The Story of Sounds: Episode 17: Discovering /ɪ/ and /ʊ/

In this Episode we discover the sounds /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ using the tongue and lip buttons along with visual observation. First let’s recap:

The story so far:

In Episodes 15 and 16 we developed an important insight for ourselves, which once established can help us help our students. This involves the twin discoveries of two discreet lines of travel.

The first line of travel involves the lips moving from /i:/ with a lips spread position (in which the lips are relatively ‘back’. ie as far back as lips can go) to the sound /u:/where the lips are rounded and pushed or pouted forward (the lips can only go forward if rounded). With just a little licence you can think of this as being a travel line between ‘lips forward’ and ‘lips back’.

The second line of travel involves the tongue moving in the ‘opposite’ direction, from a forward position with the sound /i:/ (tongue tip just behind lower front teeth) to a back position with the sound /u:/.

You can picture this fairly literally as a travel line between ‘tongue forward’ and ‘tongue back’.

It happens that with the English vowels these two lines of travel are in opposite directions, ie lips tend to go forward when tongue goes back as with /u:/ and lips tend to go back when tongue goes forward as with  /i:/.

I am emphasising this because in these two opposing lines of travel lies the key to discovering the rest of the English monophthongs, which roughly speaking lie along these two opposing lines of travel.

And this is important for teachers and students because while most consonants have the luxury of fixed points of contact in the mouth which can be described and discovered, vowels do not have such points of contact. And so the best fix on the ‘positions’ that lead to specific vowel sounds comes from manipulating these two lines of travel, lips and tongue. And doing that requires that the speaker, you or me or our students, becomes kinesthetically aware of the position of the lip and tongue muscles and how to alter them at will to change the acoustic result.

I have used the term proprioception to describe such awareness of muscle positions in oneself, and to make the whole thing manageable at classroom level I refer, as you already know, to the four Muscle Buttons, of which Button 1 is the lips and Button 2 is the tongue. So let’s apply this further:

Using the lines of travel to locate /ɪ/ and /ʊ/

Journey 1

1.. Slide slowly from this sound /i:/ to this sound /u:/. Make the slide slow enough to hear the continuum of in between sounds. If doing this with a class get them saying the same slide along with you.

2.. Do the same, and notice the line of travel of your lips from ‘back’ /i:/ to ‘front’ /u:/, and the corresponding and opposite line of travel of the tongue from front /i:/ to back /u:/. In a class get the students to say this with you.

A great help when doing this in class is to park /i:/ on the left side of the board and /u:/ the right side so that you can illustrate the line of travel by walking yourself the couple of meters between the two sounds. This sets up the scene for discovering sounds between them, but on the same travel line, which is what we do in the next step.

Journey 2

3.. Start out from /i:/ again, but only go a little way, and stop when you get to an approximation of /ɪ/. At this point the tongue will have moved back just a little. And the lips will have begun to lose the spread position.

Both lips and tongue (and cheeks) will have relaxed visibly. Make sure students see this and feel this in themselves. The key thing is to show with a gesture that this sound /ɪ/ is short, not long like the ones you have just been making.

4.. Invite students to say the short sound they have arrived at with the instruction “Now let’s listen to some differences”. Invite a few and listen without comment, then ask “Can you hear the differences”. If there is one that is pretty close to /ɪ/ask that person to say it again, and if it is still close then ask others to repeat it.

5.. Now play with these three sounds /i:/, /I/, and /u:/. Plotting them along this line of travel you have established at the front of the class.

Journey 3

6.. Once again start out from /i:/ towards /u:/, as in step 3, but go further than /ɪ/ stopping when you get to a sound that approximates /ʊ/ And before you get as far as /u:/. The lips will have started to move forward but not yet be fully rounded, and the tongue will have moved significantly back. And again, you need to show with a gesture that the sound /ʊ/ is short.

7.. Again as in step 4 invite students to say the sound they have arrived at with the instruction “Now let’s listen to some differences”. Invite a few offerings and listen without comment, then ask the class “Can you hear the differences”. If there is one that is pretty close to /ʊ/ ask that person to say it again and if it is close enough ask others to “say it like that”.

8.. Now you have 4 sounds in circulation /i:/, /ɪ/, /ʊ/ and /u:/ corresponding to the top row of vowels on the Sound Foundations chart. Play with these four sounds by miming them while students say them and by pointing to them on the chart.

The key thing is that we are not aiming for ‘correctness’ (though a bonus if it comes) but for the insight that vowels sounds can be changed to new sounds outside the mother tongue vowel set by manipulating lip and tongue positions.

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