Your goal is to be understood the first time you say something, right? You’re tired of repeating yourself when you speak English. You may ask yourself, “What am I saying that is so hard to understand?”
Next time your find yourself in this situation, remember this tip I’m about to share with you. This is something that was probably never taught to you in your English language classes.
Here it is: Vowel length is important when speaking English and you’re probably cutting your vowels off too quickly.
What do I mean by vowel length? I mean the length of time it takes to pronounce the vowel sound.
Will stretching out your vowels really make a difference to your speech clarity? The short answer to that question is YES.
Luckily, there are guidelines for knowing when to stretch out your vowels when speaking.
Long Vowels vs Short Vowels
The first guideline is knowing that English has long (tense) vowels and short (lax) vowels.
A long vowel takes longer to say. It often is the same sound as the name of the letter in the alphabet. For example, bake (a), beet ( e ), bite (i), bone (o), cube (u).
A short vowel takes less time to say. These are shortened versions of the tense vowels. For example, back, bet, bit, bond, cub.
This is not a complete list of English vowels, but it’s enough to get your started. You should be saying the tense vowel sounds longer than the lax vowel sounds. If “beet” and “bit” sound the same when you say them, then you are NOT saying your tense vowels long enough.
Vowel length is also determined by the consonant sound that comes after it.
In a recent post, I discussed which consonants are voiced and unvoiced. This knowledge is useful when understanding vowel length, so I recommend you give it a look.
If a vowel is followed by a voiced consonant, the vowel will be spoken longer than if it was followed by an unvoiced consonant.
This means that the vowel sound in the word “bag” will be spoken longer than the same vowel sound in the word “back.”
If you shorten the vowel sound in the word “bag” native English speakers may think you said “back” instead. This can lead to listener confusion and you having to repeat yourself…again.
Vowel sounds are longer in stressed syllables.
In English, the vowel sound in the stressed syllable carries the most important information to the listener, and the result is that vowel sound is spoken longer, louder and at a different pitch than the unstressed syllables around it.
Consider the words “estimate” and “estimate”. They’re spelled the same but not spoken the same. Pay attention to how the vowel sound changes in the last syllable.
If it’s used as a noun we stress the first syllable as in, “I’m waiting for the builder to send me an [ES-ti-mit].”
If it’s used as a verb we stress the last syllable, “I’d [es-ti-MATE] it’s about 10 feet long.” The vowel sound in the last syllable changes depending if it’s stressed or not.
A native English speaker is listening for the syllable stress and stretched vowel signal to understand which meaning of the word you’re using.
How can you improve?
The first step is being aware that there is a difference in vowel length. Ta-da! You can mark that off your list. You’re already on the path to improve your English pronunciation.
Next, use this new awareness to listen for vowel length with every native English speaker you hear throughout your day, in person, on the t.v., or radio.
Practice parroting native speakers. Record yourself and compare it to examples. Online dictionaries with audio examples are an easy place to start.
If you want to really get serious about your English speech clarity, find an accent trainer that can teach you tips like this and many more. They can provide you the detailed feedback you need to improve your English pronunciation skills quickly and accurately.