English Vowel Sounds: Getting A Grip On A Greased Grouse
By Reggie Stuart
Pronunciation is one of the most challenging areas of English. Training students to coordinate the actions of the tongue, lips and throat is necessary to form consonant sounds. This is not very difficult when the student´s mother tongue is a Romantic language (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.), which has many of the same sounds. For native Spanish speakers, distinguishing ´k´from ´q´ is a common hurdle.
The situation is different when it comes to vowel sounds. Is the paper in the hat or in the hut? If the answer is written, it is clear if I am discussing a sombrero or a cabaña. But in conversation a misunderstood vowel can cause confusion, or worse, cause the listener to lose the flow of the conversation, requiring the speaker to repeat themselves.
In the five years I have been teaching English in Madrid, I have helped students from beginner to advanced achieve their goals with the language, be it to pass an exam, secure a promotion at work, or to better enjoy movies in their original language. A recurring theme with even my strongest students is hearing particular vowel sounds. After trying a couple technniques that did not work, I decided to simply study the issue.
Spanish, specifically Castellano, has five vowel sounds and each letter´s sound is consistently the same. English has over 20 vowel sounds based on the same five letters. I have found documents saying English has 15 vowel sounds, 17 vowel sounds and 20 vowel sounds. I went through the list of 20 sounds and realized that a few were missing. I remember a phonics book I had in school when I was 7 or 8 years old. I hated that book then, but wish I had it today. My students would love it.
With my stronger students, I have come up with some tests to identify which vowel sounds are the most difficult for them to hear. The tests consist of sentences that use different vowel sounds. I have discovered a number of interesting things useful to students and teachers alike. One of them is that it is necessary for the student to be able to spell the word in order to hear the sound. They must also know the meaning of the word in their home language. Further, the brain can distinguish between different sounds (ie. ¨track¨ and ¨truck¨) if the sentence is constructed in a way that gives context.
A very strong student confessed to me that occasionally he misses a single vowel in a word. While he is trying to figure out what it was he forgets the entire conversation. Part of the remedy is a firm knowledge of grammatical structures: ¨cut the cat¨ or ¨caught the cat?¨ We can say ¨he cut the cat,¨ or ¨he caught the cat.¨ But one of these is wrong: