The Importance of Sound for Mastering a Language

A blog by Shalon Sims about education, creative writing, literacy and psychology

The Importance of Sound for Mastering a Language

When we are young, we learn the sounds of our language automatically from our parents, but when we learn a new language we need to pay special attention to the sounds. In most languages, including English, sound is made with two types of letters: 1) Consonants and 2) Vowels.

The consonants are similar in many languages, but vowel sounds may be very different from language to language.

When learning a new language, it’s easy to try to use the vowel sounds from your own language instead of learning and using English vowel sounds. This is why some people have a very strong accent, or why they have difficulty spelling words. 

For example, people who speak Arabic, will have a lot of trouble distinguishing between vowels ‘i’ and ‘e.’ They will say them the same way. Someone who speaks French will say the ‘e’ vowel as if it’s a long ‘a’ like we do in the noun resume (pronounced rezoomay in English). Resume is a noun taken from the French, and we say it in a French way. So for example, they might pronounce the word ‘better’ as ‘baytar.’ That is because they are speaking the English vowel sound ‘e’ as if it were the French vowel sound ‘e.’ 

To make things even more complicated, both British and American English have slightly different vowel sounds! Gah! 

In this article, I am explaining how to say the American English vowel sounds. In case you are interested, I created some Youtube videos to practice your vowel sounds.

There are 12 primary vowels in English

  1. Long A  (pay, pain, feign, fade) 
  2. Short A  (pan, Santa)
  3. Long E  (eat, deep, pique, story, eve, he, alley, key)
  4. Short E  (peck, step, leapt)
  5. Schwa  (paw, ella, )
  6. Long I  (by, nine, bright, buy, find, child)
  7. Short I  (bit, in, it)
  8. Long O  (go, toe, tote, coat, old, host, grow)
  9. Short O  (cot, bought, stop, saw, call)
  10. German long U (book, look)
  11. Long U (too, cute, flew)
  12. Short U  (cut, flood)

There are other vowels in English, but these are the most important.

Did you notice that there are many ways to spell the same sound? Look at #11 — the Long U — there are three ways to spell the same sound! This is very difficult for people from other languages to understand about English — that vowel sounds are made in many different ways. BUT, there are patterns and you can learn them!

In Canada, we learn about the vowels and their sounds/spelling in elementary school. You can find many resources to learn about these spelling rules. Here is a google search to find more info about these vowel patterns. Many of these resources are made for children, but they can easily be used by adults to help learn the vowel sounds.

At the bottom of this article, I’ve created some lessons about the vowels just for YOU. 

Why is learning the vowel sounds so important?

Vowels are the building blocks of words. By practicing to understand and hear vowels properly, you will also improve:

  • Spelling
  • Reading
  • Speech
  • Comprehension

The sounds in a new language are often very difficult to learn and this is not helped by the fact that many teachers do not make it a priority.  Instead, they often focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening and forget that when they were young, they had many lessons and a lot of practice with long and short vowel sounds, and were expected to know how to spell them properly.  

I have found that by focusing on the sounds of all the letters–the vowels and consonants–and by practicing our use of sound regularly, my students improve rapidly in their general English ability.

Lessons

Here are some short lessons on the long and short vowel sounds.

Before you study these charts, PLEASE watch my Youtube video so you can see what your mouth is supposed to look like when you practice these vowels. You can see my Youtube videos to practice your vowels here.

If you look in the first chart in the lesson below, you will see “long” vowel sounds and “Short” vowel sounds. If you don’t know what these are, here’s a video explaining long and short vowel sounds. It’s a children’s song, but all people, young and old, benefit from learning through music. It helps us retain the information. 

Here’s a tip: The long vowel says its name. E says “eeeeee” and A says “aaaaa” etc. The short vowel says a completely different sound, so make sure you get some practice saying the short vowels. This is VERY important because in your first language, you probably also have these same vowel sounds. For example, 

A

Short A
Sounds like “ah”
Long A #1
Says its name
Pattern: ai
Long A #2
Says its name
Pattern: a__e
Long A #3
Says its name
Pattern: eig
mad maid made  
am aim    
plan plain plane  
ran rain   reign
fan     feign
back   bake  
snack   snake  
There are other ways to spell the long “a” but these are the most common.

E

Short E
Sounds like ‘eh”
Long E #1
Says its name
Pattern: ea
Long E #2
Says its name
Pattern: ee
met meat meet
red read reed
hell heal heel
stem steam  
speck speak  
fell   feel
There are other ways to spell the Long E, but these are the most common.

I

Short I
Sounds like “ai”
Long I
Says its name
Pattern: i__e
Long I
Says its name
Pattern: igh
rid ride  
sit site sight
wit white  
win wine  
quit quite  
strip stripe  
fit   fight
There are other ways to spell the Long I, but these are the most common

O

Short O
Sounds like “oh”
Long O
Says its name
Pattern: oa
Long O
Says its name
Pattern: o__e
rod road rode
got goat  
cost coast  
mop   mope
rob   robe
There are other ways to spell the Long O, but these are the most common.

U

Short U
Sounds like “uh”
Long u
Says its name
Pattern: u__e
us use
cut cute
hug huge
Another common way to write the long U is with ‘ew.’ For example, knew

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many ways to spell the same sound!

BUT, the point of these lessons is NOT to teach you all the ways to spell a vowel sound. The point is to get you practicing making the sounds with your mouth.

Make sure to watch some videos on how to position your mouth for making the vowel sounds and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!

 

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