The "ZH" Sound: Why It's So Underrated (But Shouldn't Be)
By Lilly Lichaa, M.S., CCC-SLP
There is a not-so-well-kept secret in the world of speech-language pathology that we (speech-language pathologists) do not often work on the “ZH” sound.
“ZH” is the middle sound we hear in vision, measure, and closure. For my phonetically-inclined readers, it is a voiced, palatal fricative with lip-rounding, and it is the voiced counterpart of “SH.”
It’s not that SLPs don’t want to teach the “ZH” sound. Better stated, research shows that if a child can pronounce the “SH” sound like in “shine,” they can easily learn to pronounce the “ZH” by adding voicing (the vibration that comes from our vocal cords opening and closing). The “SH” sound appears in a plethora of words. So, why would we spend time teaching the “ZH” sound when “SH” gives us so much more bang for our buck?
Once children are successful at producing the “SH” sound, they are likely to be successful at learning the "ZH" sound. This is mostly true for children raised in an environment where they are immersed in the English language.
Why English accent coaches should not ignore the “ZH” sound
In the world of accent modification (AKA “accent reduction,” “speech improvement,” "pronunciation training," etc.), however, accent coaches are mostly working with adult English learners who may or may not have had consistent exposure to English. Further still, their English exposure and experience might have been with non-native speakers who they themselves did not pronounce the “ZH” sound where expected.
As accent coaches, we must explicitly teach how to produce the “ZH” if the client has not learned to articulate it by themselves. In addition, we likely have to teach auditory discrimination of the sound if they cannot distinguish “ZH” from “SH” or “J”.
Myth: “ZH” is not common in English.
Let’s dispel this myth right now which is probably the biggest barrier to this sound being more often explicitly taught.
TRUTH: There are plenty of words with the “ZH” sound. While in the initial position of words we might see the ZH sound in names (like in Zsa Zsa Gabor or in Jacques) or in borrowed words from other languages, here are many common English words where we see the ZH sound in middle position:
abrasion, amnesia, aphasia, Asia, Asian, aversion, Caucasian, casual, casually, closure, collision, composure, conclusion, conversion, corrosion, decision, disillusion, division, enclosure, erosion, explosion, illusion, incision, inclusion, inversion, leisure, lesion, measure, measurement, Persia, pleasure, subdivision, seizure, television, treasure, treasury, unusual, version, vision, and visualize.
If you’re excited about that lengthy list of “ZH” words, continue reading for the sound at the end of words:
camouflage, collage, concierge, corsage, garage* (some pronounce it with the “J” sound), entourage, massage, mirage, prestige, rouge, and sabotage.
The goal of someone who is trying to acquire the American English accent might be to improve their speech clarity, so the ZH could be a very useful sound to teach.
Notably, many medically-related words contain the ZH sound. If you’re looking for a place to focus on for a "ZH" sound activity, perhaps start with the following words that might appear in a conversation at the doctor’s office:
abrasion, amnesia, aphasia, (food or sensory) aversion, casual, composure, conclusion, decision, incision, seizure, unusual, vision, and visualize.
Another truth: the “ZH” sound is not taught in schools
Neither in elementary school nor in English-learning academies do teachers specifically teach the "ZH" sound as part of their curriculum. This is one reason why people think that the "ZH" sound is not common in English.
While no letter-sound correspondence exists, one big spelling tip is that words ending in “sion” are pronounced as “zhin.” This is a Latin suffix that often appears in medical English. Physicians, researchers, and professors alike will be saying these words often. The “ZH” sound is well-worth teaching for their speech clarity especially because they often use “decision” and “conclusion” - both of which contain the “ZH” sound - in their presentations and when speaking with patients.
In conclusion, the ZH sound has been underrated due to it not being explicitly taught in schools, not having a clear letter-sound correspondence, and the misconception that it does not often appear in English.
Take a look at the word lists above and decide which words you would like to incorporate into your teachings (for you accent coaches and speech-language pathologists) or your own speech (for you English learners).
Lilly Lichaa is an American English accent coach. She has been a speech-language pathologist since 2007 and has been working with accent modification clients online since 2016. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org