The pronunciation of vowels is, without question, one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to fluency. Each vowel can be pronounced in a different way in each word, and traditional teaching methods only have one option: to memorize each word on its own.
What is a vowel?
The sound of a vowel can be defined as the sound that we make when air flows through our throat and mouth, using at the same time our vocal cords. Every single syllable has a vowel in it. In a poetic way, romans used to say that vowels were the soul of a word, because the intensity of the sounds materializes through them.
Unlike other European languages, English does not represent these sounds in a consistent way. Strangely, the sounds of vowels differ between different English-speaking countries way more than consonants do.
Despite the fact that we learn that the English language has only 5 vowels, when it comes to pronunciation there’s a wide range of possible variations. We can recognize up to 16 different sounds if we consider the famous “Schwa” as one of them.
There are many different teaching methods for English students, and some of them find these to be the 16 sounds that English speakers use regularly:
To make it still more confusing, some linguistics define a “phonetic vowel” as the difference between short and long vowels, such as the “a” in “made” and in “mad”.
In order to explain what goes on in our mouth at the moment of speaking, there are 4 fundamental elements to consider:
- Position of the tongue
- Position of the lips
- Tense vowels and relaxed vowels
- Simple vowels, transition vowels and diphthongs
The position of the mouth
The position of the mouth when pronouncing a vowel plays a key role in the final sound that will come out of our lips. Small changes in our mouth may generate a great variety of sounds, that most English speakers can recognize.
In order to explain the movement of the tongue, we may refer to its vertical position: high, middle or low. Then, we can talk about the “extension”, or how close it gets to the lips: front, center or back position. For example:
- /æ/ as in ‘cat’ is a low front vowel. The most active part of the tongue is located in the lower and front region of the mouth.
- /ʌ/ as in ‘cut’ is a central mid vowel. The tongue rests in the middle of the mouth in a neutral position.
- /uw/ as in ‘boot’ is a high, back vowel. The tongue occupies a space very far back in the mouth, from where it physically rises towards the bottom of the palate.
The following image is known as the “vocalic triangle”, despite having an irregular parallelogram shape. This graph is divided into 9 regions, which represent the space that the tongue occupies when speaking.
The vowels that appear closest to each other in the diagram above tend to cause the most confusion among learners of English as a second language who follow these traditional methods. For example, many students may confuse sheep (/iy/) with ship (/ɪ/) but hardly confuse sheep with shop (/ɑ/).
The position of the lips
The position of the lips is essential for pronunciation. If, when exhaling air in a neutral way, we form a circle with our lips, we will produce a completely different sound from the one that arises if we open our lips from side to side.
For a complete reference on how to position the lips in the pronunciation of each vowel according to the traditional system, see page 5 of the following link.
Tense vowels and relaxed vowels
Vowels that occur more at the ends of the palate (either high or low) tend to be more tense, while vowels that are closer to the Schwa sound, which simply requires air to pass through the throat and resonate in the vocal cords, they are more relaxed.
Simple vowels, transitional vowels and diphthongs
Simple vowels are those that make a single sound (as in bad ), while transitional vowels are those that flow from one vowel sound to another (as in day).
Traditional method versus PhonicSense
Traditional methods have the difficulty of imposing the need to learn a series of additional symbols that are not included in the common spelling of words.
Also, these symbols are not consistent across different methods and dictionaries. Each new dictionary that we consult forces us to learn a new system of symbols to assimilate the pronunciation.
Example of the traditional method:
- Word: made
- Sound: m /ey/ d
This makes the student have to memorize two things: the normal spelling of the word, and the symbols related to its pronunciation.
PhonicSense is an alternative to the traditional method to improve pronunciation in English through symbols that we can find in the alphabet, and that are more familiar to speakers of European languages.
The PhonicSense course offers a friendly alternative to be able to recreate the different vowel sounds of English in a simple and intuitive way. Instead of having to learn new symbols independent of how the word is normally represented, PhonicSense indicates them in the word itself, so the student can see the represented sounds clearly:
- Word: made
- Sound: mādë
This representation follows the traditional form used by the old English scribes, who used a dash over the vowel to indicate when it was a long vowel. The umlaut over the “ë” indicates that the vowel becomes a schwa.
PhonicSense defines the mouth positions for each diacritical symbol used in the word, so that the student only has to learn ten additional symbols, which are easily recognizable in each word as shown in the example above.