/f/ and /v/ share manner and place of articulation and differ in voicing (/f/ is voiceless and /v/ is voiced). So, the only difference between them is that, when we produce a /v/, the vocal folds vibrate, while in the case of /f/ they don’t. However, the difficulty these two phonemes present to Spanish speakers is completely different. Whereas /f/ causes absolutely no trouble, /v/ is a challenging sound because it doesn’t exist in Spanish, where the letters v and b sound exactly the same.
Let’s start by listening to these minimal pairs:
Now repeat the pairs and notice how they are produced in the same way, that is, your lower lip touches your upper teeth and you let the air pass. The only difference resides in the voicing, something you can easily feel by placing your fingers against your throat. However, if you find the /v/ difficult, don’t worry. Keep reading and I’ll teach you how to do it.
Spelling: f (face, four), ff (affair), ph (phone, philosophy), gh (rough, laughter)
The phoneme /f/ is pronounced like in Spanish, so it poses no problems, as you can see here:
The only thing you have to remember is that it can be spelled as ph and gh too.
Regarding those spellings, it is interesting to know that, apart from the notable exception of shepherd , ph is almost always pronounced as /f/ (phase, pheasant, phonetics, etc.). The digraph gh, on the other hand, can also be said as /g/ (ghost) or be silent (high).
Spellings: v (verb, vain), ve (have). Exceptional spellings: f (of), ph (Stephen).
Unlike /f/, the sound /v/ is often troublesome for Spanish speakers. The root of the problem is that the phoneme /v/ doesn’t exist in Spanish, where the letters b and v are pronounced in the same way. So, the tendency is for Spanish speakers to reproduce their own pattern, which causes a strong foreign accent and can lead to misunderstanding.
/v/ and /b/ have very little in common, though. They are produced in a different place (labio-dental vs. bilabial) and in a different manner (fricative vs. plosive). Listen to the following minimal pairs and try to notice the difference.
Now, have a look at the following examples. As you can see, /v/ and /b/ are placed very close together in the sentence, so that the contrast becomes clear. They are recorded at different speeds in order to allow you to grasp and internalize both sounds. Listen and repeat trying to reproduce the/v/ and /b/ sounds accurately.
Slow Medium Normal
You can hear the difference between /b/ and /v/ in these recordings:
And here are some other recordings where native speakers pronounce the /f/ and the /v/. Notice how different the latter is from the sound we make in Spanish.
In these last examples you can appreciate a very interesting feature of English pronunciation: the preposition of is not pronounced with an /f/, but with a /v/. Since of is one of the most common words in English, this detail is worth remembering.
And here you can look at all the features together: