I often talk with friends using the phone and I'm not sure how to correctly pronounce the word "beach". Some people hear it as a "bitch". It really makes me upset! How do I pronounce these words correctly? What is the difference in pronunciation?
Beach contains a long i vowel and bitch contains a short i vowel. These two are an example of a minimal pair, a pair of words which is almost the same except for one sound (in this case the long/short i sound). There is a huge list of computer-generated minimal pairs at John Higgins's website.
My slavic language speaking colleagues all have this problem, because these languages do not make a distinction between tense vowels and lax vowels. The sound in beach is a tense [i], and the sound in bitch is a lax [ɪ]. These sounds differ in two major ways.
First, the sounds are made in slightly different places in the mouth. The sound in [ɪ] is very close to [i], but is a little bit towards [e] (like the sound in "day"). So if you say [i] and hold it and then move your mouth to make [e], then somewhere along that path is something close to the sound [ɪ].
Second, the sounds differ in length. All tense vowels are slightly longer, and lax vowels are slightly shorter. If you have trouble figuring out the right way to articulate the sound, then the vowel length can be very helpful to at least help distinguish these sounds — even if it is not perfectly native sounding.
If you are like me, you need to listen to the two words to understand the difference.
This video explains how to pronounce "beach" and "bitch":
Do you know how to pronounce "reach" and "rich"? It's the same thing.