Hi! My name is Luke, and I’m here to talk to you about three English vowel sounds for better pronunciation and the most common mistakes I hear from English language learners with how to fix them! You’ll get tips to improve your listening and understanding of these vowel sounds, as well as ways you can practice to improve your English pronunciation. Watch the accompanying video to see me demonstrate everything I talk about. Okay, let’s dive in!
The Difference between Vowel Letters and Vowel Sounds
Let’s start with some of the basics. You’ll notice that I said vowel sounds and not vowel letters. That’s because, believe it or not, these are two completely different things. There are five vowel letters – a e i o u. However, there are way more vowel sounds than there are vowel letters in English.
Many English language learners don’t necessarily know this. As English speakers, when we hear people who speak other languages, we hear that some of the words don’t have the true vowel pronunciation that you need to have when you say these words.
That’s where I come in today – to talk about some of the most common distinctions that we have in English vowels.
A Diagram of Vowel Sounds
Let’s start by imagining a shape that is basically a square, with the top left corner pulled out a bit. Let’s divide our “square” into three parts, horizontally.
Now, imagine that this shape is your mouth. The left side of the square (with the corner pulled out a bit), is the front of your mouth where your lips and your teeth are. The right side of the square is the back of your mouth. The top of the square is the roof of your mouth, and the bottom of the square is the bottom of your mouth. There are dotted lines in the shape. This tells us whether the tongue and the jaw should be in a high position, a middle position, or a low position.
This shape can be useful when you think about the vowels you’re saying. The sounds I want to talk to you about today are some of the front vowels. That means there are produced with the tongue closer to the front of the mouth.
Three Frontal Vowel Pairs
These three vowel pairs are ee vs i, i vs e, and e vs a. You may hear the differences between these sounds very clearly, or you may find that they sound very similar. I’m going to give you guys some tips about how to hear the difference between these sounds. I’ll also give you some tips about how to pronounce them so that English speakers can understand you more clearly.
First Pair: Beat vs. Bit
Let’s start with ee versus i. Examples of some words with the ee sound are seen, feet, and heat. Some examples of words with t sound are sin, fit, and hit.
You may have heard these sounds called long i and short i. Maybe these two sounds seem very similar to you. You might think that the only difference is that the vowel sound in words like scene, feet, and heat need a longer duration, and the vowel sound in words like sin, fit and hit need a short duration.
In fact, there is a bit more to it. A big difference between ee and i is that ee is a “tight“ vowel. The sound i is a little bit lower and a little bit more relaxed. These sounds are also placed high on the square. This means that your jaw and your tongue are high. They’re barely open. I want you to practice that with me. When you say ee, you’ll notice that your jaw is almost, but not quite, closed. The top front of your tongue should almost touch the roof of your mouth.
Now You Try
Say both of these sounds back to back, and feel your tongue slightly relax as you go from the tight ee to the relaxed i. Try it with me. ee – i. ee – i. You should feel your jaw stay in the same high position. The only difference you should feel is a slight relaxation and lowering of the tip of the tongue. Try that again with me – ee-i, ee-i.
Now let’s listen to it in some word pairs. Try this with me – beat, bit. Here are some other ones – sheep, ship. Finally, seat, sit.
A lot of English language learners think that these are the same vowel, but they are actually different and they do make a difference in terms of how we understand the words that you’re saying.
If this is challenging for you, start by playing with the sound on its own first. Just say “ee-i,” and see if you can make that difference. When you’re successful with that, build it into short words like the ones that we just did. Beat, bit, sheep, ship, etc.
With time and practice, I think that you will be able to be a lot more successful with your pronunciation of these two vowels.
The Second Vowel Pair: Big vs. Beg
Next, let’s look at the vowels i and e. For these vowels, I find it useful to play around with jaw height. You may remember ee and i are are high vowels. This means that your jaw stays in a high position and barely opens.
Now, let’s contrast this with e, which is a mid-jaw position. I like to focus on jaw height because it’s something visual that you can focus on in the mirror as you say the sounds. I want you to pay close attention as I distinguish the high jaw height to the mid-jaw height. Have a look.
i – e. i – e. Did you see my draw drop down slightly? This can be a useful visual tool for determining which vowel you are using.
Watch my jaw as I say the following words – big, beg, sit, set, pin, pen. Did you notice that my jaw was high for every first word, and my jaw was a bit lower for every second word? If you feel like you could hear and see the difference when I said those two vowels, give it a try. Keep a close eye on your jaw height in the mirror. I think you’ll find this is a useful tool for distinguishing these two vowels.
The Third Vowel Pair: Beg vs. Bag
Finally, let’s move on to number three, the difference between the vowels e and a. You may have noticed that my jaw went down even further for a. That’s because a is considered a low jaw vowel. The jaw and the tongue are in the lowest position. Watch my jaw one more time as it goes from a middle jaw position to a low jaw position – e, a, e, a. Now watch my jaw as I put it into words – beg, bag, set, sat, pen, pan.
Did you see the difference in those vowels? if you saw and heard the differences, try the same thing in front of a mirror. See if you can distinguish the mid-jaw position of e and the low jaw position of a.
Let’s Put It All Together
Now, let’s put it all together with the vowels ee, i, and a. Watch my jaw as it goes from a high jaw position to a mid-jaw position, and then to a low jaw position to distinguish these three very important vowels in English.
Watch my jaw for these words – big, beg, bag, sit, set, sat, pin, pen, pan.
What do you think? Did you hear and see the difference in those vowels? If so, try it in the mirror and see if you can recreate it yourself. Let me know what you think in the comments down below so that we know if this is something that you found useful for your pronunciation journey.
Are there any other sounds of English that give you trouble that you would like us to discuss in a future video? Be sure to let us know in the comments down below! You might also want to check out this video about other difficult sounds in English. All right guys, I hope to see you all again soon! Have a great day!