I’m sure that ESL learners can all agree that pronunciation is the most difficult part of the English language.
Why is that so, you may wonder? There are a few reasons, but one of the biggest culprits is the English vowels.
In this article, I give you four ways English vowels mess up your learning curve:
1. The sheer number of English vowels
The English alphabet only has five vowels (a, e, i, o u). However, spoken English has 15 to 20 vowels, depending on the regional dialect. The average number of vowels in a language is only 5 or 6 vowels, which means that English has three times more vowels than the average language! So, chances are, your native language has fewer vowel distinctions than English.
2. Perceptual narrowing
Do you have trouble distinguishing between the words “leave” and “live,” or between “cop,” “cup,” and “cap”? You are not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called “perpetual narrowing” or “perpetual reorganization.”
We are all born with the incredible ability to perceive all the speech sounds in the world, approximately 600 consonants and 200 vowels. However, at around six months of age, babies gradually start to only tune into the speech sound distinctions that matter in their environment and ignore the rest. Within the first year of our lives, sound contrasts that do not exist in our native language become challenging to distinguish.
Hence, for instance, almost all of my clients, regardless of their native language, have difficulties with the /ɪ/ (as in “live”) versus /i/ (as in “leave”) vowel distinction. The English /ɪ/, a rare vowel, is frequently substituted by /i/, a common vowel in the world’s languages.
3. English is not a phonetic language
In a highly phonetic language, such as Spanish, there is a strong relationship between spelling and pronunciation. English, unfortunately, is not phonetic. We all know that one simply cannot rely on English spelling to figure out how a word is produced.
The word “one” does not rhyme with “lone” but rhymes with “gun.” When a word has “ea,” it’s usually pronounced as /i/ (as in “leave” or “weak”), but can also be /ɛ/ (as in “head”), /eɪ/ (as in “break”), /ɑ/ (as in “heart”).
For a non-native speaker, this high level of inconsistency between spelling and pronunciation is admittedly a frequent source of confusion and frustration.
4. The schwa
And last but far from the least reason why English vowels are problematic is the schwa, denoted phonetically as /ə/.
It is the most frequently occurring and the most complicated sound in the spoken English language. Why? Because English is a stress-dependent language, unstressed reduced vowels are invariably transformed into a schwa. In that sense, any written vowel can be reduced to a schwa. For instance, you can find the schwa in the “a” in “about,” the “e” in “enemy,” the “i” in “family,” “the “o” in “freedom,” the “u” in “support,” and the “y” in “syringe.”
The schwa is best demonstrated in a video. If you’re still confused about the schwa, watch this.
Now you know some of the reasons why English pronunciation is such a challenge; the good news is that you’d be surprised at how quickly it can be learned with the right techniques and expert guidance.
It’s time to stop the struggle and the frustrating guesswork. Ready to achieve confidence and effectiveness in your English speaking skills? Contact me today for a complimentary consultation.