Vowels vs. Consonants

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Which are more important for understanding speech, vowels or consonants?

If you said consonants, you’re right.

A simple test proves it:

[DEMONSTRATING] If I replace all my vowels with a single vowel, in this case the neutral vowel or schwa, you still understand me if my consonants are clear. But if I replace all my consonants with a single consonant, in this case the /k/, you cannot understand a single thing I say.


So naturally, when we teach our clients the correct pronunciation of English, we usually start with the consonants. We make sure they can do the aspirated voiceless plosives of pick and take; the /th/ sounds of these three thoughts; the English /r/ of run, strong, and around; that they can distinguish /l/ and /r/ in Larry the realtor; /w/ and /v/ in wave, vowing, quiver; and so on. (I have blogs dedicated to all these English consonant challenges.)

There’s another reason to teach consonants first; they’re easier to describe than vowels. For /r/, I might say, “Put your tongue tip near and behind the little bump behind your top teeth (the alveolar ridge or gum ridge) but not touching it, and say the vowel in earth. [DEMONSTRATING]. Then use this sound to say run.” It’s not usually difficult.

In consonants, you can nearly always describe the placement and actions of the lips, tongue, and teeth with some success.

But how do you teach someone a vowel, consisting simply of a three-dimensional shape inside the mouth, created by tongue, lips, and jaw, with nothing touching anything else? Much more difficult. We have to rely much more on the client simply imitating the sound we demonstrate.

And of course, the vowels vary tremendously from dialect to dialect. In the USA, we hear dog, for instance, pronounced a hundred different ways [DEMONSTRATING]. Yet everyone understands everyone else just fine. Thanks to the consonants.

It’s interesting, too, to consider that it’s mostly vowels, not consonants that are responsible for different accents within a language, as you may have noticed in my recent blog, A QUIZ: ENGLISH ACCENTS [available only to Pearson English subscribers]. And consonants are fairly stable as a language evolves, while vowels shift very rapidly indeed. In England, for example, in my own lifetime, I have heard the new moon is blue evolve to the new moon is blue; and don’t go home evolve to don’t go home. And American and British English, having virtually all their consonants in common, vary enormously in their vowels. Listen to how different the English is from the American in the following sentence: We can’t pass over New York without visiting her Aunt Martha.

Having discussed most of the important English consonants in my blogs, I’m going to concentrate on vowels for a while, and build up a library of materials for you. I hope you find them useful.