Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Acoustic Properties of Vowels: A Tool for Improving Articulation and Comprehension of English

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Acoustic Properties of Vowels: A Tool for Improving Articulation and Comprehension of English

Article excerpt


Correct pronunciation is often a later step in the process of teaching English as a second language. However, a focus on the correct articulation of vowels can significantly improve listening and comprehension skills as well as articulatory skills. Vowels and consonants differ in their acoustic properties. Unlike consonants, vowel sounds are produced with very little obstruction of airflow, resulting in a difference in the way they sound. Vowels are more sonorous, or acoustically powerful, than consonants, thus we perceive them as both longer lasting and louder than consonants. The greater sonority of vowels also permits them to form the basis of syllables.

Introducing the phonetic properties of vowels is relatively easy. Second language teachers can train students to listen for vowel distinctions and teach the articulatory properties of vowels, strengthening students' listening and articulatory skills. Vowels form the nuclei of syllables, thus clarity in vowel sounds helps native speakers better understand foreign speakers. The focus on vowel sounds also supports instruction in the stress patterns of English, allowing students to more easily recognize individual words within sentences. This approach works particularly well with adult speakers who need to be clearly understood in professional settings.


This article draws upon two years of intensive English language training in a special project for two groups of white male speakers of Spanish from Colombia at various levels of proficiency in English and varying levels of education, from university freshman to graduate level. The students exhibited a range of proficiencies, from no knowledge of English, to a level of competency adequate for reading comprehension appropriate to the undergraduate level in an American university, but with very limited oral competency. The fact that both groups were composed only of males is significant only in relation to relevant affective concerns relating to the acquisition of English. Each male had been recruited to study in a seminary with the intent to become a Catholic parish priest in service to Catholic churches in the United States, though not necessarily in churches in which the dominant population is comprised of native speakers of Spanish. Competence in English was absolutely required. Each group of potential seminarians was given one year to learn English and to reach a level of proficiency sufficient for study in either an undergraduate program or a graduate level seminary.

In the one year period, the Colombian students were to participate in their own intensive English program essentially segregated from the general student body. They were housed together in a group and lived in a seminary, attending English classes weekdays on campus and participating on weekends in a broad spectrum of service activities in a variety of parishes where the members were primarily native speakers of English. At the end of one year, they needed to be ready to enter an undergraduate degree program or the seminary, depending upon their individual educational credentials. Those who could not meet that deadline would return to Colombia to pursue their vocations in the seminaries of their homeland. It is important to note that learning English held no consequences for becoming a priest; however, whether the vocation was to be carried out in the United States or in Colombia was dependent upon acquisition of English.

Early in the program, by the end of four weeks of instruction, it was clear that all the students needed to work on pronunciation, regardless of the various levels of their proficiency. Two students with excellent comprehension could communicate in English, but their speech was so strongly accented that their interactions with native speakers other than the English as a foreign language (EFL) team of instructors were frustrating, and, as might be expected, their confidence was eroded, leading to avoidance behaviors. …

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