In American English, we basically have two types of sounds: consonants and vowels. While it is important to take the time to pronounce all sounds clearly and completely, this article will focus on pronouncing vowel sounds, because these sounds are always syllables and affect speech most. They can have a significant impact on the quality and clarity of our speech.
Let’s take a look at two key factors in achieving speech that is easy to understand:
- Open your mouth to make the space inside your mouth larger. I don’t mean that you have to open your mouth so wide that your listener can see down your throat, but you should feel that you are opening your mouth a little bit more than you are used to.
- Move your lips when you form sounds. If you are someone who tends to keep their lips flat when speaking or moves their lips slightly, you will want to focus on making circles and smiles with your lips for sounds that are formed using these features.
Here are some key factors to remember about vowel sounds:
1. Vowel sounds are always use your voice
Every time you say a vowel sound, you must use your voice. This means that your vocal cords in your throat are vibrating to create sound, and you can hear your voice as you say them. Examples of vowel sounds include: “ah”, “ee”, and “oh”.
2. Vowel sounds are always syllables
Here we are talking about a sound, not a letter. This is very important to remember. Not only vowels in English are pronounced. Every time we say a vowel sound in English, it is a syllable. This means that our pitch will either go up or down when we say them. Each word must have at least one syllable.
3. When a vowel is a stressed syllable, we stretch or prolong the sound.
The stressed syllable in a word is always said more slowly, and the pitch usually goes up. This makes it stand out.
4. When a vowel is an unstressed syllable, we say it more quickly. When saying an unstressed syllable, we shorten the vowel and lower our pitch.
5. Vowel length determines speaking rate.
The more you stretch or prolong vowels in words, the more slowly you will speak. The opposite is also true: the more quickly you say vowels in words, the more quickly you will speak.
6. There are three types of vowel sounds in English
Vowel sounds are grouped together according to the part of the tongue that is used to form them. The “front vowels” use the front part of the tongue, the “central vowels” use the middle part of the tongue, and the “back vowels” use the back part of the tongue.
7. There are 15 vowel sounds in English. In English, we only have five vowel letters, but we have 15 vowel sounds. The vowel letters include: a, e, i, o, u. We can also include the letter “y” as a vowel when it occurs at the end of a word, such as “happy”. Here it makes the “ee” sound.
To speak clearly, follow these guidelines:
1. Open your mouth more when you say vowels in general
The inside of your mouth is a very small space, and we need all the space we can get in order to speak clearly. A general rule of thumb is, if your teeth are so close together than you can’t fit your finger in between them, or if your teeth are edge to edge when you speak, then your mouth is not open wide enough. If you speak with your teeth too close together, then the space inside your mouth may be too small to speak clearly. You also will have a difficult time speaking loudly enough. To others, it will sound like you are mumbling and not pronouncing words clearly. Opening your mouth more when you speak will help you pronounce words more clearly, speak more loudly, and eliminate mumbling. I don’t mean that you have to open your mouth so wide that your listener can see down your throat, but you should feel that you are opening your mouth a little bit more than you are used to. Even though you may feel awkward opening
2. Move your lips more when you speak
American English is one of the languages in which you will have to move your lips more than others. We have some sounds that require us to make a big circle, some that are formed with a smile, and others that are formed by a tight circle. If you are used to keeping your lips flat when you speak, then you are most likely not pronouncing words as clearly as you could.
Both of these speaking skills are very important in creating speech that is easy to understand. While I don’t mean that you have to open your mouth so wide that your listener can see down your throat, try opening your mouth a little more than you are used to. Just remember that even though it may feel awkward to you, it won’t to anyone else. As a matter of fact, your listeners will think that you speak very well!