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English Pronunciation: How does vowel length change meaning of a word?

Sheep and Ship - Can you tell the difference?

People who speak English as a second language struggle with understanding the differences in vowel lengths in English. Let’s start at the basics.

What are vowels?

Vowels are voiced sounds made by your oral resonators, and they mainly comprise the letters :A, E, I , O, U. In SNE, there are 11 vowel sounds, and 1 extra short schwa, as demonstrated below.

















How do vowels happen? It is rather difficult to explain, as no one part of your mouth touches the other when you make vowel sounds. Your tongue is sort of suspended, and either high or low in your mouth.

4 key parts that help in vowels sounding correct.

  • Position and shape of your tongue
  • Position and shape of your lips
  • Relative position of your jaw
  • Length of time these positions are held.

Tongue Position:When your tongue is high up in your mouth, you produce a ‘closed’ vowel.When your tongue is low, and far from your palate, you produce an, ‘ open’ vowel.

Lip Position:Your lips may be rounded ( like a kiss), or spread out ( like a smile). In English, there are no rounded front vowel sounds. Notice how the change in lip position alone changes the quality of a sound immediately.

Jaw Position:Your tongue is attached to your jaw. Moving your jaw lower when trying to produce a high vowel can make it difficult. You jaw must always be position to HELP your tongue achieve its position.

Length: Vowels are generally long or short.In English, it is important to know which sounds are short and long. Non native speakers who unconsciously shorten all their vowels, may present with a staccato style of speaking, which may be regarded as rudeness or impatience.

Nose: English does not have any nasal sounds. If you are allowing for air to escape your nose when speaking, you will be having a nasal overlay to your speech.

The neutral vowel: The schwa vowel, is an extra short vowel sound. It represents the neutral position of the tongue in the mouth. If your tongue is entirely relaxed, you can produce the schwa in the right manner.

Conclusion: Vowels are pronounced using our : Tongue, jaw, lips and length of sound. If either of the above are not being used the right way, your vowel would sound different.

Do you have any vowel pronunciation rules that you follow? Just leave a comment below with the rules you follow.



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