[ɛ] as in head

head

 

Happy Halloween! This printable pin-able vowel infographic will have your heads rolling!

[ei] as in Hate

hate

This is the third vowel in our series.  It’s printable and pin-able. Enjoy!

Tense vs. Lax Vowels

The first two vowels in our series are both high front vowels.   In fact, they may sound almost exactly the same to you.  You may be asking? What’s the difference?  Contrary to popular belief the difference is not length.  Many people call [i] a long vowel and [I] a short vowel, however, the difference in length is minimal and overshadowed by other factors such as the consonant that follows.

The main difference is that [i] is tense and [I] is lax.  What does that mean?  It refers to the tenseness of the tongue when pronouncing these vowels.  When pronouncing [i], your tongue is pushing hard towards the top front of your mouth.  In comparison, when pronouncing [I], your tongue is in the same position, but not actively pushing.  But how do you know if you are tensing or relaxing your tongue? Here are three techniques to practicing and identifying tongue tenseness as you practice pronouncing these vowels.

Put your Body Into it 

Stand up and reach your hands up to the sky.  Now say ‘reach’.  Really try to stretch out each finger and push all your body muscles to reach out as far as you can go.  Now, drop your arms and hang them by your sides.  Drop your shoulders,  let your head hang down and bend your knees a little.  Now say “rich”.  Feel the difference?  It is often hard to isolate a single muscle, but by tensing and relaxing all the muscles in your body, it can help you start work on tensing and relaxing your tongue.

Feel your Tongue

Once you get used to this exercise, you can try a more direct technique.  Place your finger on the tip of your tongue.  Say “keyed”.  You will feel your tongue pressing against your finger as you pronounce the vowel [i].  Now say “kid”.  You will still feel contact with your tongue, but it will not be as strong as when you said “keyed”.  This method is direct, however, it makes it difficult to produce the other sounds in the word.

Feel your Throat

Fortunately, there is a less awkward method.  Place your index and middle fingers on the top of your throat, where your throat meets your chin.  Now say “feel”.  You will feel your throat push out as you say the word.  Now say “fill”.  Your throat should barely move. This is the best method for determining whether you are pronouncing a tense or lax vowel correctly.

 

 

The Trick to St. Patrick’s Day!

You’re in luck this St. Patrick’s Day! We’ve got a trick for pronouncing St. Patrick’s Day! Its a tried and true way of sounding like a native English speaker.  Trust me, you will truly treasure it!

stpatricksday

Pronouncing the word ‘Patrick’ begins predictably with an aspirated [p] followed by the [æ] vowel.  However, the next syllable does not begin with the alveolar [t] sound.  Instead, it is pronounced with the post-alveolar [tʃ] sound.  The tongue is slightly further back in the mouth than with the alveolar [t].  This is the same sound as in the words ‘chew’ or ‘chase’.  This is a common pattern in English, where a ‘t’ followed by an ‘r’ becomes [tʃɹ].  So when you wish someone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, don’t forget the trick and with any luck you will sound like a true native speaker!

 

ɪ as in hit

 

hit

 

The second infographic in the vowel series is on the vowel [I] as in hit. Enjoy!

Reducing Function Words

A key to achieving the sound of American English is to use reductions in your speech. If you do not use reductions your English will sound stilted and robotic. Basically, reductions in English happen whenever we make speech easier by leaving out consonants or changing the vowel to a [ə], or doing both. Reductions can occur in longer words, such as leaving out the /t/ in ‘winter’ or reducing the vowel in ‘olympics’.

reducingFunctionWords

Reductions also occur in function words. While nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs tend to carry stress and are emphasized; short function words such as articles, helping verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions often get reduced because they generally are not stressed. Often, students only learn the stressed form of the function word, because that is pronunciation of the word in isolation. However, when including function words in a sentence, they are almost never stressed, and thus almost always reduced. If a function is not reduced in a sentence it is interpreted as being emphasized and focused.

These reductions are the same as we saw with the longer words. The vowel gets reduced in function words like ‘for [fəɹ]’, and ‘to’ [tə]. And in the conjunction ‘and’ [ən] the vowel is reduced and the consonant /d/ is dropped. Listen to the following sentences and notice how reduced the function words are. Repeat the sentences and try to pronounce the function words quickly.

 

for

and

te

International Phonetic Alphabet

We now have clickable resource for learning the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols in American English.

This site uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to write words in English to help you know their precise pronunciation. The following charts provide a key to all the sounds in American English. Click on a sound to hear a sample word with that sound.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet where each sound is represented by only one symbol, and each symbol represents only one sound. Consequently, this alphabet can be used to write any language phonetically. This alphabet was designed by the International Phonetic Association and is the standard that linguists use to transcribe speech. For example, it is helpful to use the IPA when referring to the vowels of Standard American English because it has unique symbols for each of the vowels. In contrast, the English alphabet only has five vowel letters even though the Standard American English has ten basic vowels.

Click the vowels to listen

The height of the chart represents the opening of our jaw as we pronounce each vowel. It is wider at the top than at the bottom because as we open our jaw, on its hinge, the bottom will have less space than the top. Therefore, the vowels at the top are the vowels that are made when your jaw is almost closed. The vowels at the bottom are when your jaw is wide open.

The width of the chart represents the relative frontness or backness of the tongue position. The vowels in the front are produced when your tongue is pressed forward. The vowels in the back are produced when your tongue is pulled towards the back of your mouth.

American English Consonant Chart

Click on the consonant to listen

The consonant chart is laid out by place and manner of articulation. These are the technical terms for how and where different consonants are pronounced in the mouth. The consonants with the shaded backgrounds are not contrastive in American English; this means that they don’t make a meaning difference. Nevertheless, they are important for achieving a native-like accent. They are discussed frequently on the blog and used in transcriptions.

V is for Valentine

valentine

Do you have a valentine? Is there someone you’d like to ask to be your valentine but cannot pronounce the sound /v/? /v/ is one of the trickiest sounds in English for non-native speakers because many languages don’t have the sound /v/. Speakers confuse /v/ with different sounds depending on their language background.

Spanish Speakers
Spanish speakers confuse /v/ with /b/. /v/ and /b/ are different in both place and articulation; where in the mouth it is pronounced and how it is pronounced. /b/ is pronounced with both lips while /v/ is pronounced with the bottom lip and the upper teeth. This is the same position as the /f/ sound. In addition, /b/ is a stop, which means that you close your lips completely and then release it suddenly whereas a /v/ is a fricative, which means that air passes through continually between your lip and teeth.

vlips

Say these pairs:
bent vent
rebel revel
curb curve

Arabic Speakers
Arabic speakers often struggle with the difference between /v/ with /f/. /f/ is the voiceless version of /v/. To check whether you are making a voiced sound, gently place your fingers on your throat, you should feel vibration.

Say these pairs:
fan van
surfing serving
safe save

Other Language Backgrounds
Chinese, Hindi, German and Turkish speakers often have difficulty between pronouncing /v/ and /w/. The crucial difference between these /w/ and /v/ is that /v/ is pronounced with the bottom lip and the upper teeth whereas there is no contact with the teeth when pronouncing /w/. Instead when you pronounce a /w/, your lips round like you’re about to blow a kiss. If your native language has the /f/ sound, start with your mouth in that position and add voicing.

Say these pairs:
wine vine
mooing moving
worse verse

So, this year, tell all your favorite Valentines that you want them to have a very happy Valentine’s Day!

How to pronounce Olympics

olympics

The 2014 Winter Olympics are here! And with it the inspiring stories of athletes who have trained for years to achieve their dreams. It takes a lot of dedication, hard work and tenacity to reach their goals. Mastering pronunciation is no different. Your mouth, lips and tongue are muscles that require training and practice. It is not sufficient to learn the proper articulation. You must repeat the sound many times to trigger the muscle memory necessary in order to reliably use the correct pronunciation in conversation. However, with consistent training you can improve your speaking skills and reach your goals like an Olympian.

To pronounce Olympics start out with the /ə/ vowel. You may hear speakers sometimes pronounce it as an /o/ vowel, however, in fast speech, it is frequently reduced to /ə/. Next, your tongue goes behind your teeth for the /l/ sound. Then relax your jaw slightly to produce the lax /ɪ/ vowel and then close your lips to produce an /m/. This syllable is a stressed syllable so make it is a little longer, louder and higher. The final syllable begins with a /p/ sound. Next, you make the /ɪ/ vowel again, this time a little shorter. End with the /k/ and /s/ sound pronounced very closely together, like it’s one sound.

[i] as in heat

iasinheat

 

 

 

Welcome to the first vowel in the vowel chart series.   This is a printable, pin-able tip sheet to help you pronounce the vowel [i].  Enjoy!