The challenge of consonant clusters

Changed. Desks. World. Boxed. These words are tongue twisters for many English language learners, because they end in consonant clusters.

What Are Consonant Clusters?

In English, pronunciation goes by sounds, and not by spelling. Clusters are made of two or more consonant sounds together, not letters. For example, the word box ends in one consonant letter but two consonant sounds /ks/.

Where do consonant clusters occur?

Consonant clusters can occur in any syllable. Consonant clusters that are at the beginning of a word are usually easier for most speakers than those at the end of a word. In English, the longest possible cluster at the start of a word has 3 sounds, as in split. The longest possible end cluster is 4 sounds, as in twelfths, bursts and glimpsed.

What types are the most difficult and for whom?

Most speakers will have different levels of difficulty depending on the length, position, and type of consonant cluster. They are easier to pronounce for speakers who have them in their native language. German and Russian contain consonant clusters while Japanese and Spanish do not.  A Japanese speaker may unconsciously add an extra vowel as in desk-u, or change-ee.  For almost all English language learners, combinations of r, l, and w are also difficult, such as world, rarely, and swirl

Words that end in –ed have 2 possible cluster endings. These words will end with either /d/ or /t/.

Spelling          Final Consonant Cluster

bounced          /nst/

boxed              /kst/

grasped           /spt/

asked               /skt/

blinked           /nkt/

crunched         /ncht/

splurged          /rgd/

changed           /ngd/

arranged          /ngd/

formed             /rmd/

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Accent Errors of Speakers from South East Asia

South East Asia covers many cultures and many languages. This includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and others. While each are unique, they also share common threads.

Speakers of South East Asian languages often share common pronunciation errors when speaking English.

Speakers of South East Asian languages:

1. Don’t have aspirated consonants (pronounced with a puff of air) in their native language, and so they don’t add it in English.  They must add a puff of air to English aspirated consonants, such as in words that start with p, t, ch, k.

2. Retroflex on most consonants. This means that they curl up and back the tip of the tongue when they should not. Retroflexed consonants is a strong marker of a South East Asian accent.

3. Have tense and closed pronunciation. This, combined with retroflexed consonants, puts much of their pronunciation in the front of the mouth. They must open their mouths and loosen and relax the jaw muscles. In English, the jaw, lips, and tongue are all very flexible and active.

4. Use one sound for v and w. In English, these are 2 distinct sounds. The v is made with the top teeth touching the lower teeth. W is a rounded sound, with your lips in a circle and pushed out slightly.

5. Use intonation where they should use stress. This means that the voice is raised in pitch (goes up) when it should be showing emphasis. This adds to the sing-song sound of speakers from South East Asian languages.

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How to pronounce the letter L


Correctly pronouncing /l/ is very difficult for many non-native speakers. /l/ is commonly confused with/r/ or /w/. If you don’t have /l/ in your language, you will have to retrain your muscle memory.  You must focus on proper placement for your tongue, lips, jaw and air flow.

Making /l/

  • /l/ is made differently depending on where it is in the word.
  • Don’t move your jaw or lips when making /l/. Move only your tongue. Your tongue will have different places of articulation for Light L and Dark L.

Light L

  • The /l/ at the beginning of a word. This is the easiest to pronounce.
  • Light L is produced before a vowel.   late, like, lamp, look
  • The tip of tongue touches alveolar ridge.
  • Light L is a flick of the tongue against the alveolar ridge.  It has a la-la-la-la sound
  • The back of the tongue remains low.

Dark L

  • The /l/ at the end of the word. This is difficult to pronounce.
  • Dark L is produced after a vowel (or schwa).  call, school, tell, people
  • The tip of tongue touches alveolar ridge, and stays there. It is not a flick, like Light L.
  • Dark L has a “uh-l” sound.
  • The back of the tongue is raised toward the soft palate.

Practice both Light and Dark L

Bring your focus to the difference in tongue placement.

Practice /l/ in the initial position.

  1. later
  2. love
  3. long
  4. leave
  5. left
  6. location
  7. lasagna
  8. lamp
  9. lawyer
  10. listening

Practice /l/ in the final position.

  1. people
  2. call
  3. feel
  4. individual
  5. pool
  6. email
  7. unusual
  8. virtual
  9. until
  10. tell

Interested in reducing your accent? Contact us for a free assessment!

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What Makes You Awesome? Selling Yourself in the American Workplace

The ability to “sell yourself” with confidence is a key skill for success in American culture.

American culture focuses on the individual. In interviews, performance reviews, meetings and presentations, people are are expected to “sell” themselves by stressing individual, quantifiable achievements, as well as showing enthusiasm and energy.

In many cultures, people do not speak up or praise themselves, and it is a difficult new skill to adopt. If you want to develop this ability, here are 5 ways to get started.

1. Break away from humble. It’s not bragging if it’s in the right context (for example, asking for a raise). It is not only OK that you can describe your achievements and abilities, but in certain contexts, it is expected.

2. Use audience awareness. Who are you trying to sell yourself to, and for what goal? This will help you focus your talk.

3. Discuss your successes without qualification. State them directly, and stop there.  Don’t question yourself, say you were lucky, or the success is undeserved.

4. Speak directly and confidently. Adopt the attitude, body language and speaking techniques of confidence.  Include vivid stories and examples that are memorable, rather than just listing facts.

5. Move from “we” to “I” when discussing successes and achievements. For group-oriented cultures, these behaviors are seen as undesirable. Credit for success goes to the team, not the individual. If you talk about team successes, be sure to include what your specific role was in the success.

For many non-native speakers of English, selling yourself is a skill that takes time to develop and be comfortable with. Create a short narrative and practice aloud until you can comfortably summarize your strengths, abilities, and experience.

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Top 3 cultural clashes for foreign medical graduates

I just completed working with an organization whose employees interact with every foreign medical graduate who wants to become licensed in the US, the majority of whom are non-native speakers of English. Our training focused on developing the cultural competence and communication skills to provide the best customer service.

Working with over 100 employees organization-wide identified 3 common areas of conflict they had with the soon-to-be doctors in America. The conflict and differences are consistently between the low context American workplace and the applicants from high context cultures, in the following areas:

1. Gender – Issues of gender were a common theme. Men who could not get what they wanted from female employees often asked to “speak to a man” or “speak to the manager” only to find the manager was a woman, too. Some men outright refused to work with a woman. Men often called to demand confidential information about or to try and undermine female family member applicants.

2. Status – Doctors in general and those from high context, hierarchical cultures in particular, believed themselves to be of higher status than the employee who was helping them. Status is viewed through family name, connections, or job title. Status conflicts also extended to gender, with men viewing themselves of greater status. Employees also felt that applicants with high concepts of their status were often rude and demanding in interactions.

3. Cheating –The concept of cheating varies by culture and one shouldn’t assume all people share the same definition. Cheating for this organization included providing false documentation or unacceptable practices during licensing exams. American culture has very strict definition of cheating and plagiarism, which is more fluid in other cultures. Specific definitions with concrete examples and consequences must be communicated.

A doctor’s personal cultural beliefs and values do not stop once she or he becomes licensed in the US. It is reasonable to assume these carry over into the health care workplace.  Of course not every foreign doctor from a high context culture fits this profile. However, healthcare organizations must acknowledge and address the need for cultural competency training for many of their foreign medical professionals.

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CAL Learning partners with Axiom Learning Solutions

CAL Learning is proud to announce our partnership with Axiom Learning Solutions as their intercultural and language training provider,  within their Learning Services.

We continue our commitment to serving the pharma/biotech, technology, healthcare, and other industries  in developing the language and culture skills of their foreign-born employees.

contact us for more information on accent reduction, language or intercultural training programs.

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5 ways to improve your English skills without a teacher

Many English language learners who have lived and worked in the US for a while say they’ve plateaued in their language skills.  They have achieved a certain level of fluency, but often feel limited in their vocabulary and ability to express nuance. They want to continue advancing, but don’t know how.

If you don’t have the time to take a class, there are lots of things you can do to improve your English skills on your own. Here are 5 easy things you can do to advance your English communication skills without a teacher or classroom.

1. Be proactive

Stay engaged in English. Read the news, watch TV, listen to the radio, talk to strangers. The best way to learn is to practice, so make language practice a priority every day. Many language learners spend much of their time speaking their native tongue with friends and family. Go outside of your language group, and put yourself in English speaking environments. When you are with English speakers, participate actively.

2. Follow blogs on topics of interest

Because you are familiar with the topic, the content will be easier. You will also expand your vocabulary in the subject area. Keep a written list of new vocabulary, useful phrases or idioms, and new grammar structures. Post responses on the blog to practice writing skills. Stay engaged in the discussion.

3. Read aloud

Reading aloud is an excellent exercise. It improves fluency, pacing, stress and intonation. Read the same paragraph repeatedly until it flows eloquently. Focus on proper pronunciation of difficult words and sounds.

4. Engage sales associates

Always talk to a few sales associates when you go in a store. It’s their job to help you. Ask as many questions as you can think of. Ask follow up questions.

5. Practice phone skills

Speak to telemarketers when they call.  It is better to practice with unimportant conversations than an important phone call at work. Talk to them at length and make them answer as many questions as you can think of.  You can also practice phone skills by calling customer service rather than using an online chat or email. It’s great practice for a difficult skill.

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why are some vowels held longer than others?

Voiced and Voiceless Consonant Pairs

Many consonants come in pairs of voiced and voiceless pronunciation. Some  examples include  d/t,  v/f,  and b/p.

The only difference between the two consonant is that one has a vibration of the vocal chords (voiced) and one does not (voiceless). Other than that,  the tongue, lips, or teeth placement and air flow for the two consonants are the same.

When a vowel is before a voiced consonant, the sound will be held longer.

When a vowel is before a voiceless consonant, the sound will be shorter.

w-i-i-i-de  building white  building
Voiced Voiceless
The wide building is the white building wide white
I need room in the neat room need neat
The robe is made of rope robe rope
The first prize is for the first price prize price
Save water that is safe water save safe
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pronouncing th and v in technical vocabulary

Technical topics and discussions have a prescribed vocabulary with high frequency of repetition. If you learn to clearly pronounce these key words with correct articulation, you will be much more easily understood.  Learning to correctly pronounce a few consonant and vowel sounds can affect a lot of words in your technical vocabulary.

Can you pronounce these common technical words?

Use a hand mirror while you practice. Do your lips, teeth, and tongue look like the ones in the picture?

Don’t forget to use correct stress,  in bold.


method, methodology, theory, theoretical, theorem, hypothesis, thesis, in-depth, ethnographic, ethnography,


vital, observation, observable, variable, qualitative, validity,  level, survey, predictive,

interval, covariance, intervention

Start reducing your accent today!

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Native English speakers/speak in short phrases They. Don’t. Talk. Word. For. Word.

Fluent English speakers/express their ideas/ in phrases and thought groups/and they do it/ without even thinking/. Many non-native speakers/ don’t speak in phrases/ and end up sounding choppy.

Do you speak in phrases or word by word?

Stress in Phrases

Each phrase has a primary stress point. It  is usually the stressed syllable in the last content word.  See examples.

Primary stress can be changed to show focus

  • The meeting was moved to next Wednesday at three fifteen
  • The meeting was moved to next Wednesday at three fifteen.

Linking in Phrases

When speaking, the words in each phrases run together through linking (moving the last sound of one word to the beginning of the next) and reduction (of function words). this makes each phrase sound smooth and fluent.

Phrasing is Key to Fluency

  1. Fluent English speakers talk in phrases and thought groups
  2. Speakers who don’t link words in phrases will sound choppy
  3. Speakers who group words in phrases incorrectly, may be incomprehensible

Speakersuse phrasing

tomake theirideas clear

andeasy tofollow

I’llha vaburger

medium rare

witha sideoffries

Themeeting wasmoved

Tonext Wednesday

atthree fifteen.


wason thetable

beforeI left

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