The Importance of Sound for Mastering a Language

Talking with Your Child (Woman Alive 1974) by Mod as Hell on Flickr

When we are young, we learn the sounds of our language automatically from our parents, but when we learn a new language we need to pay special attention to the sounds. In most languages, including English, sound is made with two types of letters: 1) Consonants and 2) Vowels

The consonants are similar in many languages, but vowel sounds may be very different from language to language.

There are 12 Vowels in English:

  1. Long a  (pay, pain, feign)
  2. Short a  (pan, Santa)
  3. Long e  (peak, peek, pique)
  4. Short e  (peck, step)
  5. schwa  (paw, ella)
  6. Long i  (by, bite, bright)
  7. Short i  (bit, in, it)
  8. Long o  (toe, tote, coat)
  9. Short o  (cot, bought, stop)
  10. German long u (book, look)
  11. Long u (too, cute, flew)
  12. Short u  (cut, flood,  )

There are other vowels in English, but these are the most important.

Did you notice that there are many ways to spell the same sound? Look at #11 — the Long u — there are three ways to spell the same sound. This is something very difficult for people from other languages to understand about English — that vowel sounds are made in many different ways.

In Canada, we learn about the vowels and their sounds in elementary school. You can find many inexpensive (cheap) exercise books on vowels. These books are made for children, but they can easily be used by adults to help learn the vowel sounds.

Why is learning the vowel sounds so important?

Vowels are the building blocks of words. By practicing to understand and hear vowels properly, you will also improve:

  • spelling,
  • reading,
  • speech, and
  • comprehension.

The sounds in a new language are often very difficult to learn and this is not helped by the fact that many teachers do not make it a priority.  Instead, they often focus on reading, writing, speaking and listening and forget that when they were young, they had many lessons and a lot of practice with long and short vowel sounds, and were expected to know how to spell them properly.  The basic rules of spelling are the foundation of literacy classes all over the world, because the vowels are the key to a basic ability to read and write.

I have found that by focusing on the sounds of all the letters–the vowels and consonants–and by practicing our use of sound regularly, my students improve rapidly in their general English ability.

You can see my Youtube videos to practice your vowels here.

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