The Sound System

of North American English (NAE) What are phonemes? Characteristics of consonant sounds Characteristics of vowel sounds

What are Phonemes?

Phonemes are the individual sound units that distinguish words from one another.

What makes “seat” different from “sit”?

North American English (NAE) includes 40 distinct phonemes
 

14-15 vowels (depending on accent/dialect) 25 consonants

Pronunciation has many components. Learning to produce individual sounds in a word is only one part of pronunciation.

Characteristics of Consonants

Consonant sounds are a combination of 3 factors.
  

Voicing (vibration) Place of Articulation (mouth position) Matter of Articulation (airflow)

Once you understand these factors, you can give your students more explicit information about how to produce individual sounds and words.

 Are
   

the vocal chords vibrating?
Put your hand on gently on your adam’s apple. Make the hissing sound like a snake /sssssss/ Make the buzzing sound like a bee /zzzzzzz/ Can you feel the difference?

Click on a picture to see the video.

Video of vocal chord vibration

Try saying each of these sounds. Feel for vibration.

Contrasting voiced and voiceless “-tion”

“th” as in THE “th” as in WITH

Place of Articulation
 Where

is the sound made?  What parts of the mouth are touching?
   

Click on the picture below to see an interactive diagram of the mouth.

Lips Teeth Tongue Soft palate

  

Say the word “new.” Where is the place of articulation for the sound /n/? Answer: the tip of your tongue touches the tooth ridge.

Manner of Articulation
 How

is airflow affected?

Think of the air as moving through an obstacle course created by the speech organs.
Say these words…pay attention to the first sound
   

Say these words…pay attention to the last sound

People Boy Dog goat

Laugh Wash


Notice how the air is stopped momentarily before being released to create a little explosion of sound.

Notice how the sound can be continued as long as there is air in the lungs.  Also the air is passing through a narrow passageway in the mouth or throat creating friction.

Why are vowels so difficult?

The main difference between consonant sounds and vowel sounds is that there is no contact of the articulators (lips, teeth, tongue, etc.) It is more difficult to explain the physical shape of the mouth required to produce 14 different vowel sounds. Other languages, such as Japanese, Chinese, most romance languages, and many African languages have only 5-8 vowel sounds. Sound-spelling correspondence for English vowels is varied and misleading. You can encourage students to focus on what they see (your mouth) and hear. Luckily, much of the time, a slight variation in vowel sound will not alter a speaker’s intelligibility as long as most of the sentence makes sense.

Characteristics of Vowels

Vowels are a combination of several characteristics. Here are some that teachers can easily demonstrate.

Click on the picture below to explore a website of interactive consonant and vowel illustrations.

Lip position
 

How spread or rounded are the lips? Say the words “fee” and “fox.”

Muscle tension
 

Can you feel the difference between “beet” and “bit”? “bit is more relaxed.

Jaw position
 

How open is the mouth and jaw? Say the words “sew” and “saw”.

Handheld mirrors can be used in class to practice consonants and vowels. Students first focus on the teacher’s mouth as a model, then on their own .mouth in the mirror

Changes to Vowels

Colored Vowels  Vowels are affected when certain consonants follow them in the same syllable (esp. R and L)
 

Click on the picture below to see the video.

Say “hat” and “halt” Note how the /l/ sound in “halt” changes the “a” sound significantly

Reduced Vowels  Vowel sounds can change when they occur in the unstressed syllable of a multi-syllable word.
 

A reduced vowel often sounds like “uh” (ə). Say “photograph”. Notice the reduced vowel in the middle.

In natural speech we also reduce the vowels in many function words such as articles and prepositions.
  

Dialogs and chants are a great opportunity to introduce students to reduced vowels (although I don’t .(call them by name Students should focus on the teacher’s natural speech and avoid reading word .by word from the paper

How do you pronounce “to”? Now say “She’s going to the store.” We often reduce the vowel in “to” so that it sounds like “tuh.”

Sum it Up

Individual sounds are only one part of pronunciation

And may not even be the most important part!

Teachers can help students understand the physical production of sounds by monitoring…
    

What parts of the mouth are touching? What is vibrating? Are muscles relaxed or tense? Is the jaw wide open or slightly closed? How are the lips shaped?

Handheld mirrors are a useful teaching tool.

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