Having completed the inside story of consonants in the first 13 episodes, we can see that the thing about consonants is that they (nearly all) have some way of restricting or obstructing the outflow of air through the mouth. That obstruction requires two surfaces to be brought together (eg tongue and teeth), and it requires a manner in which those two surfaces carry out that obstruction (eg they could stop the air completely then release, or allow continuous flow but with a little friction, etc). These two aspects, the surfaces used and manner of their use, have the following results: 1) they give each consonant sound a definite place in which the sound is produced, 2) they also impart the particular acoustic sound quality that is associated with each consonant.
Vowels are done differently from consonants
However, when we look at vowels the situation is quite different. Vowels do not need any obstruction to the airflow, nor do they need two surfaces to be brought together.
So how are the different vowel sounds made? Answer: by changing the shape and volume of the mouth cavity through which the free flowing air moves. This shape and volume is determined by how open or closed the mouth is, the position of the tongue, and the position and shape of the lips. But since these surfaces do not need to touch each another, it is not possible to say that a vowel sounds is produced precisely here or there in the mouth. In fact the sound is produced everywhere, by the shape and volume of the mouth.
There are three implications of this for both learner and teacher. First: consonants can mostly be found in a ‘particular place’ that can be easily described, while the position of vowels is less accurately described. Thus mastery of vowels requires some experimentation and feedback.
Second: while consonants are in discrete positions, vowels are all on a continuum. They merge into one another, and each vowel sound marks the edge of the surrounding vowels. Thus they define each other.
Third: as a result, you cannot really learn one vowel in the absence of other vowels, you have to learn them as a complete pattern, as a whole, as a single gestalt. Of course you can isolate one for study, but since each one helps define what its neighbour is and isn’t, in the end you need all of them as they all fit together and define each other.
Finally, whereas some consonants are unvoiced and some are voiced, all vowels are voiced. You can still whisper them, but in normal speech they are voiced.
How to help learners?
Given this ‘slipperiness’ of vowel positions, how do we help learners? This is what we will explore in the next few episodes. Meanwhile here are two simple explorations to get you started.
As you know I propose that pronunciation be taught as a physical rather than as a cognitive activity, taught more like dance than like grammar.
This means helping learners to rediscover the muscles that make the pronunciation difference, so that they can find new positions at will and thus begin to free themselves from the grip of their mother tongue sounds. These are the three sets of muscles that are key for vowels:
1. Lips (spreading and bringing back, or rounding and pushing forward)
2. Tongue (moving forward and back)
3. Jaw + tongue (moving up and down)
Two tasks in preparation
1.. Say these two words: me, you. Isolate the vowel in each: /i:/ and /u:/. Say each vowel separately, then start with one and take a long slow glide to the other one, and then back. Move slowly so that you catch lots of in-between variations. Can you notice the movement of your tongue, and the movement of your lips? Keep practising until you can. This develops your proprioception, that is your internally felt kinesthetic sense of what your muscles are doing. Your students need to develop their proprioception in order to learn new sounds outside their mother tongue phonetic set. And in order to help your students to do that, you need to develop your proprioception. You need to know what your muscles are doing from your own internal perception, not just from reading about it.
2.. Expand the exercise: Take any two vowels and again slide slowly between them. Try to notice the movements of your tongue, lips and jaw.
So that’s it, next time we’ll start on a few vowels. And I think you’ll find it pretty interesting, because it is!