The American Accent: Pronunciation Of The Vowels
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English Vowel SOUNDS
Many learners of English have a distinct accent
because they pronounce English with the vowels of
their language. They commit this error because the
English vowels are "something like" the
vowel sounds of their native language, but they
are not the same!
It is not enough to listen to radio and TV. Most
people will only hear the sounds of their native
language and will not learn how to pronounce the
different sounds of a new language such as English.
It is useful to use a course with recordings of
the language you are learning. A good one - and
also economical - can be found at http://www.bookslibros.com/charlesieENGLISH.htm.
A larger list of resopurces can be found in: http://www.goodaccent.com/accentbooks.htm
Let's look at the "pure" vowels that are
present in many languages. They are called pure
because they have fixed sound, like that of a note
of well-tuned musical instrument. These vowels are
formed with no interference by the lips, teeth or
tongue. It is important to remember that when we
speak of the vowels a, e, i, o, u, we are speaking
of the vowel sounds, not of the lettersof
the alphabet. This is very important to remember
in English because the same letter often represents
a different sound in the English spelling. We will
indicate the sounds by enclosing them in brackets:
/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, and the letters in quotes: "a", "e", "i", "o",
In the following section, you can get a quick look
at the English vowels that sound "something
like" the vowel sounds represented by the letters
"a", "e", "i", "o",
"u" in many languages. In the rest of
the book, we will look at them with more detail
and you will also be able to listen to them pronounced.
(For the book but only available in Spanish see:
http://www.bookslibros.com/TuCD.htm) We will also
look at the other English vowel sounds that are
peculiar to English and are NOT found in most other
The following sounds of English are similar (not
the same!) to the sounds /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/
in your language.
· The English vowel of the word pot is pronounced
like the letter "a" in many languages.
Learn once and for all that in some words the letter
"o" is pronounced like the "a" in your language! That's just how it is. If you
don't like it, you won't change the language. It
is better to work at your pronunciation from the
· The English "e" in the word May.
· The English "i" in the word feet.
· The English "o" in the word goal
· The English "u" in the word moon
We will start with the five vowel sounds as represented
by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as
/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. These are
the pure vowel sounds that are present in English
just as in many other languages.
The first pure vowel SOUND in English (represented
by the letter "a" in most languages) is
represented by the letter "o" In English.
We repeat: you just have to get used to this. For
example the English word lot is pronounced
as if it were lat in other languages.
You open your mouth wide when you make this sound.
This sound show up in the words father, car,
top, pot and is the same sound as the Spanish
words padre, carro, tapa, pata, or the German
Vater, achtung, machen, etc.
This sound is a form of the English vowel sound
/o/ (the "short o") and not of the /a/.
Therefore the "o" stands for this sound
more often than the "a". To avoid confusion
it is good to use a dictionary that has the symbols
of the International Phonetic Alphabet, the IPA.
Sure, it is always better to listen to a native
speaker but sometimes you don't have one around.
For example, when you look up a word in the dictionary
you will know how to pronounce it if the dictionary
has the IPA symbols.
Get a good dictionary that uses the IPA like the "Longmans Basic Dictionary of American English"
or the excellent "Collins Cobuild English Dictionary
for Advanced Learners" by cutting the appropriate
following long URL address and pasting it in your
For the Longmans: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0582332516/ref=ase_launionbookslibr
For the Collins: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0007102011/ref=ase_launionbookslibr
For more on this topic, see: http://www.inglesparalatinos.com
Let's go on to the other vowels /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/
or rather the sounds in English that are represented
by these letters.
These sounds in English are not "pure",
as in many other languages, because almost they
always end with another sound. They end up with
a slight "i" or "u" sound according
to which vowel it is. We will see this in more detail.
Some teachers say that they have a little "tail" at the end.
If you pronounce the /e/ sound in English without
the little "tail" at the end, you will
not be pronouncing this sound correctly.
In the musical My Fair Lady, the professor
tries to teach the pronunciation of the English
/e/ with the phrase, "The rain in Spain falls
mainly on the plain".
Your mouth is stretched to the sides when you make
the /i/ sound. Remember this /i/ sound is seldom
spelled with the letter "i" in English.
There is very little "tail" after the
sound of the /i/ in English in words such as feet,
pea.However, the /i/ is slightly longer than
in other languages. So you should exaggerate it
and you will be almost right.
If you pronounce the vowel /o/ of the word phone
(telephone) the same as the sounds son or
ton in many languages (without the "tail")
you will be speaking with a marked accent. The /o/
sound in English is not pure. You have to finish
the vowel with the "tail" of a little
You have to feel your lips move as you pronounce
the English /o/. They don't remain still as in other
languages. As you finish the "o" sound
your lips make a round shape as if you giving a
Similarly to the /i/ sound, there is very little "tail" after the English /u/ sound.
You can have a rather good pronunciation by just
lengthening the vowel.
Your lips are rounded when you make the /u/ sound.
Summary of the English Vowels
The five basic vowel sounds of many languages are
present in English but with the following observations:
1. The vowel that is represented by the letter "a"
in many languages, more often appears in words with
"o". This sound is pronounced without
change in English. However, the other vowels, /e/,
/i/, /o/, /u/, all are pronounced in a specifically
English manner. /e/ and /o/ have marked "tails".
The /i/ ends up in an /i/ sound. And the /o/ finishes
with a /u/ sound. The /i/ /u/ do not have tails,
but they are lengthened.
2. English spelling has very little to do with the
sounds it represents. Or to put in another way,
English is not pronounced the way it is spelled.
The /a/ sound is the vowel sound of the English
The /e/ sound (always with the "tail")
can be spelled many ways: may, weigh, they.
The sound /i/ (a little lengthened) is used in many
different ways: feet, pea, field, receive.
The sound /o/ (with its /u/ tail) is represented
in the following ways: loan, foe, though, blow,
The sound /u/ (a little lengthened) shows up under
in unexpected ways in the English words moon
Strange spelling in English! Right? But the spelling
in another question! We will get to it. For the
moment, just concentrate on the pronunciation.
One way to remember is to think of how you shape
your moth when you speak English. Try to imagine
that you are smiling when you finish a word that
ends with the /i/ sound. When you finish the word
May you stretch your lips.
Similarly, make the effort to think of giving a
kiss when you finish a word that ends with the /u/
sound. You finish the sound of the /o/ in the word
go by puckering your lips as if you were
going to blow out a candle or give a kiss.
Don't forget! We have been talking of the vowel
sounds, not the letters of the alphabet
that sometimes represent them. The word toe
has the same /o/ sound as the words go, flow,
though, and beau. We'll look at spelling
a little more in other parts of the book, "Leer
Es Poder" en http://www.bookslibros.com/muestra/muestra_index.htm.
Meanwhile if you read Spanish you can find pages
on Ortografía and Pronunciación in
http:/www.inglesparalatinos.com. You can also get
our boletín in Spanish by going to: http://www.eListas.net/lista/leerespoder/alta
the Author: Frank Gerace Ph.D has worked in Latin
America on UN and national Educational and Communication
Projects, and has taught in Bolivian and Peruvian
Universities. He currently teaches English in New
York City at La Guardia College/CUNY. He provides
resources on accent reduction and the proper American
English accent at http://www.GoodAccent.com
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