Discovering the Nuances of English Vowel Sounds
The English language contains over a million unique words. And imagine that – only a hundred (well, maybe a hundred and twenty) of them don’t have any vowels. That is why we believe that learning and understanding different vowel sounds in English is not just important but crucial. They are a significant part of grammar and greatly impact reading, listening, and pronunciation skills. So please, make yourself comfortable – today, we are talking about English vowels.
English Vowel Sounds: All You Need to Know
Before jumping into this tricky topic, we need to tell you what the vowel is in general. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as a speech sound in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and doesn’t cause audible friction. In layman’s terms, it is a sound you make with an open mouth rather than a closed one.
There are six vowels in the English alphabet – a, e, i, o, u. Yet, there are more sounds than actual vowels! In British pronunciation, there are nineteen, and in American – twenty-one. All these sounds can be divided into five main categories – short, long, diphthongs, weak vowels, and vowels with a historical r. Let’s talk more about each of these vowel types:
- Short vowels. This type includes sounds /ɪ/, /e/, /æ/, /ʌ/, /ɒ/, /ʊ/ (like in words pretty, many, trap, watch, put). They are characterized by being pronounced quickly and with less emphasis.
- Long vowels. These vowels sound longer and have more emphasis. They include the sounds /iː/, /ɔː/, /uː/, /ɑː/ (like in police, four, tuna, half). Fun fact – there are more long vowels in the British pronunciation. The American list includes only /iː/, /uː/, and /ɑː/.
- Diphthongs. Those are sounds that consist of two distinct sounds, one gliding into another. The eight diphthongs of English are: /eɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/, /aʊ/, /oʊ/, /ju/, /eə/, /iə/ (as in day, fly, boy, house, go, use, hair, near).
- Vowels with historical r. This type is also known as r-colored vowels. The “r” sound is not pronounced as a separate consonant but rather modifies the vowel sound that comes before it. It includes sounds /ɪr/, /ɛr/, /ɔr/, /ʊr/, /ɑr/, /ɝ/ (as in beer, fair, chore, pure, alarm, mercy).
- Weak vowels. We can also call this type reduced vowels or schwa-sounds. They are pronounced with a shorter duration than other vowel sounds. The most common weak vowel sound in English is the schwa sound /ə/, pronounced like a short “uh” sound (as in common).
Don’t freak out – it is not as hard as it looks. Moreover, you use all these different vowel sounds every time you speak English! To master them, you just need to memorize the difference in pronunciation and understand what sounds are used in different cases. To help you with that, we’ve provided you with a complete list of vowel sounds. You can find it below.
Vowel Sounds List And Examples
Believe us or not, there are two hundred simple words in this list. Most of them are familiar to you, and you’ve probably already used them in practice. But now, you will learn how many vowel sounds in English are and what are examples of their usage.
/ɪ/: sit, bit, win, hit, big, tip, slip, fill, milk, did.
/ɛ/: bed, let, sell, guess, set, met, pen, head, bell, red.
/æ/: cat, had, bad, sad, bag, wag, dad, man, can, jam.
/ʌ/: up, cup, cut, fun, run, sun, bus, mud, hunt, love.
/ʊ/: put, book, foot, hook, full, pull, should, could, good, wood.
/iː/: see, she, deep, keep, week, feel, leave, mean, clean, cheap.
/ɑː/: car, start, hard, part, park, large, farm, heart, bar, start.
/uː/: food, moon, soon, mood, cool, pool, rule, school, tool, prove.
/aɪ/: eye, high, my, sky, buy, try, time, night, fly, guy.
/eɪ/: say, way, day, may, play, stay, rain, train, pain, main.
/ɔɪ/: boy, toy, joy, soy, annoy, employ, voice, choice, noise, point.
/aʊ/: now, how, cow, down, out, house, mouse, doubt, loud, noun.
/oʊ/: go, no, so, show, now, toe, slow, throw, grow, flow.
/ɪr/: near, fear, clear, tear, peer, beer, steer, cheer, year, appear.
/ɛr/: her, bird, word, serve, learn, burn, turn, shirt, third.
/ɔr/: more, four, door, store, floor, snore, score, shore, bore, ignore.
/ɑr/: car, bar, far, hard, yard, start, heart, bark, chart, dark.
/ʊr/: sure, tour, cure, pure, lure, endure, mature, allure, obscure, demure.
/ɚ/: mother, other, cover, order, butter, teacher, paper, water, collar, letter.
/ə/: about, again, alone, among, upon, human, taken, listen, happen, number.
Exercises to Practice All Types of Vowel Sounds
The best way to memorize all these sounds is to practice them. When you say two words with different vowels in a row, you can hear the difference between them. But that is not the only way to master that list of vowels in English. Our favorite ones are provided below.
This technique involves listening to a native speaker and repeating what they say, mimicking their intonation, stress, and rhythm. This exercise helps you develop a better ear for the sounds of the language. Choose appropriate materials for your level to get the most out of shadow reading. For beginners, it’s best to start with simple texts with lots of repetition and accessible vocabulary. And as you become more comfortable with the sounds of the language, you can move on to more challenging materials.
It is another popular technique based on watching someone speak on mute and trying to identify the different vowel sounds they are producing. By watching the speaker’s lips and mouth movements, you can better understand the shapes and positions involved in producing different sounds.
To practice lip-reading, you can try watching videos of natives or find a partner willing to help you practice. Start by focusing on one vowel sound at a time and try to identify it in the speaker’s mouth movements. You can also repeat the sounds yourself and watch your own mouth movements in a mirror to ensure that you are producing the sounds accurately.
Reading books by Dr. Seuss can be a fun and engaging way to practice different types of vowels. This famous author is known for his creative use of language and rhyming patterns, which can help you learn and remember various sounds. By reading aloud from these books, you can practice producing different vowels in an entertaining and educational way. This technique can benefit beginners who are just learning the sounds of the language.
Minimal pairs are words that differ by only one sound, such as “sun” and “son.” Learning these pairs can be a great way to practice listening and determining different vowel sounds. Listening carefully to each word allows you to train your ear to pick up on their subtle differences. You can also practice producing these sounds by repeating the pairs out loud.
Promova – A Guide To Vowel Phonemes in English
If you’re looking for a comprehensive English-learning platform, look no further than Promova. This multitool offers a range of features and benefits that can help you strengthen your English skills quickly and efficiently.
One of the biggest advantages of Promova is that it offers both personal and group lessons with professional tutors. You can receive personalized attention and feedback on your specific needs and goals. Additionally, the platform provides a free Conversation Club where you can practice your English with other learners from around the world.
Another great feature of Promova is its convenient app for iOS and Android. It allows you to take your lessons with you on the go and practice your English skills wherever you are. And don’t forget about our fun and engaging blog with articles and tips to help you improve your language fluency in a more relaxed setting.
Yet, it is not even the best! Promova also offers free trial lessons, allowing you to try out the platform and its features before spending your own money. You can get acquainted with the studying process before making your final decision. Overall, if you’re looking for a comprehensive and effective way to strengthen your English skills, Promova is an excellent choice.
Wow! After reading today’s article, you’ve learned not only how many vowels in English are but also how many sounds they make and why it is important to learn them all. We hope that it was helpful, and that you actually understood the difference between words that sound similar. By the way, what are your favorite English minimal pairs? Share them in the comments!
What common mistakes do learners make when producing vowel sounds in English?
The most common mistakes are usually related to the incorrect pronunciation of a particular sound. For example, not holding a sound for enough duration or not opening the mouth wide enough to produce the sound. Although these mistakes are not critical, they can still impact your pronunciation.
Can practicing vowel sounds improve overall pronunciation in English?
Of course, it can! Since most English words contain vowels, knowing their sound’s pronunciation makes you sound more fluent in a spoken language. After learning basic speaking rules, you will see subtle contrast between different vowel sounds. And as a result, it will make you sound almost like a native speaker!
How long does it usually take to master all the different vowel sounds in English?
There is no correct answer to this question. It depends on different circumstances – individual abilities, the amount of time the student is ready to spend, previous experiences, level of commitment, etc. But if you are ready to be persistent and do your best, you can see significant results within a few months.
Can a strong accent in English be corrected by focusing on vowel sounds?
Even though focusing on vowel sounds can certainly help improve overall pronunciation in English, it may not be sufficient on its own to completely eliminate a strong accent. Other factors, such as intonation, stress patterns, and word choice, can also play a role in developing a strong accent.