Learning a new language can be confusing sometimes. No matter how hard we listen and how hard we try, there are often times where native speakers struggle to understand what we are trying to say. Surely we're saying it right aren't we? Take a look at the following words:

  • dog (English)
  • dai ได้ (Thai)
  • được (Vietnamese)
  • dé 得 (Mandarin)
  • dino (Javanese)
  • dónde (Spanish)

The 'D' sound in each of the above words is pronounced very differently, and in some cases if it is pronounced in the way that you usually pronounce a 'd' in your version of English, native speakers of the language you're trying to speak might struggle to comprehend what you're saying.

I have prepared an exercise with you that is not only going to have you speaking the language you're learning more clearly, but at the same time you will also be learning some new things about how your mouth works, about language and you might find that you have a hidden talent for some languages that you are yet to learn. Try them all!

Watch the video above, and as I go through the different D's, you can also read about them below.

English 'D'

If you listen to me pronounce my Australian English 'D' in the video clip, you will hear a high frequency 'ts' sound coming out just as my mouth opens up. It happens because the tip of my tongue is pushed up against the back of my top front teeth as well as partially on the palate that connects to my teeth. That means that whenever I say 'd' in English, there is a little puff of air that escapes out through my teeth causing that slight hissing sound.

Note that none of the following 'D's have this phenemenon.

Thai 'D' ด

As mentioned in the clip, when I used to play music with Thai bands, I would often get frustrated as I called out the chord 'D' to the band and they would all play 'G'.

That's because 'D' is usually associated with the letter ด 'doh dek', and they would have been expecting to hear a Thai version 'D' rather than English. The letter that DOES have that airy / spitty sound over it where the tongue is in the same position is จ which is a non aspirated 'ch' - note that it is not a 'j' like in English. There is no 'j' sound in Thai. Rather, this sound is produced with the tip of the tongue against the ridge of the top teeth and then a very fine stream of air puffs through the teeth - all the while with the throat stopped at the beginning.

The Thai letter 'ด' was originally an 'n' said with a stopped throat at the beggining. Put your tongue on the hard palate as though you're going to say 'n', and hold your throat tight (the same position that your throat is in when it gets to the 'k' in the word 'ski' in English. It should come out like an 'n' with a blocked nose. Once you can do that, then gradually make the sound harder little by little until you hear what resembles a 'd' sound, but without the 'spit' of the English D. You can contrast this sound with ด's cousin ต 't' - notice how the shape of the letter is identical, except ต has a little bump in its head. Let that bump remind you that your tongue in ต 't' moves forward a bit towards the bump in your top teeth - but make sure that you still keep your throat closed like in ด. Then pop your tongue off your teeth. That should give you a very clean 'ต' toh tao sound.

Incidently, if you have problems distinguishing between the Thai unaspirated letters บ 'b' and ป 'p', you can apply exactly the same principles. The only difference is that this time it's coming from your lips and the letter บ 'b' was originally a closed throat 'm'. If you want to practice and hear samples, check out my Indic Consonant Compass at Jcademy.com - and you can also get access to all of my Cracking Thai Fundamentals resources there.

Vietnamese Đ

The letter Đ (đ) (as opposed to D / d), is like any 'D' sound that you have pronounced before. It is what we call an 'implosive' d. The best way to hear this is to listen to the video clip.

One thing that it does have in common with the Thai 'd' is that it is very soft and doesn't have any 'air' or 'spit' sound over it.

Mandarin D

The confusing thing for learners of Mandarin is that the orthography system - Hanyu Pinyin uses the roman letter 'D' to represent what in phonetics is actually an unaspirated 't' - similar to the Thai ต 't' sound, but with the tongue a little further towards the hard palate. In Mandarin Chinese (as opposed to Shanghainese and several other dialects), there isn't actually any voiced 'd' sound as we know it in English.

Javanese D

I have included Javanese here as Javanese has several pronunciation characteristics that really make it stand out - and once you are tuned into these characteristics, you can even spot Javanese speakers a mile away whether they're speaking Javanese, Indonesian or even English.

Javanese has what's called a 'medok'I have included Javanese here as Javanese has several pronunciation characteristics that really make it stand out - and once you are tuned into these characteristics, you can even spot Javanese speakers a mile away whether they're speaking Javanese, Indonesian or even English.

Javanese has what's called a 'medok'. The 'medok' phenomenon is when a super heavy, bassy sound is rendered by a booming combination of the voice and the tongue when pronouncing letters like 'd'. You might see normal 'd' words written as 'dh' to show in Javanese spelling that they are dropping the 'bass' and putting a heavy 'medok' in. This 'd' isn't in the clip, but I recommend that you listen to some Javanese speakers both online, or if you know any people from Java, ask them to speak with a 'medok' accent to let you hear the difference. You will also hear a similar bassy phenomenon happen over the letter 'g' and 'j' too.

Spanish D

The Spanish 'd' is unlike any of the D's above. It is pronunced with the tongue gently protruding from the front teeth - touching them and pronouncing a light voiced 'th' like in the English word 'the'. The IPA letter for this sound is /ð/ - as opposed to the voiceless 'th' sound in 'thin' which would be /θ/ in IPA.

I hope that in learning to pronounce all of these D's, you will realise that indeed not all D's were created equally and in being able to distinguish between all of them both when hearing them, and in pronouncing them, you will be able to develop a much more accurate level of pronunciation in the language that you're learning, minimising your 'foreignness' - and mitigating those 'huh'? moments from native speakers that we all dread. :w