Quality in vowels – consistent, intelligible, achievable

One of the key messages in my last post on priorities for English vowels, was that you don’t need the twelve pure vowels (monophthongs) of RP in order to be intelligible in English. Evidence for this assertion is pretty overwhelming, and in addition to common sense observation of English in daily use, this evidence lies in the fact that:

  • many native-speaker varieties have fewer than 12 pure vowels.
  • children growing up in England make themselves intelligible with less than 12 pure vowels.
  • L2–users of English can be highly intelligible without ever acquiring the 12 monophthongs of RP.

Curiously, A. C. Gimson, a leading phonetician in the 20th century and an authority on RP and its vowel system, suggested that for minimum general intelligiblity ‘the vowel system can be reduced to a central pair /ə/ and /əː/’ (Gimson, 1989: 328). That is to say, speakers can be intelligible in English with as few as only two vowels!

I bet you don’t believe this, and I can’t blame you either as it’s quite a bold statement, but what is the speaker saying in the transcription that follows?

/ˈwən də jə ˈθəŋk ðə ˈtʃəldrən wəl gət ˈhəːm frəm ˈskəːl?/
(*answer at very end of this post)

Presumably, however, we want more than minimum general intelligibility for our learners, and presumably they want that, too. So let’s welcome back [drum roll; big round of applause] Bryan Jenner! Jenner analysed the diphthongs of a good number of standard varieties of English (British, Scots, Irish, American, Australian, New Zealand, etc.), together with various regional varieties of British English, and came to the conclusion that ‘since many native speakers communicate with only 3 true diphthongs, we should concentrate on these, and tolerate pure (lengthened) vowels and post–vocalic /r/ as realizations of the others’ (Jenner 1995: 16).

In a little more detail, Jenner proposed that in the classroom we should:

  • focus principally on /ɑʊ/, /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ (as in now, my and boy) because of their importance for intelligibility.
  • use a long /e/ for the /eɪ/ diphthong in day, and a long /o/ for the /oʊ/ diphthong in so.
  • use vowel + /r/ for the diphthongs in /eə/ (there), /ɪə/ (here) and /ʊə/ (sure).

Two years later, Jenner reflected on the pronunciation of English as an international language (Jenner, 1997), focusing especially on the vowels, which, he predicted, would be neither those of RP nor those of GA, nor those of any other native-speaker variety. Instead, ‘the vowel system of the international norm will be based on a set of about 13 vowels, consisting of five economically spaced peripheral positions, and three true diphthongs’ (1997: 14). Each of the five peripheral vowels would have a long and a short version, and there would be no central vowels.

For teaching purposes, the ‘Jenner’ system would be considerably less cumbersome than the 20-vowel system of RP, but can you imagine me trying to get my head around this idea back then? On the other hand, who was (am) I to question the deliberations of an expert phonetician. Or three years later to doubt Jennifer Jenkins when she stated that Jenner’s line of thinking regarding vowel quality ‘holds good if we can assume that L2 speakers will, like speakers of non-standard L1 varieties, be consistent in the use of their preferred vowel qualities, …‘ (Jenkins 2000; 144–45). Who indeed?

Let’s recap. By the very early part of this century it was widely agreed that for international intelligibility:

  • we should prioritise vowel quantity (length) over vowel quality (shape).
  • learners do not need 20 vowels to be intelligible.
  • a less complex vowel system than RP would develop naturally through the international use of English, possibly consisting of 5 pure vowels with long and short versions, and three diphthongs.
  • L2 users of English can pronounce the vowels in ways that do not necessarily tally with NS norms, but which must be consistent.
  • I’m just an ordinary teacher with a huge teaching load and all this academic discussion is getting hard to follow, let alone apply to my everyday teaching!

The last point is me back in 2000-ish. I couldn’t deny the logic of Jenner and Jenkins, but I couldn’t see how to take into the classroom, and so initially kept defaulting back to teaching the RP vowels (and failing). At the same time, however, I could see that a) these weren’t very teachable and caused me to spend masses of time on differences that were unique to RP, b) RP wasn’t the only vowel system that was intelligible, c) RP wasn’t my vowel set and I was intelligible, and d) I was ignoring my students’ L1, which I was increasingly coming to see as too important to be left out of the classroom.

Fast forward 10 agonising years as I wrestled with what to do about vowels in the classroom.

Quantity? Easy (at least in terms of what to teach). Point out the length characteristics of English vowels, including the shortening effect of voiced consonants on the preceding vowel (fortis clipping). Lots and lots (and lots) of practice – however important quantity is to intelligiblity , it isn’t easy to acquire if you’re coming at English from a language that doesn’t have vowel length differences. (That said, see my comment about David Deterding’s research and vowel length at the end of my last post).

Quality? Much, much harder, as many of you will know only too well. Typical issues with vowels for Spanish speakers of English, for example, as indicated by numerous respected pronunciation manuals, include:

a) sheep / ship – [i] used for both
b) fool / full – [u] used for both
c) wet / weight – [e] used for both
d) hat / hut / heart – [a] used for all three
e) not / note / nought – [o] used for all three
f) schwa – full vowel used
g) her / fir – orthographic vowel + ‘r’ used
h) beer / bear / tour – orthographic vowel + ‘r’ used

And the pure vowel chart for Spanish looks like this.

Vowel chart for Spanish (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.)

Not too promising on first encounter. Or is it? Let’s take another look. Let’s take an international intelligibility perspective and re-examine our problem list. If we apply the Jenner–Jenkins’ proposals, we should see that f) can be eliminated immediately. Schwa is not needed for EIL/ELF intelligibility, and can even be detrimental to it. Next, if we accept Jenner’s deliberations on diphthongs (1995), we can also delete g) and h) from our work on vowels. The functional load of the /u, ʊ/ opposition as in fool/full is very low in English, so we can ignore b). (Functional load aside, I’m from Newcastle and don’t make this opposition. Conclusion? It’s clearly irrelevant to life anywhere in the universe). Similarly, the functional load of the /æ, ʌ/ difference is not significant, reducing d) to an /æ, ɑː/ minimal pair problem.

Our problem list is now more like this:

a) sheep / ship – [i] used for both
b) fool / full – [u] used for both
c) wet / weight – [e] used for both
d) hat / hut / heart – [a] used for all three
e) not / note / nought – [o] used for all three
f) schwa – full vowel used
g) her / fir – orthographic vowel + ‘r’ used
h) beer / bear / tour – orthographic vowel + ‘r’ used

The sheep/ship opposition is a nightmare for Spanish-L1 speakers of English (and speakers from many other language backgrounds), but has a high functional load and so for me warrants quite a lot of time and effort. Clearly there is a length difference, but I also regularly work on the tense / lax difference to give my students a practical handle with which to separate their own pronunciation of each of these two very common vowel sounds. (If you don’t remember what tense / lax is about, click here).

The wet / weight problem is essentially one of length since weight is a diphthong, and diphthongs are roughly the same length as long vowels. In addition, Spanish has both /e/ and /eɪ/ as in perro (dog) and rei (king), so with a little bit of help from me, my students can usually make progress here.

The hat / heart opposition doesn’t generally create much of a problem. Spanish /a/ tends to heard by listeners as the sound in cat and my students have almost all been able to imitate my /ɑː/, so once the difference between these two sounds is established, the issue once again comes down to practice, practice and more practice.

For e) we have two different issues. The first is to get my students making a nice long, gliding diphthong for note. They tend not to do this, and so shorten it to something problematically similar to not. But once I’ve got the note vowel coming out both long and as a diphthong, I only need to separate not and nought (something that Scottish English doesn’t do, but that’s another story).

Enter centre stage a little bit of Spanish phonetics. Spanish has two allophones for the letter ‘o’ – an open /ɒ/ as words like arroz (rice) and dogma, and a close /ɔ/ as in amor (love) or hora (hour). By referring to these mother-tongue sounds I can usually get students to produce separate sounds for not and nought. Neither would be taken for a NS vowel, but after suitable practice the two qualities my students produce are different, and consistently so. What I’ve done here, you’ll have no doubt spotted, is to bring the L1 phonology to bear on a problem with English. In other words, what I’ve done is to see the L1 as an answer rather than as an obstacle.

The second part of this post is a very summarised version of how I’ve come to deal with the issue of teaching vowels for international intelligibility in my own work. I don’t have space to talk about it in greater detail here, but what I hope I’ve been able to show is that:

  • there is absolutely no need to labour endlessly towards your learners achieving an RP vowel set. It is not a requirement for international intelligibility (and they’re not going to succeed anyway).
  • quantity may well be more important for intelligibility than quality, but your learners do need some sort of quality for the vowels they learn to pronounce. Without it, they will revert to a heavily L1-driven pronunciation that could easily threaten intelligibility.
  • we need to take a serious and fresh look at the lists of pronunciation problems for speakers of different language backgrounds. Almost all of them are compiled assuming that the target of pronunciation teaching is the attainment of a standard NS accent such as RP or GA, which it’s not.
  • we shouldn’t ignore the learners L1 even when it comes to the teaching of vowel qualities. There are often allophones or other phonetic features hidden away in the L1 that can be useful teaching tools that are easily taken up and used by our students.

Wow, has this been a long post! Not too long, I hope. But I think we still have a long way to go when it comes to the teaching of vowels, and I wanted to get the ball rolling. Now, over to you. My previous post on quality and quantity of vowels was, curiously enough, one of my least read posts, but one of the most commented on. I’m wondering what you’ll make of this one.


Gimson, A.C. & Ramsaran, S. (1989). An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Edward Arnold.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenner, B. (1995). On Diphthongs. Speak Out! Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. Number 15: 15–16.

Jenner, B. (1997). International English: an alternative view. Speak Out! Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. Number 21: 10–14.

* When do you think the children will get home from school?


2 thoughts on “Quality in vowels – consistent, intelligible, achievable

  1. Fantastic!! Thank you for sharing I am a pronunciation teacher from Buenos Aires and I am amazed by your reflections Thank you Robin!!


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