When exploring sounds keep in mind this important fact: Consonants have relatively fixed places in the mouth where the sound is produced. You bring two surfaces together to make a restriction, provide voiced or unvoiced air pressure against that restriction, and obtain the characteristic sound of that consonant.
But with vowels it’s different because you do not bring two surfaces together, and there is no restriction to the air flow. Instead you shape the space and volume in the mouth using the tongue, jaw and lips, and that shape causes the voiced airflow to resonate in a particular way which produces the characteristic quality of that vowel.
In our first language/s we have learnt to do this automatically, but that automatism will not produce the different vowel sounds of subsequent languages. Thus we all (native/non-native teachers and learners alike) have to rediscover the muscles of the tongue, lips and jaw in order to get free from the vowel positions of L1 and discover the new positions of L2.
This is primarily a physical and muscular activity and we can make it much easier to manage by ‘discovering’ three sets of muscles in turn. I call them the ‘muscle buttons’ and they are these:
1. Lips (spreading and bringing back, or rounding and pushing forward)
2. Tongue (moving forward and back)
3. Jaw + tongue (moving up and down)
In Episode 15 of the Story of Sounds we used the two vowels /i:/ and /u:/ to discover button no 1, the lip button. We can now use the same two vowels to discover button no 2, the tongue button. This activity follows directly from the last, and I would do both together with in a few minutes in class.
1.. Say each of the vowels /i:/ and /u:/ separately. Notice, and sense the different position of your lips for the two vowels (as described in the previous episode). When you have found that, move your attention to your tongue, and notice how your tongue moves when you slide from /i:/ to /u:/ and back again.
2.. For the next step you need to use your finger or a pencil. Say /i: ……/ as a very long sound. Enter your finger or pencil horizontally between your teeth until it touches the tip of your tongues, which will be just behind the front teeth. You may have to open your teeth a little.
3.. Once you are touching the tip of your tongue with your fingertip or pen, change the vowel from /i:/ to /u:/ and notice that the tongue no longer touches the finger tip. It has disappeared backwards!
4.. Repeat step 3, but this time don’t lose contact with the tongue! So, as you move from /i:/ to /u:/ the finger or pencil must follow the tongue tip. Do this several times, to make sure. In the class I make sure I demonstrate this with them, maybe exaggerating a little. It is very visual.
Then I ask the students:
T: What happened?
Sts: The tongue moved
T: Which way
T: So for /i:/ is the tongue forward or back?
T: And for/u:/?
T: So you have discovered button no 2, the tongue moving forwards and backwards.
So now my students have discovered button no 2, and we play with this a bit. And then, since we have also just done the activity in episode 14 I can refer back to button no 1:
T: And what about the lips, are they forward or back for/i:/?
T: And for/u:/ are the lips forward or back?
All of this is done with plenty of demonstration from all of us, and we establish that for /i:/ the tongue is forward and the lips are back, and that for /u:/ the tongue is back and the lips are forward. We play with this opposite movement of tongue and lips, which develops an awareness that is going to help with the location and muscle sensing of all the other vowels and diphthongs. You can see this demonstrated in some of my you tube videos.
So the lessons in episodes 15 and 16 use just the two high visibility vowels /i:/ and /u:/ to discover buttons 1 and 2, lips and tongue. By this I mean that we have made conscious connections with the movements of both lips and tongue, and can now use this connection as an instrument to find, and to fine tune, the rest of the vowels. We will begin this process in Episode 17