Deliberate Practice 5: Vowels

Let’s talk about vowels.

In a lot of ways, in a lot of languages, consonants are a lot easier to figure out. That’s because they are easier to feel and, therefore, easier to replicate (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, definitely read Part 4 of this blog series).

But vowels are a whole different animal.

To show you what I mean, let’s practice making a couple English vowel sounds. Yes, you should try this out loud and yes, you will look a little silly if you’re somewhere public. But do it for your inner linguist!

Make the sound “a” as in “cat”. Say it a few times: a a a a a

What is your mouth doing? Say it again and pay attention to a few things: the shape of your lips, how open your mouth is, where your tongue is sitting.

Now make the sound “ee” as in “see”: ee ee ee ee

What changed?

Odds are your lips are a little more smily, mouth is a little more closed, maybe the back of your tongue moved a little. These two vowel sounds are pretty different—fluent English speakers don’t tend to mix up “a” and “ee”. That’s because they are linguistically far apart.

Now say “i” as in “sit”: i i i

Compared to “e” as in “set”: e e e i i i

If you’re reading words like “sit” and “set”, you probably won’t mix up “i” and “e”, but feel the sounds in your mouth. Not a lot actually changes when you shift between those two vowels. Your jaw might open a bit….and that’s about it. It’s subtle! So why don’t we make mistakes with these two sounds?

Well, actually, we do. “Mistakes” is not always the best word to describe it. But think about words that sometimes get mixed up. Did you ask for a “pen” or a “pin”? In certain parts of the English speaking world (parts of UK and Australia, for example), “been” and “bean” are pronounced the same. These aren’t mistakes—these are variatal differences that exist all over English. So then why do we care about noticing the subtle differences between vowels?

I have two answers.

1. If your child struggles to discriminate between sounds, they are likely going to have trouble with spelling and comprehension.

Drawing your child’s attention to those subtle differences can help them start to feel how vowels differ. English has a lot of subtle variation, with 15 different vowel sounds. And we represent those sounds with only 6 letters (a, e, i, o, u, y). That’s a lot to keep track of!

Every child benefits from special attention to vowels. Learning all the ways we map sounds onto those letters takes time and is part of what makes English spelling so difficult.

2. If you are learning another language, it is important to understand how the vowel sounds are produced in that language, so you can produce those sounds accurately.

Remember the subtle sound differences between “i”
and “e”? Those sounds create different words.
The same thing happens in other
languages—vowel sounds create
meaningful differences in a set of words.

Arabic has 8 vowel sounds (a little different from 15!), but they are not the same sounds that are found in English. Some of them overlap: “oo” and “ee”, for example. But they have a couple sounds that are very difficult to produce for English speakers.

In my recording this week, I really focus on producing those vowel sounds, carefully feeling the way they are different from or similar to English vowels. I’m also learning how to map those sounds onto the Arabic spelling system so that I can build all the trunks of my language tree at the same time!

~ Claire

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