The Story of Sounds: Episode 22: Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 1

In the previous 21 episodes of the Story of Sounds we have explored 24 consonants and 8 monophthong vowels. I have tried to tell their stories from the inside, not offering the external technical descriptions you might find in a phonetics handbook, but guiding you towards the internal kinaesthetic sensation, the internal signposts to look for when you are actually trying to find or make or rehearse of alter a sound in your own mouth, throat, lungs, nose.. This internal feeling or sensation concerning which muscles you are moving and how much pressure you are applying is referred to by neurologists and physiologists as proprioception. When we learn any new physical skill (touch typing, dance, a musical instrument, knitting, a sport, etc) we rely on our proprioceptive sense to take us beyond the initial clumsy movements to smoother faster more fluent coordinations.

Go here for my post on proprioception. And here for the video of my plenary workshop last week on proprioception.

Our sense of proprioception enables us to get behind our habitual repertoire of movements and to learn the sophisticated movements and coordinations that relate to the new activity. It is the same with pronunciation, where we find ourselves in the grip of our mother tongue, necessarily habituated to the muscle movements and postures that make the mother tongue sounds.

So to learn a new set of sounds we are not starting from zero, but from a set of L1 habits that yield a set of distinctive sounds, many of which are not quite the ones we need for the new language (even if some are ‘close enough’). And we find ourselves in the grip of muscular habits. And this is where we need our sense of proprioception, to help us feel and sense the muscles enough to interrupt their habit and to tweak their movement. But if you are not connected with your sense of proprioception, it is less likely that you can liberate yourself sufficiently from the mother tongue grip, of if you do it will be more by chance, and you may be less able to find your way back to the new sound later.

I said this post was about /ʌ/, but I have spent a little time on these other matters which I think are fundamental. I intend in the next few posts to deal with the rest of the vowels and diphthongs and to complete the Story of Sounds. Meanwhile I invite you to revisit Episode 14 and Episode 15 which contain insights that affect the learning of all vowels, and also to look at the proprioception links given above.

But just to introduce /ʌ/ and the next post: /ʌ/ is an interesting sound. Some native speakers articulate it in a way that is close to /ǝ/, and others do not use the sound, substituting /ʊ/ in its place. It is also quite close acoustically to its two horizontal neighbours on the chart / æ/ and /ɑː/

I hope this has been useful or interesting. Next post in a few days will be Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 2!

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