The Story of Sounds: Episode 26: Discovering the vowel /ɒ/

Example words: stop, hot, pop, cross, foreign, lobby, knowledge

General setting of /ɒ/ The lips are rounded though not as forward as with /ɔː/ and /uː/, and the jaw is low creating quite a bit of resonant space in the mouth. The tongue is back, and low. It might help to imagine a whole orange in your mouth, pushing your jaw down and your tongue back and down. Imagine also that you try to close your lips in front of the orange, so that although there is a lot of space in your mouth above and in front of your tongue, and your jaw is low, yet your lips are not open wide.

To see my one-minute video on the sound /ɒ/ click here and select video no 22

Try to sense the position of your lips, jaw and tongue, and to feel these positions internally. One way to strengthen the sensation of the muscles is to make very small changes to the positions of lips, jaw and tongue, while noticing the slight changes in the resulting vowel sound. Try this with the sample words given above.

The more you can relate variations of vowel sound to muscle posture the better you will become at finding new pronunciations.

Static and dynamic minimal pairs

Static minimal pairs (as I call them) refer to the widely practised technique of saying two words that differ only in one sound, so that you can contrast the sound you are learning with a different one, while the other sounds stay the same, for example:

Static minimal pair /ɔː/ and /ɒ/, using these examples:

caught v cot

naught v not

port v pot

stalk/stork v stock

(Click here for Story of Sounds Episode 24 on the vowel /ɔː/)

One difference you notice is that the first vowel /ɔː/ is relatively long, while /ɒ/ is quite short.

It’s especially interesting if you make the static minimal pairs from two vowels that are close to each other in the mouth, that border each other. You can do this very easily when you look at the chart, at the vowels in the top left section. The vowels that are neighbours in your mouth are also neighbours on the chart. So you can see that /ɔː/ is immediately ‘above’ /ɒ/ on the chart. Using a pair of sounds that are close together helps you feel the small movement in a very precise way.

Try a different minimal pair using the sound /ɑː/ which is a neighbour to the front of /ɒ/ as you can see from the chart. (Click here for Story of Sounds Episode 24 on the vowel /ɑː/)

Static minimal pairs /ɑː/ v /ɒ/

cart v cot

part v pot

heart v hot

sharp shop

dark v dock

Once again you can notice that the first vowel /ɑː/ is relatively long, compared with /ɒ/.

Dynamic minimal pairs

In this case you slide slowly and gradually from one vowel to the other.

Dynamic pair /ɔː/ v /ɒ/

Start with /ɔː/, keep saying it but slowly change the sound to /ɒ/. If you change the vowel sound gradually you can:

1.. Feel the muscles of lips, tongue and jaw moving slowly.

2.. Hear the vowel changing slowly, and hear the in-between sounds

Now make the return journey several times in one breath, like this

/ɔː … ɒ … ɔː … ɒ … ɔː … ɒ … /   and you can discover for yourself that as you move from /ɔː/ to /ɒ/

  • your jaw opens
  • the back of your tongue lowers
  • the lips remain somewhat rounded, though may spread a little.

Dynamic pair /ɑː/ v /ɒ/

Do the same activities with this pair of vowels . And try them like this /ɑː … ɒ … ɑː … ɒ … ɑː … ɒ … / When you do this you see for yourself that as you move from /ɑː/ to /ɒ/ you can feel the muscles of lips, tongue and jaw moving, and you can hear the vowel changing, and you can hear the in-between sounds. Specifically

  • your jaw stays at approximately the same openness
  • the back of your tongue moves back and lowers
  • the lips become less spread

Proprioception: Throughout The Story of Sounds I have been emphasizing the benefits of sensing internally what your pronunciation muscles are doing, of attending to the physicality of pronunciation. The term for this from neurology is Proprioception. If you would like to see the video of my talk Proprioception in learning new sounds and connected speech and talks of other speakers on pronunciation, recorded at the British Council London in 2015 click here

Teacher Training mini videos  If you’d like a close up description and demonstration of any vowel or consonant have a look my series of 39 x 3-minute pronunciation teacher training videos click here and then make your selection.

The Inside Story of Sounds has now attended to consonants and monophthong vowels. The final episodes in this particular series will be devoted to diphthongs.



Posted in The chart and physicality, The physicality of pronunciation, The Story of Sounds | Leave a comment

Teacher Training Programme. Pronunciation and Storytelling: from Phonemes to Fluency

I will be running this 2-week teacher training programme Pronunciation and Storytelling: from Phonemes to Fluency at Bell Teachers Campus, Cambridge in July 2016

It is for practitioners wanting to explore new approaches to pronunciation learning and who want practical ways to integrate pronunciation with all other language activities in the classroom. It provides a complete practical overview of the Sound Foundations approach to pronunciation, with continuous practical work, micro teaching and feedback. We will be pushing at the boundaries not only of teaching and learning sounds, words and connected speech, but of how the learning of sounds is embedded into words, which are in turn embedded into connected speech, and how connected speech serves the personal expression of the speaker.

In order to explore the speaker’s choices of intonation, sentence stress, pause, silence, voice tone, body movement, gesture, delivery, and in fact the qualities of their personal presence while speaking, we will in the second week use short stories learnt by, and spoken from, the heart, though told differently every time. This will provide an extended opportunity to rehearse and speak with personal meaning, allowing pronunciation and prosody to serve our personal presence, performance and presentation skills in creating a quality of intelligibility that is engaging, touching.

The overall aim is to use the physicality of pronunciation to bring language to life, and life to language. In short, pronunciation motivates.

Look here for course details. And here for comments that participants were kind enough to make after the 2015 course – (scroll to the bottom of the post).

Posted in Events, Products, courses, conferences, training courses | Leave a comment

Complete series of 39 x 3-minute pronunciation videos now available


I’m happy to say that the entire series of 39 x 3-minute pronunciation teacher training videos is now available here.

The videos are free to watch. You can check the topics and timing on the list below. They vary in length between 1 and 5 minutes . Once you select the online video you’ll find below it a further written summary of the video content.

This series of videos complements and expands on many of the practical ideas put forward in this blog. The purpose is help teachers and learners to feel, sense, see and know what they are doing with their speech muscles and what they need to do to make new or different sounds, either for their own pronunciation or for teaching others, or both.

These videos in particular complement The Story of Sounds series on this blog, of which 26 episodes have so far been posted.

Here are the 39 videos:

  1. Pronunciation Skills: Introduction to the series 3:41
  2. Pronunciation Skills: The Phonemic Chart part 1 1:50
  3. Pronunciation Skills: The Phonemic Chart part 2 3:25
  4. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels / Diphthongs / Consonants 2:23
  5. Pronunciation Skills: The Three levels of Pronunciation 2:16
  6. Pronunciation Skills: Pronunciation is Physical 2:50
  7. Pronunciation Skills: The ‘muscle buttons’ 1:54
  8. Pronunciation Skills: Native & non-native pronunciation teachers 2:31
  9. Pronunciation Skills: Helping learners to say unfamiliar sounds 3:15
  10. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 1 /i:/ and /u:/ 3:15
  11. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 2 /i:/ and /u:/ 3:52
  12. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 3 /i:/ and /u:/ 4:27
  13. Pronunciation Skills: Using muscle buttons to escape the grip of L1 2:36
  14. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 4 /i:/ and /u:/ 4:50
  15. Pronunciation skills: Vowels part 5 /ɜ:/ 4:04
  16. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 6 /ə/ 1:41
  17. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 7 /e/ 3:47
  18. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 8 /ɔː/ 4:12
  19. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 9 /æ/ 4:24
  20. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 10 /ɑː/ 3:31
  21. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 11 /ʌ/ 4:41
  22. Pronunciation Skills: Vowels part 12 /ɒ/ 1:32
  23. Pronunciation Skills: Mastering the monophthong vowels 4:08
  24. Pronunciation Skills: Diphthongs part 1 /eɪ/ and /ǝʊ/ 5:20
  25. Pronunciation Skills: Diphthongs part 2 /ɔɪ/ /aɪ/ and /aʊ 3:2
  26. Pronunciation Skills: Diphthongs part 3 Exploiting the visibility of diphthongs 3:14
  1. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 1 Guided tour of consonants 4:22
  2. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 2 /s/ and /z/ 3:46
  3. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 3 /ʃ/ and /Ʒ/ 2:52
  4. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 4 /f/ and /v/ 2:01
  5. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 5 /θ/ 2:05
  6. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 6 /ð/ – the voiced ‘th’ sound 1:40
  7. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 7 /θ/ /ð/ /s/ /z/ /ʃ/ /Ʒ/ 4:39
  8. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 8 /p/ /b/ /t/ /d/ 3:46
  9. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 9 /ʧ/ /ʤ/ /k/ /g/ 2:02
  10. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 10 The three nasal consonants /m/ /n/ /ŋ/ 3:25
  11. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 11 Eleven consonants from just three positions 3:50
  12. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 12 The two semi-vowels /w/ and /j/ 3:31
  13. Pronunciation Skills: Consonants part 13 /l/ and /r/ 4.35
Posted in Events, Products, courses, conferences, videos | Leave a comment

Comfortable Intelligibility 2

In the previous post on Comfortable Intelligibility – I suggested using the three levels of pronunciation (Level 1: Sounds: Level 2: Words: Level 3: Connected Speech) as a kind of practical ladder for moving up and down between the whole of a language piece and the parts it is made of (and the whole is always more than the sum of those parts). The aim is to give the bits of learning (sounds, clusters, wordstress, unstress, linking, reduction) the attention they need while always serving the greater goal of learning connected up speech.

Here is an illustration of a 3 or 4 minute sequence of classwork, moving elegantly between Levels 1, 2 and 3 (ie between the detail and the connected up speech). This is made possible in part by using the pron chart.

Practical awareness no 2: Using the three levels of pronunciation

Here’s the first sentence from a 120 word course book text (New Straightforward Intermediate, Kerr & Jones, Macmillan Education) which is both recorded and printed in the student book.

I once saw a magician who did an incredible trick.

Assume you have introduced the recording (Level 3) and listened to the whole text in respect of general meaning etc, and now it’s time for a more detailed study of the language, in this case entering via pronunciation. The student books are closed at this point:

1.. T plays the first sentence one only: I once saw a magician who did an incredible trick.

2..Teacher: “How many words?” (Sts have to re-listen again internally in their mind’s ear in order to count. Levels 3 and 2)

3.. T: “So tell me the words”. Class calls them out individually. (Level 2)

4.. T: “What’s the 4th word?” (Level 2, Sts replay in mind’s ear, and say something approximating magician)

5.. Perhaps T says magician aloud once, Sts listen internally several times (Level 2)

6.. Sts say it aloud. Class listen to each other (Sts notice difference between inner hearing and speaking aloud. Level 2)

7.. T asks “How many sounds in that word?” (Sts count internally by discriminating sounds in their mind’s ear. This also prepares them to use the pron chart. Level 1,)

8.. Class call out number/s of the sounds (there are 7 in magician but there is no need to be accurate at this point, it is the fact of counting that triggers an internal discrimination, Level 1)

9.. T: “So what’s the first sound … and the next … ? etc..” Perhaps T counts the sounds onto her fingers as they are called, and deals usefully with wrong sounds. Level 1, sounds and feedback and assistance)

10.. Teacher invites a St (prepared by point 9) to come to the chart to point out the sounds /m ǝ ʤ ɪ ʃ ǝ n/ Class say aloud what the St points at, correct or not, so the St at the chart gets feedback and can adjust what she points at. Level 2, going down to Level 1)

  1. T and others assist, sufficient accuracy of individual sounds is established. Others come to the chart to have a go. All class is involved by saying aloud the sounds that are pointed at by the person at the front ,and then negotiating them if not right. (Level 1)

12.. Once the sequence /m ǝ ʤ ɪ ʃ ǝ n/ is established on the chart T says “Now in English!” A kind of joke but Sts know exactly what they have to do, ie connect it all up so it sounds like the original model (Level 2)

13.. Perhaps now the T invites people to the board to spell the word. (Level 2, developing insight into sound spelling relationships in English)

14.. And finally of course they put the word back into the original sentence with some speed, embedding the new word in the connected steam of speech, and then comparing it with the original recording (Level 3)


Breaking it down like this makes it look long, but as you know this kind of sequence goes very quickly, and perhaps you won’t use all of these steps, or use them in this order

I have tried to illustrate the movement between the 3 levels of pronunciation, applying this to putting a new vocabulary item into circulation, in this case by attending to its pronunciation in a deeper and more memory retentive way after only hearing the word. One could also start from just seeing the spelling, as when encountering it in a written text. That has a similar process to the above, but with some interesting differences which I’ll look at in the next post.

Meanwhile if this interests you, earlier this month I gave a short webinar on the topic of using the pron chart to introduce new vocab. You can find it here.

Posted in Comfortable intelligibility | 4 Comments

Comfortable Intelligibility 1

Our goal is comfortable intelligibility in connected up speaking and listening.

Pronunciation is a core ingredient of comfortable intelligibility and must always be in the service of this greater goal. For me as learner and teacher pronunciation is more than sounds and ‘correctness’, and more than stress and intonation. Pronunciation is everything that requires muscles, the physical movements of mouth, throat, air, voice, that make the sounds as well as the subtle neurology that makes this possible. It is the embodiment of language, it brings life to language and language to life. As such it can tap into a stream of experiential motivation and bring language learning to life.

In this ‘embodiment definition’ I do not specifically include gesture and other aspects of body language in connected up speech, but nor do I exclude them. This is not the standard definition of pronunciation, but it’s good for me and for my learners since it gets everything we need into the frame from the beginning.

In this series of posts on Comfortable Intelligibility I intend to highlight some very simple thinking frames and practical awareness activities that enable learners/teachers to focus on the details and the language bits, while constantly putting them into the context of the language whole. Some will be my own selections from our shared received methodology,  and some may be less familiar. Here is the first.

Practical awareness no 1: Three levels of pronunciation

This is something I worked out when writing the first draft of Sound Foundations, in fact the book is structured around this principle. It’s obvious and simple and I’m sure others thought of it before me. It provides an elegant scaffolding for moving between sounds and connected speech during all parts of any lesson. It’s this:

Instead of the usual division of pronunciation into two ,ie segmentals and suprasegmentals, a straightforward distinction that serves the purposes of the linguists who created it, I divide pronunciation into three levels:

Level 1: Sounds The sounds/phomemes and their variants of the new language. These are shown on the Sound Foundations and other charts.

Level 2: Words Words spoken in isolation, made by putting level 1 sounds together (allowing for the way neighbouring sounds modify each other). The new factor introduced at level 2 is the energy profile across multi-syllable words, usually referred to as word stress though word unstress is just as important. Words and their stresses are shown in a dictionary. Level 2 therefore includes citation form (ie ‘dictionary’ pronunciation) as well as the reduced ways words are pronounced in connected speech.

Level 3: Connected Speech Words connected together to make a stream of speech, conveying the speaker’s meaning. As at level 2 there can be changes to the words where they join, as well as simplifications/reductions. The new factor introduced at level 3 is intonation which overlays the utterance with a second energy profile, this time across groups of words, helping the speaker convey their relationship to their words, their meaning and their listeners.

Keeping the parts and the whole in sight These three levels help me to keep in mind the whole when attending to the parts and the parts while working with the whole. Quite a bit of class work is necessarily at levels 1 and 2 (sounds and words) but then we must embed that output at level 3 before moving on. Then again if we are working at level 3 (connected speech) and we hit a problem we may slip down to level 2 to work on words or word order and during that we may again slip down to level 1 for roadside repairs on crucial pronunciations within the word itself. Or we might pass from level 3 (connected speech) direct to level 1 to enhance some individual sounds that make a difference, and then re-contextualise that new awareness at level 3.

Not new I’m not describing this as if it is something new, it’s just that the scaffolding concept Levels 1, 2, 3 enables learners and me to track the learning challenges and pronunciation pathways and to make visible the processes by which small pronunciation changes affect intelligibility in speaking and listening. I think this in turn enables learners to be more self directing and demanding in the matter of pronunciation.

How do you conceptualise pronunciation, do you share this with your learners, and how does this affect your way of teaching and learn it?

Next time I’ll propose a second practical awareness activity and combine it with the 3 levels to make an illustration.

Posted in Comfortable intelligibility, The chart and physicality | 1 Comment

In Pursuit of Comfortable Intelligibility

 “The Great Wall of Sound” (Beijing Oct 2015)

“The Great Wall of Sound” (Beijing Oct 2015)

Last month I made a pronunciation workshop and lecture tour in Thailand, Vietnam and China. It was immaculately organised by the local teams of Macmillan Education and attended by lively, interesting and informed local teachers.

And they talked about the practical pronunciation challenges they face: the issue of accents, sentence stress, final consonants and consonant clusters, reduced syllables, impact of monosyllabic L1 word patterns, and connected up speech, and so on. And these conversations were not just from academic interest, but from the absolute necessity of the goal of comfortable intelligibility, the holy grail of practical pronunciation work.

Inspired by these strongly voiced needs I’m planning a series of blog posts under the heading In Pursuit of Comfortable Intelligibility in which I will look at ways of working on the bits (sounds, clusters, wordstress, unstress, linking, reduction, vocabulary etc) while always serving the greater purpose of the whole (comfortable intelligibility in connected up speech). How do we ensure that the roadside repairs on the bits serve the whole journey and do not become ends in themselves? How do we keep connected-up speech in front of us during every other kind of language activity?

This is not a new question, but it is always a key issue, and the pronunciation chart may enable us to approach it in new ways and perhaps with some new solutions.

By the way, while I was there Paz from Macmillan Education in China took the photo above, which may amuse you. We were in Beijing hence the caption…


Posted in Comfortable intelligibility | 6 Comments

The Story of Sounds: Episode 25: Discovering the vowel /æ/

Example words: cat, app, fab, add, taxi, sanction, accurate, vocabulary, language, catch, vanish, narrow

General setting of /æ/: The lips are spread and quite open, and the jaw is lowered. The lips being open and spread may give a slight sensation of muscular stretch near the corners of the lips. The tip of the tongue rests just behind the lower front teeth, probably – though not necessarily – touching the teeth. The centre of the tongue is higher in the mouth than the tip.

As you experiment with these positions try to sense the position of your lips, jaw and tongue, and to feel these positions internally. One way to strengthen the sensation of the muscles is to make very small changes to the positions of each, and at the same time to notice the slight changes in the resulting vowel sound. Try with the sample words given above. The more you can sense these fine adjustments the better you are likely to become at finding new pronunciations (in general, and in any language).

So really there are two exercises to do at the same time, and each informs the other. One is to sense which muscles you are moving and how much effort you are using, and to become more familiar with new muscular postures. And the other is to listen to the small changes in the acoustic vowel sound that these small muscular changes produce.

Two practice activities: The practice of static minimal pairs eg bad v bed /bæd/ v /bed/ is widespread and very useful for a number of reasons. But I also advocate the additional use of what I call dynamic pairs, where you take the two vowels in question and slide slowly from one to the other and back, several times, making sure to catch all the in-between sounds produced during the movement of the muscles from one position to the other, like this /e…. æ…. e…. æ…. e…./ This develops control of the muscle movement and of the shades of the vowel sounds they produce

Here are two dynamic pairs: shown as slides from a neighbouring vowel to /æ/to help you to sense the position, alter it, and in the end control it.

Dynamic slide 1: From /e/ to /æ/. Make the sound /e/ (see Episode 21) and slide slowly to /æ/. Notice how the jaw lowers slightly, how the tongue lowers with the jaw, how the lips maintain their spread but increase their openness, and how the tip of the tongue remains in the same position relative to the lower front teeth. Try this slide a number of times, taking it slowly, so that the change from /e/ to/ is gradual, and you produce and hear the sliding range of in-between vowel sounds.

Dynamic slide 2: From /ʌ/ to /æ/. Make the sound/ (see Episodes 21/22) and slide slowly to /æ/Notice that the jaw remains the same height (open), while the lips have to spread a little more, and the centre of the tongue rises a little. Look for the small movements and their acoustic effect, and become sensitive to them.

Length: Any vowel can be made longer or shorter. But the five long English vowels /iː uː ɜː ɔː ɑː/ are typically longer than the others and are thus marked with the length indicator /ː/. Although usually indicated as a short vowel /æ/ can typically be longer before a lenis (or voiced) consonant. Thus it may be longer in sad than in sat, in bad than in bat, in man than in map. This is not a critical distinction but worth pointing out as you will notice this on occasions.

Are you finding vowel sounds ‘slippery’ to locate? That’s because they are. For more on this and how to deal with it, and perhaps even take advantage of the fact, see Episode 14, Introduction to Vowels

Proprioception: Throughout The Story of Sounds I have been emphasizing the benefits of sensing internally what your pronunciation muscles are doing, of attending to the physicality of pronunciation. The term for this from neurology is Proprioception. If you would like to see the video of my talk Proprioception in learning new sounds and connected speech and talks of other speakers on pronunciation, recorded at the British Council earlier this year, click here

It is my experience that developing your proprioception skill is likely to reduce the time and increase the precision of your pronunciation learning.

Posted in The Story of Sounds | Leave a comment

The Story of Sounds: Episode 24: Discovering the vowel /ɑː/

The Story of Sounds: Episode 24: Discovering the vowel /ɑː/

You can think of a vowel sound as the result of the shape of the tongue coupled with the resonant space in the mouth created by lip shape and tongue/jaw height. As I’ve said before vowels are not made at ‘fixed locations’ like most consonants, but are on an endless continuum, each vowel merging at some point into the ones around it

This is why it is a great help to learn vowels in relation to each other, to learn them holistically, as a set, alongside each other, because each vowel helps define the ones around it.

The use of minimal pairs is a step in this direction, because you contrast two vowels with each other, while the other sounds remain the same

Eg Hit / heat   Fast / forced.  But the use of minimal pairs falls short in two respects:

1) If you do two sounds and then stop, without relating the sounds to one or two others

2) Each vowel is static, so it is less easy for the speaker to get insight into what the tongue/lips/jaw are doing. Whereas if there is a glide from one to another there is a proprioceptive sense of movement, which affords the speaker the necessary insight into what muscles move in order to change a sound. I’ll illustrate this in a moment with the sound /ɑː/

1.. Approximate tongue shape and resonant space for /ɑː/

The jaw is relatively open (bottom jaw lowered)

The tongue is low in the mouth, and also relatively back.

The lips are quite open and rather rounded, but not pushed forward or pouted in any way.

But as I said we can get much more precise if we also do some ‘minimal slides’ between /ɑː/and its neighbouring vowels. Here are two:

 2.. Slide from /ʌ/ to /ɑː/ eg luck to lark, tusk to task

2.1.. Start with /ʌ/ (see Story of Sounds Episode 23, March 2015).

Note the spread but lax lip position, and the relative openness of your jaw when you say /ʌ/. Notice the position of the tip of your tongue. It may be touching or close to your lower front teeth (either case is fine). Now start to slide slowly from /ʌ/ to /ɑː/ voicing aloud as you do so. As you start to move towards /ɑː/ there are several key things to note:

2.2.. The back of your tongue moves a little down in your mouth, allowing the air to flow quite unobstructed from the airway and through the mouth (saying this sound enables a clearer view of the top of the air passage, so a doctor might ask a child to say /ɑː/ in order to examine the top of the pharynx). If you put a pencil of your finger flat across your tongue, and then make the slide, you will be able to notice this movement of the back of the tongue.

2.3.. This movement in turn causes the tip of your tongue to move back a little in the mouth, away from the lower front teeth.

2.4.. There is a sense of an unrestricted relaxed throat, alllowing the air stream to pass through easily. /ɑː/ can be an expressive sound of release to accompany a massage (please conduct experiential research and report findings).

In order to help ‘fix’ both the proprioceptive and the acoustic experience, it is useful to try another slide, so that you arrive at /ɑː/ from a different direction, and with complementary observations. So lets start from /ɜː/.

3.. Slide from /ɜː/ to /ɑ:/ eg further to father, fur to far,

3.1.. Start with /ɜː/ (see Story of Sounds Episode 18, October 2013).

Say /ɜː/ aloud, and start to sense what you are doing to make that sound. Note the neutral lip, tongue and jaw position, and the lack of muscle tone there and in the cheeks. Notice the position of the tip of your tongue. It may be touching or close to your lower front teeth (either case is fine). Now start to slide slowly from /ɜː/ to /ɑː/ voicing aloud as you do so. Once again there are several things to note:

3.2.. You probably notice a lowering of the jaw, and with it the tongue, thus creating a larger resonant space in the mouth above the tongue.

3.3.. But the tongue doesn’t just stay in the same position relative to the jaw, but is a bit lower. You find that the back of your tongue moves back and down a little relative to jaw and teeth allowing the air to flow quite unobstructed from the airway, as I said above.

3.4.. Note the movement of the tip of your tongue. Does it also move back a little back in the mouth, away from the lower front teeth?

4.. Four comments about this discovery activity .

4.1.. Try both of the slides until you can feel what is going on. Also try the slides in reverse, as that will strengthen the proprioceptive insights.

4.2.. These are approximate shapes not exact locations, therefore you need to keep experimenting in order to ‘tune’ your mouth to the required vowel.

4.3.. The very action of sliding from one vowel to another, in this case from /ʌ/ or /ɜː/ to /ɑː/, helps you to contact the muscles that make the difference, and that enable you to experiment and tune the sound. You do not get this insight from standard (static) minimal pair practice.

4.4.. After experimenting with sounds in isolation, put them into the context of words and then into the context of connected speech. It is important to put things back together after taking them apart.

And finally, these exploratory and discovery activities are for teachers and students alike. We are all explorers in this field. And it is a way of knowing.

Posted in The Story of Sounds | Leave a comment

Sound Foundations: Teacher Training Videos update

Here is an update of links to my new 3-Minute pronunciation video series, other recent teacher training videos, articles and resources including the Sounds App and The Interactive Phonemic Chart (British and American English versions)

1.. The first 24 of the new 3-Minute teacher training videos are available to view here. Shortly all 35 will be available

2.. On this new Macmillan One Stop English page you can find the following: – Sound Foundations videos – Recent articles on pronunciation teaching (not available on this blog) – British and American English Interactive phonemic charts, with sounds and optional sample words – The Sound Foundations App v3. These are all accessible here

3.. My talk Proprioception in learning new sounds, words and connected speech is available on Youtube here

.. One Hour Sound Foundations teacher training video, plus various shorter extracts, is available to view here. Recorded at Oxford University

Posted in Products, courses, conferences, training courses | Leave a comment

The Story of Sounds: Episode 23: Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 2

You can think of a vowel as the result of a certain position of the tongue, jaw and lips. You can also think of a vowel sound as the result of a shape (of the tongue) and a resonant space (created by lip shape and jaw height). I find the second view helpful. The fact is that vowels are not at fixed places like consonants, but are on an endless continuum, each vowel merging at some point into another vowel. And that is why we need to learn the vowels holistically, all together alongside each other, because each helps define the ones around it. And, where one becomes another will vary from one accent or variety to another. At the same time it is useful to zoom in to work on one vowel in detail, to zoom back a bit and work on two vowels together (sometimes referred to as minimal pairs, but see below) and to zoom further back to put them all in the context of each other.

Minimal pairs generally refers to two sounds that are produced close together in the mouth, so they may be confused with each other both acoustically and proprioceptively. In the case of vowels, the following would be considered minimal pairs: beat:bit; pit:put; look:Luke. And in the case of/ʌ/: bad:bud /bæd/bʌd/; bud:bard /bʌd/bɑː(r)d/ are minimal pairs

In this approach (Sound Foundations, based on the physicality of pronunciation) there are three aspects to work on minimal pairs, and all three are needed to maximise insight and learning. Our received methodology recognises the first, but (in my view) insufficiently recognises the other two, thereby disadvantaging learners. Here are the three:

1.. Traditional minimal pairs (ship:sheep /ɪ/ and /iː/ ) practised in contrast with each other

2..Dynamic sliding along a continuum between the two vowels /ɪ/ à /iː/, thereby enabling learners to sense the movements of the muscles and the acoustic change

3.. Putting the two vowels back into context of all the vowels and contrasting each with all their other neighbours.

You are all familiar with no 1, so I will illustrate work on /ʌ/ using no 2.

Here is a travel guide for two such journeys using/ʌ/

Journey 1 from /ǝ/ to /ʌ/

1.. Find the sound /ǝ/ in your mouth. This requires zero muscle tone (ie letting go of any muscle effort) in lips, tongue and jaw. Now voice that shape with minimal breath and volume. If you can’t find the sound readily, then start with the longer energised version /ɜː/ and then minimise breath, energy, volume and length. For more on how to produce these two sounds refer back to Episode 18 and Episode 19

2.. Now introduce muscle tone, breath and volume and slide the tongue down a bit (lower it), creating more space above it in the mouth. Also lower the jaw a little to help create that space. This will also open the lips a little, which alters the resonance of the space.

3.. In doing this slide make sure you voice the whole slide, as if you were saying a diphthong, so that you hear one vowel at the beginning and something different at the end, and between them a continuum of changing vowel sound. This helps you to notice the change in vowel sound, which may be quite small, and to notice the very small muscle movements that produce the change. You will still need to experiment to find the sound /ʌ/, and at first you may not be sure if you have found it.

4.. Now compare both the sound and the mouth shape and space of /ʌ/ with other monophthong vowels on the chart, just to get the acoustic and proprioceptive feel of this sound and how it differs from others. If you keep experimenting with small changes you will be freeing yourself from the grip of your mother tongue pronunciation (if that is what you wish) and developing the awareness you need to fine tune the sound in due course, and to make the best use of models given by other speakers in person or through recordings.

Journey 2 From /ʌ/ to /ɪ/ yielding the diphthong /aɪ/…

Yes I know! /ʌɪ/ does not look like /aɪ/…For their own reasons phoneticians designing the International Phonetic Alphabet chose the symbol /a/ as the starting point for the glide to /ɪ/ that produces the diphthong /aɪ/ as in five, my, height. However /a/ is not used as a solo vowel, so I use its nearest equivalent /ʌ/ as the starting point for the glide, while continuing to use the symbol /aɪ/ for that diphthong (because /aɪ/ is used in the dictionary).

This causes no problem as we teachers and our learners are essentially interested in phonemic distinctions rather in the phonetic differences that interest language scientists

1.. Locate the separate sounds /ʌ/and /ɪ/

2.. Now join them together with a long slow voiced glide /ʌ/ à /ɪ/ from one to the other. Notice the spectrum of vowel sounds in between. Do this both slowly and quickly. And also do the journey in the other direction from /ɪ/ to /ʌ/ to produce the glide /ɪ ʌ/

Final reminder: The aim of all this attention to detail is for learners to become comfortably understood by their listeners, and to be able to understand other speakers comfortably themselves. Connected speech requires attention to individual movements, in the service of smooth connected speech, just as a complete ballet requires dancers to attend to multiple small details of movement in the service of the connected up whole. My aim is not to get learners to be ‘perfect’ but to show them that they can be free to choose their own accent and variety, starting off with the accents of their teachers and others they hear and meet in person and through recordings.  Have fun!

Posted in The Story of Sounds | Leave a comment