Different approaches to learning vowels in British English Pronunciation Training

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Different approaches to learning vowels in British English Pronunciation Training

Different approaches to teaching vowels in accent reduction training

In this article, we’ll explore three ways to learn the vowels of Modern British Received Pronunciation for accent reduction training purposes

Are you a non-native speaker learning English pronunciation? Are you keen to learn a British accent? Are you aiming for the Modern Received Pronunciation accent? Perhaps your native language has five vowel mouth shapes — like in Spanish and Italian. Maybe your native language or current accent has more than five vowel mouth shapes. But, do you have 11 mouth shapes in your language or native accent?

Modern Received Pronunciation uses about eleven mouth shapes in its vowel system. Modern RP has about 20 distinct vowels in total. If you are aiming for Modern RP and you have a foreign accent when you speak English, you are probably not using all eleven British English mouth shapes to their full extent.

Many British English vowels are articulated with a soft, lazy mouth shape. Words like “sir” and “turn”, “hug” and “enough” are articulated with vowels that are produced by softening the tongue, lips, and jaw. In other words, these vowels are articulated with the mouth in its resting position.

Sometimes, the mouth shape that British people use to articulate vowels feels unnatural to non-native speakers who try to imitate it. This is because while the resting position is a mouth shape that is common to all humans (all humans with a functioning voice articulate noises such as “ugh”), not all languages make use of this resting position in speech.

Here are three approaches to learning the vowels of English.

1. Learning vowels using tongue, lip, and jaw descriptors

Traditionally, linguists like me, describe vowels according to degrees of tongue, lip, and jaw movement.

For example, /i/ (like in “need”, “speak”) is usually pronounced with a close (not open) jaw and a fronted tongue. Meanwhile, /ɒ/ is pronounced with an open jaw, and with the back of the tongue coming close to the soft palate.

The way we shape the mouth changes how vowels are understood when we speak. It is important to learn the mouth shapes of the English vowels in this way if you want to make clear distinctions between the vowels that English speakers consider to be different from one another.

For example, “bead” is distinct from “bid”, “bed”, and “bad”, but all of these are also distinct from “bird”, “bard”, “board”, and “bode”.

By learning the positions of the tongue, lips, and jaw, you can begin to make useful distinctions between the vowels that other English speakers perceive as being distinct. In this way, you can be understood clearly every time you articulate using an English vowel.

One tricky part of learning vowels in this way, however, is that in natural connected speech, we make great use of the tongue, but we don’t tend to exaggerate our jaw and lip movements very much. Our vowels are greatly affected by the other speech sounds articulated next to them. For example, the /i/ sound in “sleep” might be articulated with spread lips if we are smiling, but if we have a sad face while we say it, the lips might look more relaxed. That’s why other approaches work well alongside the “tongue, lip, jaw” method.

2. Learning vowels by thinking of tensing or softening

Some vowels — particularly those that are the most extreme in terms of mouth shape — are pronounced with a lot of muscle exertion. For example /i/ is pronounced with an engaged tongue with some tension in it. Whereas some vowels — particularly those articulated with the tongue in a more neutral position — are pronounced with much less muscle exertion.

Vowels that are typically articulated with high muscle exertion (tension) include:

/i/, /e/, /æ/ (bead, bed, bad)
/u/, /ɔ/, /ɒ/ (booed, boared, bod)

Vowels that are typically articulated with low muscle exertion (relaxed) include:

/ʊ/, /ɪ/, /ə/ (foot, fit, but)

Instead of worrying too much about precise tongue movements, when you think about tensing or softening, it can bring some of the anxiety out of pronunciation training. In addition, this approach can work well in natural, connected speech. It’s useful to use this tensing/softening approach in addition to the first approach and see what works for you in your English pronunciation training.

3. Imitation

A third approach to vowel production which my clients and I frequently use is imitation. If you think of an actor of celebrity that you like and try and imitate them (while also bearing in mind the tongue/lip/jaw approach and the tensing/softening approach), this can yield great results when it comes to your vowel production.

Choose an actor whose speech you feel would match your identity well as an English speaker, and then try repeating how they say things by watching YouTube videos. Listen and repeat and then listen and repeat again. Make sure to use the materials (videos, books, and rules) outlined in the Complete English Pronunciation Training Kit in order to get maximum benefit from this approach.

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