Vowel Sequences 1

When you find a new word that has two vowels next to each other, you need to check whether the two vowels make just one vowel sound together (a vowel pair), or whether they make two separate sounds (a vowel sequence).

Vowel Pair: This is when two vowels are together in a word, and together they make just one vowel sound and they belong to the same syllable. For example, in the words “rain” or “head”. (see more examples in Vowel Pairs)

Vowel Sequence: This is when two vowels are next to each other in a word, and they make two separate sounds, and belong to different syllables, as in the words “diet” or “eon”.

Vowel sequences can be tricky to pronounce, and there are many students of English who have trouble saying them clearly.

Sometimes, there are words that can be confused, if the vowel sequence is not clear. Here are some common examples:

science: The [i] and the [e] both need to be clear, otherwise this word is often confused with “signs”.
coerces: If the [o] and the [er] are not both clearly pronounced, this can be confused with “courses”.
create: This could sound like “crate”.
quiet: This could sound like “quite”.

Even when there is not a similar sounding word, an unclear vowel sequence could make the word unclear. Here is a funny example: I once had a student who told me that when she first arrived in the U.S., she went to the store to buy deodorant, but she couldn’t buy any, because she couldn’t pronounce the word “deodorant” right, and nobody at the store understood what she wanted. She told me this story the day we were learning about vowel sequences, because suddenly she realized that her trouble with pronouncing “deodorant” was mostly about not knowing that the “eo” sequence needed to be two different vowel sounds.

So then, how do native-speakers of English pronounce vowel sequences clearly? Here is the secret…

FIRST: The first thing to know is that in a vowel sequence, the first vowel almost always has a Long-vowel sound.

SECOND: The secret key is to use the end part of the first vowel. This is where the IPA symbols are useful. When we look at the IPA symbols for the Long-vowels, and look at the 2nd part of each one, we can see a little pattern…

These have a /y/ sound at the end:
Long-A (/ay/)
Long-E (/iy/)
Long-I (/ay/)

These have a /w/ sound at the end:
Long-O (/ow/)
Long-U (/yuw/ or /uw/)

The little /y/ and /w/ parts at the end of the Long-vowels are the secret tool that you need to use to clearly pronounce vowel sequences.

The way to use them is by making them a little bit stronger than usual, so that they make a little bridge between the two vowels of the sequence.

Let’s try this with a few words:

science: The first vowel is Long-I, so the /y/ part should be pronounced a little more strongly, so that it sounds like {sci-yence}.
coerces: The first vowel of the sequence is Long-O, so the /w/ part needs to be used, to make it sound like {co-werces}.
create: Emphasize the /y/ part of the Long-E, to make it sound like {cre-yate}
quiet: Use the /y/ ending of the Long-I to separate the two vowels, like {qui-yet}

Now you know how to more clearly say a word such as “deodorant”!

We will see more examples in Vowel Sequences 2.

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