Teaching techniques: ‘Borrowing’ (/z/ from Mexican Spanish)


This is the first in a series of posts that focuses on a useful pronunciation technique I’ve been using a lot recently with my one-to-one students.  Keep reading for a simple example (with video!)…

Some quick background

Pronunciation of individual sounds (phonemes) has traditionally been taught in one of two ways:

  1. Listen and repeat.  And again.  And again…
  2. Focus on the articulators: where is your tongue? What position is it in? Is it touching your teeth? Are your lips rounded? etc.

To my mind, the first of these approaches is only useful for about a minute.  When the students leave the classroom, the model they had earlier is no longer available so they have nothing to copy.

And while the second approach is much more useful,  it can still be somewhat convoluted, requiring diagrams of the mouth and metalanguage which some students (especially at lower levels) have difficulty understanding.

So what’s secret option number 3?

This is an alternative to the techniques above.  I call it ‘borrowing‘.

The principle is simple: some sounds may not exist as phonemes in the student’s first language (L1),  but they may in fact occur ‘accidentally’ in the L1 in some specific contexts*.  As the teacher, you just need to follow 4 very simple steps:

  1. Find an example of this sound occurring in the student’s L1.  (If you don’t speak that language, try looking in Chapter 5 of ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of ELF’ by Robin Walker, which has plenty of useful examples from 9 different L1s.)
  2. Get the student to pronounce that word in their L1.
  3. Get the student to isolate the sound you’re trying to focus on.
  4. Get the student to ‘borrow’ the sound from their L1 into English.

An example from (Mexican) Spanish

This is easier to understand when you see it in practice.  So here’s a working example to use with a Spanish-speaking student who has trouble pronouncing the /z/ in the word ‘easy’:

  1. /z/ is not a phoneme of Spanish.  This means many Spanish speakers will use [s] instead when saying English words like ‘zoo’, ‘goes‘ and ‘easy’.  But /z/ occurs naturally in Spanish in some words, like ‘desde’ (in English, ‘since’).
  2. Get the student to say ‘desde’.  This should sound roughly like [dezde] (click here to hear examples).
  3. Get the student to say only the consonant before the second /d/.  This is [z].  (Congratulate the student on finding the sound!)
  4. Now tell them to use this sound in an English word which features /z/.

And here’s a video of this technique in action:

Thanks very much to my wonderful student Mario for his participation in this demonstration!

*In other words, they may exist as allophones.


Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



8 thoughts on “Teaching techniques: ‘Borrowing’ (/z/ from Mexican Spanish)

  1. I have a similar problem with Finnish students but I have failed to find a /z/ word in Finnish! Even proper nouns like Zorro and Zelda (my dog) are pronounced /ts/ Same with /g/ and /b/ which do not exist in Finnish. So I inevitably find myself going back to /sssssssss/ /zzzzzzzz/ because at least the students can “feel” that all the articulators are in the same place, it’s just the “voice” and a few muscles which come into action.

    But for languages which are not so distant (eg French) secret option #3 works well!

    • Hi Penny,
      You’re right – it’s hard to apply this technique if you can’t ‘find’ the sound in the learner’s L1! I admit I don’t know much about Finnish phonology, but the book available here suggests that [z] might occur as an allophone to /s/ in Finnish in rapid speech between vowels (pg 27). Maybe you could try and find a word like that? Do let me know if you find something – you can contact us via the link at the side/top of the blog. I’d love to hear about it – and any other examples of where this technique might help Finnish-speaking students, of course!
      Good luck,

  2. Thanks for that link, a useful resource!
    I also found this on p36:
    I will keep my ears open for the “voiced sibilant” but unfortunately “fast-speech” Finnish is not something I am particularly good at! My Finnish colleagues might be able to help on that one.
    I certainly “borrow” vowel sounds from Finnish sometimes to explain some of the differences in spelling & sound combinations in English words. Vowel combinations in English are very confusing for Finns who want to pronounce each letter separately (“Guinea” came up in class this morning which was pronounced like /ku:ɪneɑ/)

  3. These are perfect examples of cognitive phonology in action. Once learners ‘think’ about sounds in the right way, the physical aspects of pronouncing them tend to take care of themselves. I use this technique with students here in Nicaragua who have problems with the ‘v’ and ‘b’ distinciton. I use the name ‘Javier’ which here at least is pronounced as it would be in English. This proves there is no actual physical problem when it comes to articulating these two sounds.

    • Thanks for your comments, Robert. I agree that there often is little physical difficulty producing sounds – learners just need to have them pointed out if and when they’re already using them! Of course, there will always be some novelties in second language phonology and when this happens, we may find other techniques useful. But I’m going to continue to experiment with ‘borrowing’… 🙂

    • Hi Anthony. It depends what info you’d like to see, but I’m afraid my general advice would really be just to get your hands on a copy of the book as it helps to have a thorough description and explanation to understand the different languages from an ELF perspective. We do hope to extend this series of blog posts in time, though, with more examples of ‘borrowing’ in action.

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