In this video tutorial, I am going to talk about the /æ/ vowel in English, as in “band,” “had”, “man”, “apple”, or “laugh.” The /æ/ vowel sound may be difficult for European Portuguese speakers to pronounce in American English because the /æ/ sound (as in “had”) does not exist in European Portuguese.
Sometimes when a sound does not exist in our native language, we may have difficulty pronouncing that sound in the non-native language that we are speaking. It is common to then pronounce the sound to a close sound that exists in our native language. Since the vowel sound /æ/ as in “had” does not exist in European Portuguese phonology, a native Portuguese speaker may pronounce this sound as /ɛ/ (as in “head”).
In this video tutorial, I am going to briefly describe how the /æ/ vowel sound is made, but really focus on exercises and tips so that you can feel the sound on your body and speech system. Descriptions and pictures of sounds can be helpful, but my goal is to increase your own self awareness of this sound and how is “feels,” in order to help you reach your personal accent goals.
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) Symbols
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a series of symbols that represents “sounds” made in the world’s languages, because we cannot rely on spelling to represent a sound. This is especially true with both English and Portuguese, because spelling in these languages has a complex set of rules. The IPA is very comprehensive and extensive, and it is not necessary for an accent student to know all the symbols. However, it is recommended that you take some time to learn the symbols /æ/ (as in band) and /ɛ/ (as in “bend”). This tutorial focuses only on these two sounds, so the IPA symbols /æ/ and /ɛ/ need to be used in this lesson to represent these sounds. Here are some examples of words containing /æ/ and /ɛ/ so that you can become familiar with these sounds.
Portuguese Examples of the /ɛ/ Vowel
Let’s start slowly by bringing awareness to these two vowel sounds /æ/ and /ɛ/, since they are very similar. To start, here are some Portuguese words that contain the /ɛ/ (as in “head”). You can say these words out loud to get a feel for the vowel in your mouth. Think about how the vowel feels with tongue and lip placement.
Words containing the /ɛ/ vowel in Portuguese. In these words, take note of where it feels like your tongue is positioned in your mouth, and the shape of your lips:
The vowel /æ/ (as in “band”) in English does not exist in Portuguese. Since the tongue and lip positions of /æ/ and /ɛ/ are close, it is common for a Portuguese speaker to replace the /æ/ sound in American English with /ɛ/. This means, a native Portuguese speaker might pronounce “band” as “bend” in English.
Description of the /æ/ vowel (as in “had”)
With the /æ/ vowel (as in “had”), the lips are open and not rounded at all. You can see my example, and then try it in front of a mirror. The jaw is open. The tongue is low when pronouncing the /æ/ vowel (as in “band”), and it is flat on the floor of the mouth.
Practice exercise #1- Alternating Sounds
In accent lessons, we start with practicing very small syllables and then we build the practicing words and sentences. The flow is that we start by practicing the sound in small units, and gradually build to longer units. Therefore, in “Practice Exercise 1” we are going to start by alternating the /ɛ/ and /æ/ vowels slowly, so you can see and feel the differences of these vowels on your own body. There are plenty of pictures and descriptions online about how these vowels are pronounced, but this exercise is for you to “feel” and compare these vowels on your speech system!
Begin by saying /ɛ/ out loud (as is “bend”), and repeat it after my model. Say it slowly and in front of a mirror.
Now switch and say just the /æ/ vowel (as in “band”) out loud, and repeat my model.
Now do this again, but with your hand on your chin in front of the mirror, slowly alternating saying the vowels /ɛ/ and /æ/. Take note of what you see in the mirror, where you feel your tongue, and how your feel your jaw drop with your hand on your chin. When comparing these vowels, take note of the second sound, the /æ/ vowel. Your lips should be more open, tongue feel more flat inside your mouth, and you should feel your chin/ jaw drop lower with /æ/. Make note yourself how you see and feel these two vowels in comparison with each other.
Practice exercise #2- “Minimal Pairs”
A common practice in accent coaching is saying two words out loud, where the only difference between the two words is the 1 sound you are working on (linguistically, we call this practice “minimal pairs”). For example, a student might practice saying the words “sad” and “said” out loud, because the only difference between these two words are the two vowel sounds /æ/ (the common difficult sound), and /ɛ/ (the common replacement). Try for yourself saying these two words out loud “sad” and “said.” Do these words sound the same to you when you say them out loud, or do they sound different? They should sound like they have different vowel sounds. If these two words sound the same, it is possible that one vowel is being mispronounced.
Here is a list of 5 more word sets (minimal pairs) to practice saying out loud. If these two words sound the same, it is possible that the /æ/ vowel is being replaced by /ɛ/. If the two words sound different, it is likely that you are pronouncing the vowels correctly in English. Please note that this is an exercise for you to listen, and to become aware of the words sound the same or different.
Practice Exercise #3- The /æ/ vowel in Sentences
This exercise involves taking the 5 words in the minimal pair list containing the /æ/ vowel, and saying each word in a short sentence. The 5 words are “man, bad, flash, slept, sand.” Keep the sentence simple and short. The goal of the exercise is to keep awareness of the vowel when moving from saying single words to longer sentences.
Sentence: “I took a picture with a flash”
Sentence: “the man went on a walk”
At the end of tutorials, I make the statement that there are common pronunciation trends in a foreign language by speakers of the same native language group (such as European Portuguese). However, every speaker is individual, and the trends might not always apply to you. These tutorials are designed to empower the accent student, to increase the awareness of your own pronunciation and sound trends. It is recommended that you consult an accent coach about your own personal pronunciation patterns and accent goals.
Enjoy speaking English with confidence and your language journey!
Leann Rhoades, M.S. CCC-SLP
Accent Coach/ Speech Language Pathologist
All About Accents