of the words on their own, paying special attention to common idioms that don't make sense when directly translated to a foreign language.

Practice Makes Perfect

A very large part of understanding how to speak a foreign language properly comes in understanding how the muscles of the mouth are meant to move to elicit certain sounds and pronunciations—that's why tongue twisters are so handy in teaching ESL students to speak English correctly and quickly.

Because tongue twisters consists of so many slight variations on the same sound, all of which are used colloquially in American English, the ESL learner is able to get a clear grasp of how "pen" sounds different from "pin" or "pan," despite sharing a majority of the same letters and consonant sounds.

In the poem "Sally Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore," for instance, the speaker is able to go through every variation of the "s" sound in English, learning the difference between "sh" and "s" as well as "z" and "tch." Similarly, ​"Betty Botter" and "A Flea and a Fly" walk the speaker through all the "b" and "f" sounds.

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Your Citation
Beare, Kenneth. "Tongue Twisters for ESL Learners." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Beare, Kenneth. (2020, August 27). Tongue Twisters for ESL Learners. Retrieved from Beare, Kenneth. "Tongue Twisters for ESL Learners." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).