Hacking Pronunciation in Any Language with the IPA, Part 2: Vowels

Posted on 02. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Jakob Gibbons writes about language and travel on his blog Globalect. He often shares his experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is his specialty.

Learning words and how to put them into sentences is certainly the first step in learning a new language. But once you’re ready to say those sentences out loud, those endless hours of vocabulary and grammar drills aren’t going to get you very far if no one can understand what you’re saying. Pronunciation is too often the highest hurdle for the aspiring language learner, even though it doesn’t need to be.

In my last post for Transparent Language, I wrote about using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to crack the consonant code in a new language. In this post, we’ll use the same tool to navigate the infinitely more frustrating and confounding group of speech sounds: vowels.

Vowels matter.

While I’m traveling I meet people of all different language backgrounds, and a few conversations seem to repeat themselves in nearly every country. One of the most tiresome is one I often have in English with Romance language speakers, and it always goes something like this:

Spanish/French/Italian guy: Ahh, so you’re traveling through [country name]? What kind of places will you visit? Big cities? Mountains? Forest?

Me: Well I really love beaches. I grew up in Florida and I just really appreciate a good beach.

Spanish/French/Italian guy: OOOH-HO-HO, yes yes, we aaallll love a good beach, my friend! *wink, elbow nudge*

This is because, to my Mediterranean friend, the words ‘beach’ and ‘bitch’ often sound identical. Spanish, Italian, and French all lack the distinction between the tense vowel /i/ in ‘beach’ and the lax vowel /ɪ/ in ‘bitch’, leaving me forcing an overly-toothy fake smile and chuckling at a word joke that I’ve heard a thousand times (and is also not really a word joke, or any kind of joke).

Finding (and pronouncing) a good beach

If you want to avoid accidental rudeness or embarassing dad-like humor, take a look at the IPA vowel chart. Its trapezoidal shape is an abstract representation of the shape of your mouth: the corner at /i/ represents your top lip, /a/ the bottom, /u/ the top of the back of your mouth, and /ɒ/ the opening of your throat.

What the vowel chart depicts is where the highest point of your tongue is in making any of these sounds.


Let’s take the sounds in the English words ‘too’ and ‘see’. Make the vowel sounds: ‘oooooooo’ /u/ and ‘eeeeeeee’ /i/. Now, if you alternate back and forth between them – oooooooeeeeeeeeooooooeeeeeee, sort of like the sound of an approaching ambulance – you’ll feel your tongue moving, like it’s doing the wave in your mouth. At /u/, its highest point is in the top back, and at /i/ it’s highest in the top front. The sounds in ‘too’ and ‘see’ differ only slightly in their physical articulation: /i/ is more fronted and /u/ is backed.

The IPA vowel chart shows you how to produce any vowel sound by combining its main ingredients. While there are some other, slightly more complicated aspects of vowels (like tension and nasalization), here we’ll focus on the three principal parts:

Frontness: When you move from /i/ to /u/, you’re going from front to back. It’s the same difference between the /æ/ in ‘sad’ and the /ɑ/ in ‘saw’. The horizontal position of your tongue in your mouth is called frontness or backness, and it’s super intuitive: front vowels are made with the tongue curved up in the front of the mouth, and back vowels are made with that high point in the back, closer to the throat. When the peak of your tongue is somewhere in between these extremes, it’s a central vowel.

Height: If frontness is the X-axis of vowel articulation, then height is the Y. If you move from /u/ to /ɑ/, from the sound in ‘too’ to the one in ‘saw’, you’re now descending vertically, from high to low. Just like frontness, this one makes a lot of sense: high vowels are made higher in the mouth, and low vowels down low. The middle ones are called mid vowels.

Rounding: It’s not all about your tongue – the lips get the final say on what vowel comes out of your mouth. Starting again from the same /u/ sound in ‘room’ and moving to the /ʊ/ in ‘rum’, your tongue stays the same, and it’s your lips that do the talking. Rounded vowels are made with puckered lips, like /u/ and /o/ in ‘too’ and ‘toe’ in English. Unrounded are all the rest, with relaxed lips.

Figuring out new vowels

Knowing where your current vowel inventory takes place in your mouth is sort of interesting, but isn’t immediately helpful: unlike their simpler consonant cousins, vowels aren’t precise enough to just ‘get’ by figuring out something as concrete as place and manner of articulation.

When I’m working on a new language, I start by identifying the vowels I lack, finding their closest equivalents in a language I do speak, and then figuring out the difference between that vowel I’ve already got down and the one I’m reaching for.

If you order an omlette du fromage in Paris, that du shouldn’t really sound like your English ‘do’. This is a high, front, rounded vowel in French: /y/. As an English speaker, there are two easy paths to ordering your omlette with native-like precision.

The first and maybe more natural path is starting with the vowel that it sort of sounds like in English: the /u/ in ‘do’. So what’s the difference between ‘do’ and du? That’s right: frontness! Push that already-rounded /u/ sound in ‘do’ right to the front of your mouth, and voila.

The second is the less intuitive but easier route. French rounded /y/ is, believe it or not, nearly exactly the same sound as /i/ in English ‘eat’. The only difference is rounding. If you eat meat in the street with rounded lips, then suddenly you’re dining roadside with a heavy French accent, because you’re using the same sound in du.

Vowels are notoriously hard to get right in a foreign language, and are often the source of the giant NOT FROM HERE sign that falls out of your mouth every time you speak. But with the IPA, a little studying, and some practice, you can have a nice conversation about the beach without offending a single person in the room.

The last step toward perfect pronunciation in a foreign language is phonetics, the infinitessimal details that define native pronunciation. In my next post for Transparent Language, I’ll share how you can use the principles of the IPA and phonology to pin down why your ‘perfect’ pronunciation isn’t quite perfect.

How to Teach Grammar Through Technology [Webinar]

Posted on 25. Feb, 2015 by in Company News, education, Events, Language Learning

At Transparent Language, we don’t just support learners of a foreign language, we support teachers, too!  That’s why we started our Education Webinar series earlier this year. We’ve received so much positive feedback from attendees—and requests from educators unable to attend—that we’re repeating the series in early 2015! Up next: how to teach grammar through technology. You can preview the webinar slides and register to join us below!

What is the purpose of learning grammar?

The ultimate goal of many language learners is to communicate with others, so why bother sitting down with something as dull and dry as grammar? Consider this: the better our knowledge of grammar, the clearer we can speak, and the more likely it is that we will be understood. Grammar allows speakers to communicate clearly, but also form more complex, compelling sentences, resulting in more rewarding interactions in the language. And even if your goal is to speak at a high level, the ability to read and write in a language is paramount for proficiency. Having a strong knowledge of grammar helps develop these skills.

Beyond the practical, learning grammar can be fun. (Gasp! We know.) Identifying patterns and making connections can be exciting and motivating. We all want that “ah ha!” light bulb moment, and exploring the logic and grammar of a language is a great way to achieve that.

What are the elements of an effective grammar lesson?

Any effective grammar lesson should include four components:

  • First, learners need to internalize the new rule or concept in an input activity, such as reading a blog post that includes many examples of that grammar pattern.
  • Second, learners need to engage with and practice using the rule in a conscious-raising task, such as highlighting each example of the grammar rule in that blog.
  • Third, learners should demonstrate their understanding of the rule through some kind of output activity, such as writing their own blog article using the rule.
  • Finally, learners need to receive feedback on their work, either from their peers, their instructor, or both.

How do I incorporate technology into grammar lessons?

This part is better left explained in person! Want expert tips from a 20+ year veteran teacher of French and Spanish? How about sample lesson plans that use technology to teach grammar? Join us at our upcoming webinars:

Monday March 9, 2015 7:00-8:00pm EST

Thursday March 26, 2015 4:00-5:00pm EST

Have questions or comments before, during, or after the webinar? Connect with us on Twitter using #TLedwebinars.

A Flurry of Snow Day Language Thoughts

Posted on 23. Feb, 2015 by in Language Learning

You’ve probably heard the old claim that “Eskimos have dozens (or hundreds) of words for snow”… it was on my mind this morning as I looked out at the white stuff threatening to bury my driveway.  Never having studied Inuit, Yupik, or any other Native Alaskan language, I’m not going to wade into that particular debate, but it did get me thinking…  English is no slouch when it comes to snow terms, either.

Think about it – we’ve got snow, slush, sleet, frost, and freezing rain – and in a lot of the US, you’ve probably seen most of those in just the past week!  Furthermore, all that frozen precipitation can come down in snowstorms, snow showers, flurries, or blizzards, can be shaped into snowballs or snowmen, and can lie on the ground in snowdrifts, snowbanks, or even plow banks. In addition to being the bane of shovelers everywhere, that last is a great example of a modern term as specialized as anything the ancient Alaskans might have uttered – it neatly sums up the concept of “snow in mounds beside roads or across driveways after being pushed there by a snowplow” in just two simple syllables.

My plow banks - that's a LOT of snow.

My plow banks – that’s a LOT of snow.

A scattering of snowflakes can be a dusting; extreme amounts snowfall over time can form a mountain’s snowcap or even a glacier.  Speaking of mountains, we haven’t even gotten into the myriad of skiing terms: powder, granular, hardpack, and no doubt many others – like the Native Alaskans of old, skiers need to make fine distinctions when it comes to the surface their hobby depends on.

That, of course, is the linguistic concept at the heart of the old Eskimo cliché – the idea that a language may naturally evolve more terms for things that are more common, or more important, in the places where it is spoken.  It makes sense – a wide vocabulary allows speakers to more easily convey details about the matters that concern them most.  It doesn’t always happen, and it’s perfectly possible to talk about, say, “snow that is good for driving a sled” using a full phrase rather than a specialized term – but if you had to discuss such matters everyday, the Inuit word piegnartoq certainly would be convenient.[1]

Of course, this tendency is certainly not unique weather words, but they do make good examples – it’s no surprise, for example, that Icelandic has more words and idioms related to winter weather than, say, Arabic or Hawaiian, while a language like Spanish is somewhere in the middle. (You can see some fun Icelandic terms here in one of our Icelandic blogger’s posts, and some Spanish terms in a vocabulary list that I made here.)  Meanwhile, a language like English, with speakers spread across vastly different climates, is going to pick up specialized terms for all sorts of different weather events, though some of them may be regional is usage.

What about the language you’re studying?  Does it have more terms for hot weather or cold?  Are there any non-weather subjects it seems to specialize in?  Did I leave out your favorite winter word, or are you just tired of this season’s frozen nonsense and ready to let it go?  Sound off in the comments!

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html