For many foreign language learners, American English vowels can be a challenge to pronounce, and there are many reasons for this that will be addressed in this guide. This guide is going to first cover a basic background about American English vowels, followed by a simple “phonetic” guide to 15 American English vowels, and lastly some practice tips for American English accent students.
Part I: Why are American English Vowels frequently challenging for accent students?
1) . Many languages have less vowel sounds than English. For example, although we have 5 “letters” of vowels, there are actually about 15 vowel sounds. If your native language has fewer vowel sounds (such as Spanish), you have to learn to perceive (hear) new vowel sounds and how to pronounce them. It is sometimes difficult to perceive (hear) sounds that do not exist in your native language.
2). Vowels differ more than consonants between speakers and regions in English. For example, a New Yorker and a Midwesterner may the vowel in “dog” differently, and both versions are correct. Vowels are more “fluid” than consonants. This means that there is usually a single way for a consonant to be produced with the tongue, but there is more variation with vowels.
3). American English has “r-colored vowels” or “Rhotic vowels.” These vowels are followed by an “r” sound, and really is a distinguishing difference in pronunciation between American English and British English. I will mention one “r-colored vowel ” in this guide, but “r-colored vowels” will be covered more in depth in future guides because they deserve and require additional descriptions.
4). American English has “diphthongs.” This is an important term to recognize as an accent student, and it means “two vowels combined in a single syllable.” The spelling in English does not mean a vowel is a diphthong. For example, the vowel in the word “seat” is a single vowel sound represented by two letters, and the vowel in the word “might” is a diphthong represented by one letter. This is not meant to confuse the accent student, but rather to show that with accents, we focus on “sounds” and not “spelling.”
Part 2: 15 American English Vowels
Given that vowels require special attention for accent students, the first recommendation is to follow this phonetic guide to 15 American English vowels. Take the time to become familiar with the phonetic symbols (International Phonetic Alphabet- IPA), without necessarily memorizing all the symbols. It is helpful to be familiar with the symbols, so you can click on free audio guides on the internet that use vowel phonetic symbols to practice and listen. As I frequently mention, it has taken me years of graduate coursework in communication sciences and linguistics to be proficient in the IPA symbols and speech science, but the accent student does not need to memorize symbols and tongue/lip positions. The goal here is to recognize the symbols, hear the vowels, and “feel” where the sounds are made in the mouth.
“Single Vowels- Monophthongs”
1. Phonetic Symbol (IPA)- /i/
Word Examples- feet, sheep, tree, me, igloo, eel, queen, mean, heap, meat/ meet, read/reed, feed, seat, sheet, city
Sentence Example- Please feed the queen meat, cheese, and peas
Word Examples- him, hid, ship, ill, bite, fin, sister, pit, rip, hit, give, will, in, big
Sentence Example- Little Tim hit him and his big sister
Word Examples- bed, kennel, head, chest, get, end, any, bread, said, bet, pest
Sentence Example- Meg said to get her some bread
Word Examples- hat, had, cattle, traffic, back, gasp, gadget, apple, add, class, after, travel, rack, panic
Sentence Example- The cattle traffic had backed up a mile so the farmer gasped in panic
Word Examples- cot, psalm, dot, calm, stop, army, lock, farm, got, not, stock, top, smog, fog
Sentence Example- John locked his car in the lot to stay calm
6. /ə/ or /ʌ/
Word Examples- but, umbrella, come, up, jump, love, money, amount, trust, young, umpire, under
Sentence Example- No amount of money can buy love
Word Examples- taught, author, all, fall, applaud, caught, daughter, ball
Sentence Example- The students applauded the author after she taught the lesson
Word Examples- good, look, took, foot, cookie, push, pull, would, should, could, book, woman, wolf
Sentence Example- The woman reads a good book
Word Examples- cool, soup, food, tooth, spoon
Sentence Example- Cool the soup by blowing it on the spoon
Two Vowels in a Syllable- “Diphthongs”
Word Examples- may, able, late, gate, fail, main/mane, ballet, elite, braid, hate, plain/plane, make, wave
Sentence Example- Don’t be late to your gate, or your plane may leave
Word Examples- over, social, go, slow, drove, cold, almost , also, open, old, snow, no, boat
Sentence Example- He drove slow during the cold, icy, snow
Word Examples- I, price, blind, identity, private, nine, time, five, high, China, fry, sight, science, style, July, cycle
Sentence Example- Let’s fly the private jet on July ninth, half past five.
Word Examples- town, house, cow, cloud, mouth, about, account, towel, shower, pound, surround, south, down
Sentence Example- The clouds created overcast for the small town down south
Word Examples- Oil, moist, choice, toy, boil, annoy, oyster, voice, enjoy
Sentence Example- Enjoy the boiled oysters with some herb infused oil
R-Colored Vowels (rhotic)
15. /ɚ/ or /ɝ/
Word Examples- herd/heard, work, bird, after, first, girl, word, first, word, worm
Sentence Example- Have you heard the expression, “the early bird catches the worm?”
Part 3: Tips for Practicing American English Vowels
It goes without saying that with accents, practice means listening and speaking. With vowels, accent work also means “feeling” where your tongue is in the mouth, and being aware of its position. It also involves being aware of whether the lips feel “rounded” or more “spread.” The following exercises are designed to help the American English accent student learn vowel sounds, and increase awareness of tongue position in the mouth. The internet has plenty of resources describing the tongue position in linguistic terms if that helps you, but this terminology is not necessary for the accent student to memorize. Compare tongue and lips when doing these exercises, and try to “hear” the differences between vowels.
Practice Exercise #1: Comparing vowel movement in the mouth
1) . Say the following words slowing out loud: “heed, hid, head, had, father, good, food”
Now say “heed, hid, head, had” slowly. Do you feel your tongue lower and mouth open wider as you say each word? This happens because the /i/ in “heed” is considered a high front vowel, and the vowels go progressively lower as the tongue moves lower in the mouth. The vowels in “heed, hid, head, had” are all “front” vowels because they are made with the tongue towards the front of the mouth. Did your tongue feel “front’ when saying these words?
2). Now say “father, good, food” slowly. What do you feel? These vowels start from the tongue in a low position, and get higher. The vowels in these words are considered “back” vowels because they are made with the tongue towards the back of the mouth. Do you feel the tongue at the back of the mouth compared to “heed, hid, head, had” where the tongue is in the front of the mouth?
Practice Exercise #2: Listen and repeat the vowel sounds
Start listening to the sounds by clicking symbols from online sources, and then repeat the vowel sounds. These exercises are not designed to reduce your accent of vowels. Rather, the purpose is for the student to become familiar with the phonetic IPA symbols, feel tongue/ lip movements, and become more aware of the relationship of vowels in the mouth.
1) . Start with just the vowel sounds- go to the website https://linguistics.ucla.edu/people/keating/IPA/inter_chart_2018/IPA_2018.html and there is a vowel chart under the consonant chart on the right. Click on the vowel symbols that are in the guide in part 2 of this article, and hear the sound spoken by 4 different speakers. “Diphthongs” are not included in this vowel chart. Note that there are many more vowels on vowel charts than included in the guide above. This is because vowel charts often include all vowels in the world’s languages, and we are only focusing on vowels of American English. You do not need to listen to all vowel sounds, just recognize the symbols from American English, listen to the American English sounds and repeat. Take note of tongue position in the mouth, such as whether the tongue is high/ low and front/ back. Also take note of your lips when practicing the vowels. Do your lips feel more spread, or rounded, tense, or relaxed?
2) . This step now takes your understanding of the vowels, so you can repeat them in single words. Easypronunciation.com has examples of the vowels in words, including a diphthong chart and r-colored vowel chart. Follow the link https://easypronunciation.com/en/american-english-pronunciation-ipa-chart and scroll down to “Vowels of American English.” Click on the single words and repeat, and use the speed feature to slow down the recording. Also explore the diphthong chart that includes the 5 diphthongs of American English, and practice repeating the words containing these sounds
Practice Exercise #3- Making your own sentences
You the student try to make your own phrases/sentences containing 1-2 words with each vowel, and practice saying them out loud. For example, you can say “He eats meat and cheese” for the /i/ sound, and work your way down the list of vowels in “part 2” of this guide. Keep this simple- you can take 1 sample word from the chart above and practice saying it in a sentence- (example /ɪ/ “I have a big sister” or /aɪ/ “I’m tired”). The purpose of this exercise is for the student to become more aware of hearing and recognizing the vowel sounds in words and sentences, since it requires a shift to listening rather than focusing on spelling.
Leann Rhoades, M.S. CCC-SLP
Accent Coach/ Speech Language Pathologist
All About Accents
E- mail- Leann@allaboutaccents.com