The Story of Sounds: Episode 20: Discovering the vowel /ɔː/ starting from /ɜː/

The vowel sound /ɔː/ is what I call an ‘extreme vowel’ of English, because it requires two fairly extreme movements that seem to be ‘off the map’ of many of my students’ experience. This is because the lips are further forward and more rounded that they expect, and the tongue is further back than they expect.

One way I help students to find this sound in their mouths is to build on three awarenesses that are already in circulation, three things they have already been experimenting with and which are now perhaps well established, as described in Episodes 14 – 19. They are:

1.. That the learners have worked on /ɜː/

2.. That they can locate button 1, lips forward and rounded, or back and spread

3.. That they can locate button 2, tongue forward or back.

So try this:

Journey 1

1.. Find /ɜː/. Feel the lack of muscle tone in lips and tongue in this relaxed, central, neutral position.

2.. Say a long /ɜː/ and as you do so round the lips and push them forward, which will modify the sound. It will no longer be /ɜː/ in fact it will not be any standard English vowel. Keep saying this modified sound while you also bring the tongue back, probably further than you expect. This will modify the sound even more… and….

3.. This should bring you into the region of /ɔː/. And now to fine tune this vowel sound here are a couple of things you can do

Journey 2

1.. Check how your /ɔː/ relates to /uː/ which is just above it on the chart. Say both.

2.. Sliding from /uː/ to /ɔː/ several times

You should notice that the forward and rounded lips do not need to change much between the two sounds,  but that the jaw may drop a little, and the back of the tongue also moves down and further back in the mouth as you move towards /ɔː/.

3.. A second check is to see if your tongue is back enough. Take the position you have got for /ɔː/ and suck air in through the mouth. You should feel and hear a rasping sound coming from friction between the back of the tongue and the back of the soft palate. This shows how far back the back of the tongue is. If you do not hear the rasping sound, try drawing your tongue a little further back.

And now just experiment with these variables.

This is a good example of using a known sound position to discover an unknown sound position, or a more familiar to discover a less familiar. And all the time I am trying to help learners to navigate around new sounds primarily by re-connecting with their muscles in order to dissolve the grip of the L1 habitual / automotised position. And they are hearing self and others experimenting. And sometime hearing me too. But copying me and repeating after me is not for me a primary way of teaching as it tends to obliterate rather than enhance this inner search for new muscle positions and awareness.

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