Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A, E, I, O, U, … Y Teach Vowel Sounds? – Part 1

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Why are Vowel Sounds so Hard to Teach and Learn?

I have a terrible confession to make. Even though I have taught pronunciation for more years than I care to count, I avoided teaching vowel sounds whenever I could. They were just so hard to teach; inevitably we would all wind up frustrated.

First, describing how we make vowel sounds is just hard. One of the first hurdles teachers encounter is that there is no contact of the articulators like there is when we make consonant sounds. In other words, we don’t touch our tongue, teeth, tooth ridge or lips when we articulate vowel sounds. So, when, for example, we teach the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds, we can tell students to stick their tongues between their teeth. But, when we teach vowel sounds, there is no such easy description of what students should be doing with their mouths.

Another problem is that all vowel sounds are voiced, so there is not that easy distinction the way there is with consonant sounds, like the differentiation between /v/ (voiced) and /f/ (voiceless) for instance. Similarly, when we are making all of the vowel sounds, we don’t block the airflow the way we do with some consonant sounds, such as /p/. In short, the way we differentiate between and describe vowel sounds is much less concrete and easily understood than the way we talk about consonant sounds.

Second, ESL professionals can’t seem to agree on one set of symbols for vowel sounds. Most of the dictionary symbols for consonant sounds are pretty easy to read and more or less standard. Symbols for vowels are another story, however. In Celce-Murcia, Brinton, and Goodwin’s “bible”, Teaching Pronunciation, they compare no less than seven (seven!) different phonemic alphabets. Of the 15 vowel sounds, only three (/ɪ/, /æ/ and /ʊ/) are represented with the same symbol in all seven. A couple of the vowel sounds are depicted by four different symbols. For instance, the vowel sound in boy could be written as /ɔy/, /ɔɪ/, /ɔi/, or /oy/. To make matters worse, even if everyone could agree on one phonemic alphabet, such as the IPA, even that can be daunting to both teachers and learners. The vowel sound symbols are not intuitive for teachers and many students wonder why, when they are already struggling to learn a new script, they have to also learn weird pronunciation symbols that may or may not be the ones used by their dictionaries.

Finally, these first two problems cause our students such difficulty because

…[t]he 14 stressed vowel phonemes of NAE make the vowel system incredibly rich and complex. This fact alone deserves attention since we need to realize that this complexity is a challenge for our students learning English as a second language. In fact, many of our students (e.g. speakers of Japanese, Chinese, most Romance languages, Tagalog, Turkish and many African languages) speak first languages that have only 5 to 8 vowels, and we can therefore expect that these students will have difficulties in mastering the more differentiated vowel system of NAE.   (Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin, 2010, page 134)

Why Bother with Vowel Sounds?

So, if vowel sounds are so notoriously difficult for L2 students to master, why bother with them at all? Simply put, it’s because they are essential to comprehensible speech. Gilbert (2008) describes vowel sounds as being at the “peak” of the prosody pyramid. In other words, in every thought group (short phrases bound by tiny pauses) there is one word that receives the focus. She uses the example, “How do you spell easy?” In this question, the focus word is “easy.” It is the most important word in the clause, so it receives the pitch change. In addition, the stressed vowel sound of “easy” /iy/ is said louder, longer and more clearly than all of the other vowel sounds in the question. As Gilbert puts it, “[t]he vowel sounds in a peak syllable are crucial. Other parts of the thought group can (and should) be muffled, but the vowel sound at the center of the peak syllable needs to be extra long and extra clear. Part of achieving the necessary clarity of this vowel involves pronouncing it with the correct sound.” (Gilbert, 2010, page 21) In other words, if students aren’t pronouncing the stressed vowel sounds of the focus words in thought groups, the whole meaning can be obscured.

This is particularly true in conversations involving two non-native English speakers (NNS), which are the vast majority of conversations occurring in English around the world at any given moment. Jenkins contends that

…[w]hen the receiver and speaker are both NNSs, the receiver tends to focus on the acoustic signal and direct his or her effort to decoding what has been heard. Where this does not tally with visual and other extralinguistic cues, or with the cotext, then time and time again in my ILT data, the receiver adjusts the context and/or cotext to bring them into line with the acoustic information rather than vice versa. Jenkins, 2002, page 90

In other words, Jenkins found that when two native or proficient English speakers are talking and one doesn’t understand the other, the listener relies on context and co-text to make sense of what the person is saying. For instance, if I think I’ve heard “I eat lice” I immediately understand that the person means “I eat rice” because who eats lice? However, Jenkins also found that when the two conversationalists are not proficient English speakers, the confused listener actually relies on the sounds that are made when making meaning. Clearly, then, students who need English to speak with other non-proficient NNSs also need to work on making their vowel sounds as comprehensible as possible.

There must be a Better Way

If vowel sounds are essential to communication, then they need to be systematically addressed in all of our classes. After all, there is no point in having learners memorize all of those irregular past tense verbs or practice using articles correctly if no one can understand the words students are saying. In my next blog, I will share some of suggestions for making vowel instruction and practice painless and maybe even fun!

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. and Goodwin, J. (2010) Teaching Pronunciation: A Course Book and Reference Guide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gilbert, J.B. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Pingback from Teacher Talk » A, E, I, O, U, … Y Teach Vowel Sounds? – Part 2
July 7, 2015 at 2:24 pm

[…] last week’s post, I described why vowel sounds are so difficult to teach – they are hard to describe, there […]

Comment from Jean Amos Leveille
August 21, 2015 at 5:26 am

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Comment from Jean Amos Leveille
August 21, 2015 at 5:34 am

Thank you!

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