Wtht vwls w wld hv n lngg.
That’s what happens when you remove all the vowels from a sentence. What we meant to say is…
Without vowels, we would have no language.
The most common letter in the English language is the letter E, a vowel.
The vowels O, I and A are also among the top seven most used letters in English. We need vowels to form words—without them, other letters are almost impossible to pronounce.
The good news is, there are actually only a few different ways to pronounce vowels. The real trick is knowing when to use each sound.
A great tool to see this in action is FluentU.Give FluentU a free try and se for yourself.
You’ll find a comprehensive guide of English vowel usage at the bottom of this post. First, though, let’s get to know some vowels.
What Is a Vowel?
The simple answer to the question above is: vowels are the letters A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.
Every other letter in the English alphabet is called a consonant. You might already know that, since it’s something most people just memorize.
Have you ever wondered why those letters are vowels, though?
Make an E sound out loud. Now place your tongue between your teeth or on the roof (top part) of your mouth and try again. And now close your mouth and try one more time. It’s hard—almost impossible—to make that sound when there’s something like your lips or your tongue in the way, isn’t it?
That’s what vowels are: they’re sounds you make without anything breaking the sound or air coming out of your mouth.
The sounds of consonants, on the other hand, are made by placing your tongue or lips in a certain way. This blocks the air coming out of your mouth when you speak, turning it into a specific sound.
When vowels are placed between consonants, all the sounds come together and a word is formed.
Vowels Are the Key to Correct Pronunciation
Some consonants, like G and C, have two different sounds, but they’re the exceptions (the different ones). Most of the consonants in the English language sound exactly the way you expect them to. The letter B makes a B sound and the letter D makes a D sound. It doesn’t get much simpler than that!
Vowels, though, are a bit different. Vowels have a few different pronunciations, which can change the meaning of a word or just sound “wrong” to a native speaker. If you have pronunciation problems, there’s a good chance that by fixing your vowels you’ll fix many of your pronunciation issues.
A Vowel Sound for Every Occasion
Most vowels have two pronunciations, a long sound and a short sound.
Vowels also change their sound based on where they’re located in a word, what letters are around them and sometimes even what language the word originates from.
Luckily, there are a few simple rules and tips you can remember to make vowel pronunciations easier.
Try saying these words out loud:
How are all these sounds different? What about these words:
If all the words seem to sound the same out loud, or if you’re not sure how to pronounce them, don’t worry—by the end of this article, you’ll know exactly what they sound like!
Before You Begin
When you’re practicing your pronunciation, have a mirror nearby. When you’re making vowel sounds, the shape of your mouth is very important for making the right sound.
You also need to be aware of where your tongue is for each sound. Experiment a bit with making sounds while moving your tongue around in your mouth. It will sound silly, so have fun with it—but it will also help you get a better feel for where your tongue is at all times while you’re speaking.
Figure 41 on this page (about halfway down the page) shows you what your mouth should look like when you’re making vowel sounds. A bit higher on the page, there’s a cool set of images actually taken of a person when saying these sounds, so you can see where the tongue is in each case.
This simplified chart will also show you where your tongue should be in your mouth. If you’re having trouble telling where your tongue is, just reach into your mouth with a (clean) finger and feel it as you make the sound. (Maybe you should also do this somewhere private, too, so you don’t get strange looks!).
You can practice using your tongue and mouth some more before you start by doing some silly and fun exercises. Move your mouth in an exaggerated way to feel the difference in vowel sounds, like in this video.
Or do some tongue exercises like in the video below. After all, your tongue is a muscle!
Mastering the Sounds of English Vowels
Below is a list of vowel sounds, how to make them and when to make them.
Most of the time, the letters make their own sounds (that is, the letter A makes A sounds).
In some rare cases, though, a certain sound is made by a combination of other letters (like when the long A sound is made by the letters EI). We’ve marked those special cases with an asterisk—that’s this symbol: *.
Keep in mind that every rule has exceptions, which are times when the rules don’t apply!
Also note: This guide focuses on standard American pronunciation. In different parts of the world, like Britain, Australia and even regional U.S., there are variations (differences) in the way people pronounce their vowels.
For instance, in most of the U.S., the words “box” and “ball” use the same exact vowel sound, but if you travel to Eastern U.S., the sounds are sound very different. Use this guide to get a general idea of the main ways to pronounce each vowel.
Enough chat. Let’s learn those vowel sounds!
Long Vowel Sounds
Long A sound
The long sound of the letter A is the same as its name, EI. Make it by forming your mouth into a wide, narrow shape.
When to use it:
1. When the letter A is near the end of the word, followed by a consonant and then a silent E. For example: fate, debate.
2. When the letter A is followed by another vowel, including the letter Y. For example: fail, maybe, maelstrom.
*3. When the letters EI are followed by the silent GH. For example: weight, neighbor.
No way! That dress is on sale for one day only, but I’m not able to fit into it!? I blame all that cake I ate yesterday.
Long E sound
The long sound of the letter E is the same as its name, EE. Make it by forming your mouth into a very wide, narrow shape, with your teeth almost touching.
When to use it:
1. When the letter E is followed by another vowel, usually an A or an E. For example: feed, bleeding, appeal.
2. When the letter E is near the end of the word, followed by a consonant and then a silent E. For example: eve, these.
3. When the letter E is at the end of a word, but is not silent. For example: me, be.
4. When the letter E is followed by a Y at the end of a word. For example: monkey, money.
*5. When the letter Y is at the end of a word that has more than one syllable. For example: lady, funny.
*6. When the letters IE are together in a word. For example: believe, piece.
I can’t believe this! Last evening I was pulling weeds in my garden and accidentally cut myself and started to bleed. It’s going to take a week to heal. Maybe gardening in the dark is not such a good idea…
Long I sound
The long sound of the letter I is the same as its name, AIY. Make it by forming your mouth into a neutral (not too wide or too narrow, right in the middle), slightly rounded shape.
When to use it:
1. When the letter I is followed by a consonant and then another vowel. For example: ice, line, iris, dinosaur.
2. When the letter I is followed by a silent GH. For example: sight, night.
3. When the letter I is followed by a silent E at the end of a word (this remains true in the past tense, when the word is followed by a D). For example: tie, lie, tried.
4, When the letter I is followed by a silent S, specifically in the words “island” and “aisle.”
5. The word “I“!
*6. When the letter Y is at the end of a one-syllable word, even if it’s followed by a silent E. For example: try, my, bye.
Last night, Mike and I tried to run nine miles but we only made it to one before my side started to hurt. Next time, we’ll just ride our bikes.
Long O sound
The long sound of the letter O is the same as its name, OH. Make it by forming your mouth into a rounded shape, forming a circle with your mouth.
When to use it:
1. When the letter O is followed by a consonant and then another vowel. For example: remote, oboe, nose.
2. When the letter O is followed by a W. For example: bowl, elbow.
3. When the letter O is followed by another vowel, including the letter Y. For example: boat, poison, boy, toe.
4. In some cases, when the letter O is followed by the letters ST (the exceptions are lost, cost, frost, and a handful of others). For example: most, ghost.
5. When the letter O is followed by LD. For example: cold, bold, folder.
6. When the letter O is followed by UGH. For example: though, dough.
My friends went on a boat ride today. They left the coast and rowed to a little cove, where the foam was white and bubbly. By the time they got home, though, it was late and cold. I hope they won’t get sick!
Long U sound
The long sound of the letter U is the same as its name, YU. Make it by forming your mouth into a rounded shape and moving your tongue close to your lips.
When to use it:
1. When the letter U is followed by a consonant and then another vowel. For example: cute, universe, music.
2. When the letter U is followed by the letter E or I. For example: duel, clue, fruit.
3. In the word “you”!
*4. When the letters EW appear together in a word. For example: drew, jewel.
I drew a huge unicorn on my wall. I wanted it to be cute but it came out looking confused instead, so I got mad and threw my paints at it. Now it looks more like a mule.
Short Vowel Sounds
Short A sound
The short sound of the letter A is a short AH. Make it by forming your mouth into a narrow horizontal shape with the corners of your mouth stretching away from each other, with your lips apart.
When to use it:
1. When the letter A is followed by a single consonant at the end of a word, or by two consonants. For example: cat, back, mattress.
My dad had a bat as a pet when I was young. One day he sat in my mom’s favorite hat and ruined it. I never saw him again.
Short E sound
The short sound of the letter E sounds like you’re not impressed by something: EH. Make it by forming your mouth into a narrow shape with your teeth close together (but not touching).
When to use it:
1. When the letter E is followed by a single consonant at the end of a word, or by two consonants. For example: bet, melt, letter.
On the day of the wedding, Ted’s best friend gave him a hen as a present. He said it was for good luck, but I bet he just thought it was funny.
Short I sound
The short sound of the letter I sounds like a grunt: IH. Make it by forming your mouth into a neutral shape and making a sound in the back of your throat.
When to use it:
1. When the letter I is followed by a single consonant at the end of a word, or by two consonants. For example: it, little, ship.
I once saw a pig and a kitten living in an igloo… and then I woke up. What a silly dream!
Short O sound
This sound is somewhere between a U and an O, sounding like AUGH. Make it by forming your mouth into a slightly rounded but wide shape.
When to use it:
1. When the letter O is followed by a single consonant, or by two consonants. For example: bother, stop, box, office.
*2. When the letter A is followed by W. For example: paw, flaw.
My boss always bothers me to come into the office early.
Short U sound
The short sound of the letter U sounds like you’re thinking: UH. Make it by forming your mouth into a neutral shape and your tongue near the bottom of your mouth.
When to use it:
1. When the letter U is followed by a single consonant at the end of a word, or by two consonants. For example: cut, butter.
*2. When the letters OO follow an L. For example: flood, blood.
During the flood last year I found a mutt in my backyard. I left an umbrella out for him and he stayed under it until the sun came out.
Other Vowel Sounds
The two OO sounds
Many English learners (and natives) don’t realize that there are two OO sounds.
One sound is made by rounding your lips into an O shape and sounds like you’re impressed by something: OOO. For example: loot, boot, sue.
The other is made without moving your lips, keeping them in a neutral position, and it sounds more like a soft UH. For example: foot, took, book.
The OO sound has a few other pronunciations. You can hear examples below. Say them out loud to hear the difference!
There is no certain way to know which one to use—you’ll just have to learn them.
Now look back on the list of words in the “A Vowel Sound for Every Occasion” section.
Say them out loud again. You should be able to hear the difference now!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends examples and videos to you based on the words you’ve already learned. You'll have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.