Accent Reduction For Professionals (2015)
Chapter 3: Learning the Sounds of the Vowels
A, E, I, O, U.
This chapter explains in simple language how to properly pronounce the vowels in order to reduce your accent.
One of the very first aspects of the English language you learned, no doubt, was the differences in sounds between the consonants and vowels. The vowels, of course, are a, e, i, o, and u. How you develop the pronunciation of these five letters will determine your ability to speak like a native.
It would be great if I could tell you that those five vowels contain only five separate and distinct sounds. The truth is though, as you’re well aware of, that’s just not the truth. There’s not only several pronunciations of each of those five vowels, but depending on what syllable you stress in a word, you’ll discover yet one more variation of how to pronounce it.
If it sounds messy . . . well, it is. But at the same time, messy isn’t quite the same thing as hard. And messy doesn’t mean it’s not worth tidying the mess up a bit and buckling down and learning and practicing the difference in the spoken word – especially when it’s instrumental in losing your accent.
If you recall, we’ve already talked about how the stressed sounds of English are pronounced. Unlike many languages, those words or syllables that are stressed are, for the most part descend in pitch. You only have to pronounced the vowels to get a good idea of what I mean. Why not say them out loud (You’re exempt from this suggestion if you’re in a library or other quiet area. Then that suggestion is problematic.)
As you say these out loud, listen closely to how each of these actually do descend in pitch. You could also ask a native speaker, whom you trust to say them out loud. Listen closely to see if you can detect a difference in your pronunciation from his. This might be a part of your accent reduction program that you may need to hone to perfection.
As part of this process, you should also study some of the following sentences we’ve created to serve as examples and training your pronunciation of the spoken word. Keep in mind that all of the emphasized the sounds you voice should naturally be lowered in pitch. I’ve italicized the words which need emphasized and the pitch lowered.
Let’s Start with A
Since it’s the first letter of the alphabet it seems the logical place to start. The first thing you should know about this sound is that it actually takes two steps in order to pronounce it accurately.
You begin by pushing your tongue forward in the mouth and then as you’re closing your jaw, you move the body of your tong upward until it almost reaches the tooth ridge. At the same time the sides of the tongue touch the top teeth as you finish enunciating the sound.
Here are a few sentences to get you started.
His secret is safe with me.
You, madam, are no lady.
Don’t you dare take advantage of me!
You’ll probably need a safety net if you insist on doing that.
This marks a big change for me.
Maybe she should make more cookies?
The pie crust needs to be flaky.
Maybe I should name the actress’ age.
EEK!: Listening to the Long E Sound
When you’re pronouncing the English long “e” sound properly, you’ll immediately notice the sound actually resonates slightly off your lower teeth, as a bright, sharp sound.
In order to pronounce this sound correctly, your tongue should be positioned toward the front of your mouth. In fact, the body of the tongue should be close to the tooth ridge. Ensure that the tongue is higher in the mouth than for the other vowel sounds. You’ll notice that this tongue position nearly automatically closes the jaw. The sides of your tongue should touch the top side teeth while you’re enunciating this vowel.
You can practice making this sound by repeating out loud any or all of the following sentences. The italicized words should be pronounced as a long “e” sound.
Keep the keys.
I don’t need to read it.
They are meeting by the oak tree.
It’s human nature to thirst for freedom.
She was relieved to clean the mess.
If you believe you’re struggling with this sound, then ask a trusted friend to read these sentences out loud to you. You can pantomime the words while she’s enunciating them or repeat them after her – or both.
In order to make the most progress, you may want to work in a “safe” environment – with a friend who’s only concerned with your ultimate progress.
Listen to the Long I Sound
What exactly are you listening for? Technically, this sound is composed of two separate sounds that ends with a brief “y” sound. The first step in pronouncing this vowel is to place the tongue within the mouth so it touches the bottom side teeth.
Once you’ve learned that, then you close the jaw slightly, while the body of the tongue moves upward until it nearly touches the tooth ridge. Again, this position should remind you of the position of the “y” sound. The sides of the tongue, near the front, actually should touch inside of the top, side teeth.
You can hear the long “I” clearly in the following words: guy, invite, sign surprise, while, why. Here are some sentences below you can repeat saying as examples:
She’s trying to do what is right.
Good night, sweet prince!
My mother never liked that kind of talk.
He’s a fine man.
Look for a new kind of society to emerge.
Notice that some of these sentences contain more than one long “i” sound. You must pronounce each sound the same way. This is a sure method to temper your accent and sound more like a native speaker.
As you begin practicing you’ll probably need to consciously make an effort to pronounce them. You may want to start by repeating these sentences and others you find as you read or hear others talk. The more you use this sound, more comfortable you’ll be with it. By the way, in the final chapter of this book are tips to help you put all these ideas into implementation as you work toward your goal.
Oh, No! The Long O Sound
Carefully notice the next time you say a word containing the long “o” vowel. When properly spoken your lips will form a “w” at the end of the word. If you ever find it necessary to seek a word with this sound in a dictionary, you may notice that the reference book even adds the “w” at the end of the pronunciation.
In order to perfect your enunciation of words containing this sound, practice reading out loud either while you’re alone or with a native English speaker. You may even want to have your friend read out loud first and then you parrot enunciating his words.
The following sentences all contain at least one word with the long “o” vowel.
I hope to go home Saturday.
Jane rowed the boat over to us.
Fred called home.
He had hoped his parents would loan him the money.
The only way to master this sound is to repeat it – as much as possible. By now this advice shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: enlist the help of a friend you can trust, or use the internet or television.
The key is to pause the recordings and repeat them. In this way, you can see how close you can sound to the native speaker as possible.
The Long U Sound
The long U sound may be difficult to notice in the written language, but you’ll have no trouble identifying it when you hear it. If, however, you’re having difficulty pronouncing it like a native speaker, take your time and try to follow these instructions.
Begin with your jaw mostly closed. At the same time, place the top of your tongue close to your tooth ridge. From here, the sound changes into the “oo” sound we’ve mentioned previously.
You’ll form this by performing two acts, one closely behind the other. First, close the lips forming a small circle. Immediately after that, you’re lowering the tip of your tongue while raising the back of the tongue.
It’s difficult sometimes to recognize when to pronounce the long “u” simply by looking at the spelling of a word. The spelling varies greatly word by word.
The following list of sentence should help you recognize when the long “u” is spoken.
Of course, the best way to learn this is through repetition. Here’s the list:
My shoes are dirty.
I’ve lost my toothbrush.
The same rules hold true for you, too.
He was introduced to the largest opportunity of his career.
The community restricted the developer’s plan.
The plan failed to receive the approval of city council.
What’s the use?
Should we really be doing this?
If you’ve been practicing the suggestions and hints found in the previous chapters, they you can be assured you’re well on your way of reducing your accent. But, there are still more methods you can learn to eliminate your accent. One of the ways is to learn about the soft palate. It’s possible you may have never heard of this portion of your mouth.
If you are familiar with it, it’s now time to reveal how to use it properly in order to get you one step closer to your dream job. Follow me to the next chapter.