Let´s go back to Spanish, Japanese and other syllable-based languages. We talked about speaking and listening, but READING is also important. Of course, every language has certain spelling rules and many national alphabets contain a few “strange letters”. In Spanish we pronounce “j” more or less like English “h”, but in Swedish “j” is similar to English “y”. We have all seen Spanish “ñ” and German “ö”.

English, of course, is much much worse. With consonants, ok, you can remember what “sh” or “w” are, but with vowels remember the name of this chapter – English vowels do not equal the vowels in the alphabet. The “a” in “bat” is not the “a” you know, the “i” in “bit” is not “your” “i” and so on.

You must remember that in linguistics letters and sounds are two different things. The alphabet that we use is something made simpler than the reality. Linguists themselves use something which you might know from dictionaries – strange symbols such as “æ” or “ŋ”. In this alphabet, the so-called phonetic alphabet, English “bang”, for instance, is spelled “bæŋ”, while a typical Spanish student pronounces it as “bаnk”. English words “bang” and “bank” are not pronounced in the same way.

The easiest way to start understanding these differences is to sing the Engilsh “ABC song”: “ey, bee, see, dee…”. How are the vowels pronounced there?


In the Alphabet Song…

…the letter “a” is pronounced “ey” in “hey”.

…the letter “e” is pronounced “ee” in “bee”.

…the letter “i” is pronounced the pronoun “I”.

…the letter “o” is pronounced “ou”, like in “oh no”.

…the letter “u” is pronounced “you”.


Exercise 12.

The letter “a” is often pronounced “ey” in “hey”.

basic                                        DNA

Asia                                         CIA

radio                                        AIDS

label                                         Colgate

Wales                                       Fairy

rational                                    Gmail

creative                                    Jamaica


Exercise 13.

The letter “e” is often pronounced “ee” in “bee”. 

creative                                    Wikipedia

athlete                                      Sweden

vehicle                                     Egypt

theory                                      Ikea

results                                      Aphrodite

premature                               Nike


Exercise 14.

The letter “i” is often pronounced the pronoun “I”.

bilingual                                 Ireland

microwave                              Orion

organisation                           Ikea

specialisation                          Microsoft

vital                                         HIV

obliged                                    FBI

biography                               CIA


Exercise 15.

Don´t confuse the diphthongs from exercises 12 and 14 (like my boyfriend).

wait                                         white

race                                          rice

tape                                          type

say                                           sigh

mail                                         mile


Exercise 16.

The letter “o” is often pronounced “ou”, like in “oh no”.

code                                         Rome

ghost                                        NGO

whole                                      post

local                                         low

total                                         roast

cosy                                         pony

both                                         roll


Exercise 17.

The letter “u” is sometimes pronounced “you”.

pure                                         Puma

cure                                         Youtube

tuna                                         the EU


As you can see, the vowels are OFTEN pronounced like in the ABC song, but not always. So how do we know when to pronounce them this way? Let´s have a look at some pairs:


Exercise 18.

Asia – Adam

athlete – let

vital – bit

local – lock

tube – tub

pure – purr


The rules seems to be that if (in writing) a vowel is followed by a consonant and then another vowel, its pronunciation is like in the Alphabet Song. If a vowel is the only vowel in a short word, its pronunciation is often similar to the “normal/international/Spanish” pronunciation of that letter.


A vowel is followed by a consonant and then another vowel (followed by them in writing – the final “e”. for example”, is usually not pronounced)

Asia                 a + s + i

athlete             e + t + e

local                o + c + a

tube                 u + b + e

pure                 u + r + e


Is this enough? Unfortunately, not. Just look at the “a” in “Asia”, “Adam”, “father”, “many” and “total” – that´s five different pronunciations, not just two! And the sound in “but”, isn´t it an “a”, too? Also, we have just said that if a vowel is the only vowel in a short word, its pronunciation is often similar to the “normal/international/Spanish” pronunciation of that letter, but it´s not true for the “u” in “tub” or “purr” in Exercise 17.

This problem can be solved by looking not at letters, but at sounds. In English there are more vowel sounds that in many other languages. What are they? Here are the most difficult ones.

First, let´s analyse the ways in which the letter “a” is pronounced in “Asia”, “Adam”, “father”, “many”,“total” and “but”. The sound in “baby” is the sound from the Alphabet Song: “ey”. The sound in “many” is a surprise, an exception – is just the “normal” “e”. The sound in “total” we have already discussed – we try to “eat” it. This leaves us with three more sounds.



Imagine the sound you make when you stretch in your bed in the morning: it´s something between “a” and “e”, it´s quite long and the muscles in your mouth are relaxed: “Aaaaah”. A similar sound, but much louder, is made when someone is falling out of a window: “Aaaaaaaaaa!” Bum. Of course, it´s not that dramatic when used in words, but long it is, and it might seem funny to you to pronounce it for a longer time than your “normal” “a”. Anyway, don´t worry about the pronunciation that much – the most important thing is to HEAR the difference.


Exercise 19.

English a-sound number 1 – the relaxed sound:

Adam                                      ham

Ana                                         ran

Batman                                    back




Simply the sound we associate with hiccups – a very short “a” with the muscles in your mouth tense: “a… a… a… a… a…”. It´s usually spelled with the letter “u”… or (to our surprise) “o”.


Exercise 20.

English a-sound number 2 – the hiccups:

cut                                           come                                       London                                   worry

untidy                                     son                                          wonder                                   mother

but                                          won                                         front                                        some

hum                                        money                                     oven                                        blood

run                                          onion                                       cover                                       ultra

buck                                        love                                         cousin                                     stomach

tub                                           month                                      tough                                       sponge



Imagine you are a queen and someone is explaining something to you. When you finally understand the explanation, you make a sound like a long, dignified “aaa”. Or maybe you are a sleepy queen who is yawning: “aaa”. (For some people it helps to imagine a man dressed up as a queen). The sound is often represented by the letters “ar”.


Exercise 21.

English a-sound number 3 – the queen´s long “a”:

father                          plant                           staff                             calm

dance                          bath                            laughed                       almond

France                        class                            heart                           half

past                             banana                       aunt                            Derby

last                              garage                         answer                       clerk

basket                         moustache                  graph                         Margaret

mask                           example                      trans                           star


Why is it more important to hear the difference than to pronounce the difference between all those different sounds? People will understand you from the context, but you might not guess what THEY are saying. Compare the trios and pairs:


Exercise 22.

The three English a-sounds:

cat – cut – cart                                    bat – but – Bart                     some – Sam – psalm

ham – hum – harm                            back – buck – bark               ran – ran

stuff – stuff                                         come – calm                           hat – hut – heart

ant – aunt                                           pub – path                              sun, son – sang


Ok, so in English we have three different a-sounds, but we don´t have the “normal” (that is, for example, Spanish) “a”. We also have two different o-sounds (“port” vs. “pot”) and two different u-sounds (“fool” vs. “full”), but personally I think we can ignore them at this level. In this way, the remaining pair are the two i-sounds (I mean, “i” as pronounced in Spanish, German or Polish). Below you can see some of the examples with the “long i” (spelled “e”) from Exercise 13. contrasted with the “short i”:


Exercise 23.

“Long i” versus “short i”:

bilingual – Bill                                               vital – bit

microwave – Mick                                         fragile – Gill

How do we know which one to use? That usually follows our rule described under Exercise 18. But be careful! First, the difference between the two i-sounds is not only that one is long and the other one short. Also, the “short i” is not “your” “i”, the Spanish/German/Polish “i”.



This “i” (usually spelled “e”, “ee” or “ea”) is not only ridiculously long – it´s also pronounced with a crazy smile 🙂 You need to feel that your tongue is pushing downwards.


Exercise 24.

English “long i” – the smiling sound:

eat                               receipt                         Egypt

feel                              seat                              Tunisia

bean                            leek                             Swedish

leave                            heap                            vehicle

machine                      feet                              athlete



This “i” (usually spelled “i”) is a bit like a short version of the sound we make when we are vomiting or dying in a film at the age of 90. Try to pronounce the three i-sounds: with the long one you should be smiling and pushing downwards, the “normal” “i” is neutral and “in the middle” of your mouth, the “short i” has the highest position in the mouth and is more”at the front” of the mouth, as if you were trying to push something out of your mouth, as if you were trying to vomit.


Exercise 25.

English “short i” – the vomiting sound:

it                                  resit                             Iggy

fill                                sit                                Venice

bin                               lick                              widow

live                              hip                               Vicky

chin                             fit                                 lit


wanted                       pretty                          busy

kitchen                       believe                         refuse

English                       women                        perfect

poet                             private                        college

lettuce                         build                           Monday


Exercise 26.

The two English i-sounds:

it – eat                         resit – receipt              Iggy – Egypt

fill – feel                      sit – seat                      Venice – Tunisia

bin – bean                   lick – leek                    widow – Swedish

live – leave                  hip – heap                   Vicky – vehicle

chin – machine           fit – feet                       lit – athlete


Two great online places to practice such minimal differences are: (with all the contrasting pairs possible), and any talking e-card, for example a talking cat: (enter the two words you want to contrast with a comma between them, then click “preview” – you can choose different voices and accents). If you prefer old-fashioned lists, google the book “How now brown cow”.

What about “e”, you ask? Yes, there is a pair, too.



This “e” (usually spelled “e”, wow) is the sound you might hear in Spain when people want to draw the attention of a waiter (or their English teacher) – it´s a “normal”, short “e” pronounced with a wide smile of a frog.


Exercise 27.

English short “e” – spelling exceptions:

weather                      death                           leisure

head                            says                             said

Thames                       many                           friend

Leonard                     ate                               bury



This “e” sounds to me very French – you lips need to be rounded. The spelling includes a vowel (except “e”) or a pair of vowels PLUS R: “ur”, “ir”, “or”, “ear” and “eur”.


Exercise 28.

English long “e” – the “French” one:

surf                             urban                          purpose

word                           world                          bird

further                       turn                             hurt

girl                              work                           worse

turtle                           circle                           journey

earn                            earth                           amateur


Finally, an easy rule and we have finished the vowels.


Exercise 29.

English “au” is pronounced like a long “o” (in fact, we could call it the queen´s long “o” – see Exercise 20. to compare it with the queen´s long “a”):

automatic                   Austria                        Paul                            Laura

taught                         caught                         autumn                       athor


To sum up…


Exercise 30.

A little revision:

cat cut cart kit eat* Kurt caught
bat but Bart bit beat Burt abort*
hat hut heart hit heat hurt horde*
back buck bark Bic beak Burke bore*
Sam some psalm sin seen sermon* saw*


*these words don´t exactly follow the pattern but contain the adequate sound


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