American spoken English is a very musical language, flowing melodically from one sound to the next with fluid rhythms and few breaks. Vowels follow this musical pattern in both duration and tone. However, many learners of English have a distinct accent because they pronounce English with the vowels of their language, which may not be as musical. They commit this error because the English vowels are "something like" the vowel sounds of their native language, but they are not the same.
It is not enough to listen to radio and TV. Most people will only hear the sounds of their native language and will not learn how to pronounce the different sounds of a new language such as English.
It is useful to use a course with recordings of the language you are learning. A good one - and also economical - can be found American Accent Training's Online Accent Program, which features a lot of interactive exercises devoted entirely to typical American vowel sounds. Let's look at the "pure" vowels that are present in many languages. They are called pure because they have fixed sound, like that of a note of well-tuned musical instrument, like the flute (seen at left). Remember, like the flute, technically your voice box is classified as a wind instrument and should be used as such.
These vowels are formed with no interference by the lips, teeth or tongue. It is important to remember that when we speak of the vowels a, e, i, o, u, we are speaking of the vowel sounds, not of the letters of the alphabet. This is very important to remember in English because the same letter often represents a different sound in the English spelling. We will indicate the sounds by enclosing them in brackets: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, and the letters in quotes: "a", "e", "i", "o", "u".
Let's take a quick look at the English vowels that sound "something like" the vowel sounds represented by the letters "a", "e", "i", "o", "u" in many languages. We will also look at the other English vowel sounds that are peculiar to English and are NOT found in most other languages.
The following sounds of English are similar (not the same!) to the sounds /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ in your language. The English vowel of the word pot is pronounced like the letter "a" in many languages. Learn once and for all that in some words the letter "o" is pronounced like the "a" in your language! That's just how it is. If you don't like it, you won't change the language. It is better to work at your pronunciation from the very beginning. We will start with the five vowel sounds as represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. These are the pure vowel sounds that are present in English just as in many other languages.
The First Pure Vowel Sound
The first pure vowel sound in English (represented by the letter "a" in most languages) is represented by the letter "o" In English. We repeat: you just have to get used to this. For example the English word lot is pronounced as if it were lat in other languages. You open your mouth wide when you make this sound. This sound show up in the words father, car, top, pot. This sound is a form of the English vowel sound /o/ (the "short o") and not of the /a/. Therefore the "o" stands for this sound more often than the "a". To avoid confusion it is good to use a dictionary that has the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, the IPA.
Sure, it is always better to listen to a native speaker but sometimes you don't have one around. For example, when you look up a word in the dictionary you will know how to pronounce it if the dictionary has the IPA symbols or an audio program with many examples, like AAT's Online Accent Program.
Let's go on to the other vowels /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ or rather the sounds in English that are represented by these letters. These sounds in English are not "pure", as in many other languages, because almost they always end with another sound. They end up with a slight "i" or "u" sound according to which vowel it is. We will see this in more detail. Some teachers say that they have a little "tail" at the end. If you pronounce the /e/ sound in English without the little "tail" at the end, you will not be pronouncing this sound correctly.
Your mouth is stretched to the sides when you make the /i/ sound. Remember this /i/ sound is seldom spelled with the letter "i" in English. There is very little "tail" after the sound of the /i/ in English in words such as feet, pea. However, the /i/ is slightly longer than in other languages. So you should exaggerate it and you will be almost right.
If you pronounce the vowel /o/ of the word phone (telephone) the same as the sounds son or ton in many languages (without the "tail") you will be speaking with a marked accent. The /o/ sound in English is not pure. You have to finish the vowel with the "tail" of a little /u/ sound. You have to feel your lips move as you pronounce the English /o/. They don't remain still as in other languages. As you finish the "o" sound your lips make a round shape as if you giving a kiss.
Similarly to the /i/ sound, there is very little "tail" after the English /u/ sound. You can have a rather good pronunciation by just lengthening the vowel. Your lips are rounded when you make the /u/ sound.
Spelling Versus Pronunciation
The five basic vowel sounds of many languages are present in English but with the following observations: The vowel that is represented by the letter "a" in many languages, more often appears in words with "o". This sound is pronounced without change in English. However, the other vowels, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, all are pronounced in a specifically English manner. /e/ and /o/ have marked "tails". The /i/ ends up in an /i/ sound. And the /o/ finishes with a /u/ sound. The /i/ /u/ do not have tails, but they are lengthened.
English spelling has very little to do with the sounds it represents. Or to put in another way, English is not pronounced the way it is spelled.
The /a/ sound is the vowel sound of the English word pot.
The /e/ sound (always with the "tail") can be spelled many ways: may, weigh, they.
The sound /i/ (a little lengthened) is used in many different ways: feet, pea, field, receive.
The sound /o/ (with its /u/ tail) is represented in the following ways: loan, foe, though, blow, owe.
The sound /u/ (a little lengthened) shows up under in unexpected ways in the English words moon and through.
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