Below, you will see two diagrams. The diagram on the left shows the a side-view of the human oral cavity.
The diagram below is called a vowel chart. The trapezoidal shape of the chart represents the side-view your mouth.
Vowel charts can be extremely useful when learning the vowels of a foreign language. But they will mean nothing to you unless you are able to develop a strong awareness of your mouth.
When air leaves your mouth unobstructed, the position of your tongue influences the sounds that come out.
A vowel chart is a visual representation of where your tongue is while articulating a vowel.
As you’ll soon see, the location of vowel on the chart matches where the tongue position is supposed to be.
Further, there are only two dimensions of movement that affect the sound of a vowel:
- up/down movement
- forward/back movement
In phonetics, we call these two dimensions Vowel Height and Vowel Backness. Check out this quick video for a short explanation:
Use the vowel chart to alternate back and forth between the /a/ and /u/ vowels as I do in the audio below and try to develop an awareness of height change.
Be sure to keep your lower jaw completely still so that it forces you to isolate just your tongue.
/u/ – Close Vowel
/a/ – Open Vowel
- When you move from /u/ –> /a/, you are LOWERING your tongue for a more OPEN vowel.
- When you move from /a/ –> /u/, you are RAISING your tongue for a more CLOSED vowel.
- When you extend your tongue forward towards your teeth, you are making a more FRONT vowel sound.
- When you retract your tongue backward towards your throat, you are making a more BACK vowel sound.
Use the vowel chart to alternate back and forth between the /i/ and /u/ vowels as I do in the audio below, and try to develop an awareness of backness.
/i/ – Front Vowel
/u/ – Back Vowel
- When you move from /i/ –> /u/, you are retracting your tongue backward for a more BACK sound
- When you move from /u/ –> /i/, you are extending your tongue forward from a more FRONT sound
Every language has its own set of vowels, and each of these vowels has its own tongue position.
When you learn a new language, you will need to tune your articulation to a new set of vowels.
This can be challenging for adults since we develop strong hearing and speaking habits in our own native language. But this is where vowel charts come in handy.
Once you know where the target-language vowel is in relation to your closest native-language vowel on the chart, you can see the direction you need to move your tongue for the correct sound.
Take the Spanish /o/ vowel for example. As you can see from the chart below, the Spanish /o/ is more open than the English /o/, but still not as open as the /ɔ/ sound from the English word “awe”.
So as a native English speaker, I know that I must move tongue slightly down from the /o/ vowel, but not so much that I start making an /ɔ/ sound:
Order: English /o/, Spanish /o̞/, then /ɔ/
This difference between English /o/ and Spanish /o̞/ is more a question of speaking with an authentic accent. Whether you change it or not, a Spanish speaker will understand you either way.
Vowel tuning is also extremely important for differentiating words in a foreign language.
For example, a Spanish speaker learning English will have a difficult time hearing and saying the English /ɪ/ vowel from words like “sit” and “chick.”
Instead, they would hear and articulate the /i/ sound – the closest vowel in Spanish – and say the words “seat” and “cheek.”
A quick look at the vowel chart shows that the Native Spanish speaker would have to lower his tongue and OPEN his /i/ vowel to get the /ɪ/ vowel.
Order: /i/ then /ɪ/
It’s important to note that at first, you will NOT be able to accurately perceive foreign sounds.
During your childhood, you started to lose sensitivity to sounds that were not relevant to your native language.
As a result, foreign sounds get absorbed into the sounds you are already familiar with, the way the /ɪ/ vowel gets absorbed into the /i/ for adult native Spanish speakers.
The good news: you CAN learn to hear and speak these new sounds with practice.
Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. I often hear people make arguments about how adults can’t learn new things.
It’s easy to believe that when you start learning something new. And it’s easy to believe that when you’re stuck at the steepest part of the learning curve.
There’s no doubt that forcing your brain open to hear new sounds can be challenging, so we have to be clever about it.
The ability to use a vowel chart and adjust your tongue position is a huge help in this process, but ultimately it’s just a means to an end.
It’s not enough to know where a vowel is in theory, you gotta really feel it.
When it comes to vowel tuning, the way to feel it is through musical rhymes…