Languages differ in some of the sounds that each has. This tiny little fact is not new to us and most of us who speak English as a second language are familiar with unfortunate mispronunciations such as sheet and… well, shit.
And since English has more vowels than many other languages, many of us are bound to confuse some of those vowels along the way.
Sometimes we simply can’t tell the difference and misinterpret other speakers, and sometimes we do perceive the difference but it feels like our mouth almost insists on going back to its comfort zone and pronouncing two different vowels in the same way.
What can you do, then? Well, if you tend to confuse one of the following vowel pairs, I encourage you to watch the video below. You’ll get the tips you need if pairs such as sheep-ship, bin-Ben, bed-bad, cup-cop, or bought-boat are a challenge for you.
Hey, welcome to the InFluency Podcast. I’m Hadar, and this is episode number 172. And today we are going to talk about confusing vowel pairs, like sheep-ship, pool-pull, cup-cop, bed-bad, boat-bought. Have I convinced you to listen to today’s episode? I hope so.
All right. So, if you decided to stay after this intimidating intro, thank you for giving me an opportunity to actually make it simple. So here’s the thing. In English, there are many different vowels, and in most languages there aren’t so many vowels. And what happens in the head of the person who is speaking a language that has all these different vowels – and they don’t in their first language – is that all these different vowels are merged together or categorized as less vowels. In other words, different vowels and different words end up being pronounced the same. Hence, confusion.
So, today I talk about the confusion, why it happens, and how to organize the most confusing vowel pairs in your head so that you don’t confuse them anymore, you know how to listen to them, and also how to pronounce them and practice them effectively.
So, in the next 20 minutes, we’re going to dive into the world of vowels in English. And I’m super excited to talk about it because I love talking about pronunciation. And in particular, I love talking about vowels.
I have to say that I’m a bit biased. Because if I had to choose between talking about vowels and talking about consonants I would always choose to talk about vowels. So, today’s one of those good days where I get to talk about vowels, and you get to practice with me.
I hope you find it helpful. If you do, and you don’t mind, I would love for you to rate and even review the podcast, and write a few words, so I get to see those words later too. Because I get to read the reviews after, you know. So, if you have a few minutes, that could be so incredibly amazing. And I would be very appreciative if you could do that.
So, that’s it. Let’s not waste any more time, and start talking about vowels. Because we have plenty of them to talk about. Let’s listen.
Today, we are going to talk about and practice the most confusing vowel pairs in English. So, we are going to talk about why they’re confusing, and how you can overcome this confusion and sound more clear and get what you want. But before that, let me tell you a funny story.
When I was in acting school – I don’t know if you know, but I am not a native speaker of English. So, I was an acting student back when I was 20 in New York City. And I remember sitting among my friends, and we were having this conversation about our favorite actors. And I said, “You know, my favorite actor is Meryl Strip”.
And all my friends looked at me and started giggling. And I’m like, “What? Meryl Strip, what’s wrong? Now, her name is pronounced Meryl Streep. Strip is a different word. Now, it took me a hot minute to understand that they’re not making fun of me, but laughing at what I just said. Because I just said something completely different that I did not mean to say.
And this was one of the first experiences of me encountering awkward moments because of the fact that I was confusing those two vowel sounds that back then, when I was 21, they seemed exactly the same to me. Or even if I heard the difference, my mouth would not obey. And right now I’m talking about the ‘sheep-ship’ vowel pair, which we will talk about today. So, today I want to cover some of those confusing vowel sounds. And I want to talk about why they’re confusing, and a few tips on how to practice those vowel pairs.
Now. Here’s the thing. In American English, there’s several different vowels, about 16 vowels, depending on the dialect. And most languages have between 5 to 8, 10, 12 vowel sounds. Now, what happens when you speak a language that has more vowel sounds than in what you have in your language is that, one – you may not even notice the difference between them because your brain will categorize those sounds as the same similar sounds. Or maybe you might hear the difference and understand that it’s important, but then your mouth would play tricks on you and would always go back to pronouncing the old sounds. Because going back to old pronunciation habits is easier than acquiring new pronunciation habits. Which is, basically, pronouncing the new sounds.
So, when you’re trying to open up the vowels in your language when speaking English – open up your ability to pronounce all vowels in your language, we need to follow a few steps. One – perception. You need to be able to hear the difference. This is what we’re going to do today. And two – pronunciation. So you need to know what exactly you need to do with your mouth. Three is all about practice, so you need to practice it effectively. So I’m going to give you a few tips on how to do that.
Four – it’s all about intentional practice. So, when you’re practicing it, you also need to practice it while speaking. And five – you need to decide if this vowel pair is really essential for your clarity, if it’s challenging for you. Maybe it’s not even a problem, therefore you don’t really need to practice it. So that would be prioritizing it and deciding if this is really important for you and will get you immediate results.
So in this video, we’re going to focus on steps one, two, and three: perception, pronunciation, and I’m going to give you a few tips on how to practice it effective. So, let’s begin with the first vowel pair: sheep-ship – tense ‘ee’ and lax ‘i’. In many languages, there is only one ‘ee’ sound, that is right there in the middle.
The tense ‘ee’ is longer. The tongue is higher, the lips pull to the sides. ‘ee’ – sheep’. Versus the lax ‘i’: the mouth is more open, the tongue is lower, so you want to imagine as if you have more space between the tongue and the upper palate. You want to relax it, it’s more relaxed, it’s shorter. It’s somewhere between ‘ee’ and ‘e’, if you have those two vowel sounds in your language. ‘i’, ‘i’ – ship. Right? sheep – ship. Let’s practice it in a few more words.
green – grin. ‘i’: it’s kinda like you don’t really care about the sound. ‘i’ – grin.
leap – lip.
peach – pitch.
seek – sick. ‘ee’ – ‘i’, ‘ee’ – ‘i’.
The next vowel pair that we’re going to practice today is ‘i’ versus ‘e’. This is not important for most speakers, but if you tend to confuse those two vowel sounds, like ‘bin’ and ‘Ben’, this practice is definitely for you.
So here, we’re talking about the lax ‘i’, usually represented with a letter ‘i’ – bin, sit, fit. Versus the ‘e’ sound, that is usually represented with the letter E, sometimes EA, like ‘head’. ‘e’, ‘e’. bin – Ben.
chick – check.
disk – desk.
middle – metal. ‘i’ – ‘e’. As you can see, I lower my jaw – ‘i’, and also I lower my tongue. ‘i’ – ‘e’, ‘i’ – ‘e’. bin – Ben. middle – medal. This one is closer to a neutral ‘e’ sound. In English, the ‘e’ sound is a bit more open. ‘e’. bitter – better, bitter – better. Okay, good.
The next vowel pair is ‘e’ versus ‘a’: bed – bad. ‘e’ usually represented with a letter E, just like the one that we practiced now – ‘e’. Versus ‘a’, usually represented with the letter A. ‘e’ – ‘a’. So here the jaw drops even more – ‘a’. The lips pull to the sides just a bit, the tongue is flat – ‘a’. The back of the tongue is high – ‘a’. It sounds like something’s ugly. It’s like, in your face. ‘a’: hat, cat, happy.
And then let’s compare those two vowel sounds. Now, if you don’t tend to open your mouth wide when you’re speaking, this vowel pair is going to be challenging for you. Because you might want to say both in the same way: bed and bed. “It’s a really bed bed”. Instead of “It’s a really bad bed”. Right? ‘e’ – ‘a’.
Practice it with me. ‘e’ – ‘a’. bed – bad. head – had. left – laughed. better – batter.
Now, let’s practice all three vowel sounds, that we just practiced, together. bitter – better – batter. bitter – better – batter. Okay. Very good.
Let’s move on to the ‘luck’ versus ‘lock’, cup – cop. The middle central ‘uh’ sound – also known as the stressed schwa, the cup sound – versus the back open ‘aa’ sound, also known as the ‘father’ vowel, ‘aa’.
So for the cup sound, the jaw is kind of neutral, you open the mouth just a little bit – ‘uh’. The tongue is not super flat, but you want to raise it just a little bit. ‘uh’. You want to direct your sound towards the upper palate. cup, cup, country, money, fun, love. This vowel sound is usually represented with a letter U, like ‘up’; with a letter O, like ‘son’ – SON, but also SUN. money, month – OU, country. O, like ‘love’. Okay?
So, you want to think of it like this neutral ‘uh’ sound. That’s actually the closest one to a neutral ‘uh’ sound that you might have in your language. So: cup, love, fun. Versus the back open ‘aa’ sound, usually represented with O, like ‘honest’, ‘office’, ‘job’, ‘coffee’.
Now, a lot of times people tend to pronounce the sound as an ‘o’ sound, which is totally fine. I recommend to open that up a bit more for the ‘aa’, sound. And then this is where it starts getting a little confusing for people, because then what is the difference between ‘color’ and ‘collar’, right? Or ‘luck’ and ‘lock’, and ‘bus’ and ‘boss’. So, let’s talk about it.
bus: small, sharp, more closed, neutral, closer to an ‘uh’ sound. bus, bus. ‘Let’s take the bus’.
boss. ‘My boss just called me’. ‘baa-‘ – it’s closer to the back of the mouth. It has a darker quality because it is produced in the back of the mouth, ‘aa’. It happens and goes towards the back of the mouth because you drop your tongue, you drop the root of the tongue, and the voice resonates in the back.
Also, your mouth opens more and the lips round just a bit, not too much. ‘aa’: office, job, father, boss. Now, if you just listen to the sound, it does sound like an ‘uh’ sound. Now, if you have ‘uh’ in your language, you know what I’m talking about. Because I cannot define the sound ‘uh’, but if you have a neutral ‘uh’ sound, then yes, you might analyze it more like an ‘uh’ than an ‘o’ sound, if you were to just listen to it. It’s not ‘o’. ‘aa’, office.
However, spelling is really deceiving because it’s usually spelled with O and we associate the letter O with a sound ‘o’, right? So again, what I’m saying here might not be relevant for all speakers, but if that resonates with you, just let me know in the comments. And if it doesn’t, let me know in the comments too.
So, back to the two sounds. ‘cup’ versus ‘cop’. cup – cop. So, the ‘cup’ sound is really neutral and closed – ‘uh’. The ‘cop’ is more open, relaxed, lips round just a bit. Not an ‘o’ sound, but more of a back open ‘aa’ – cop. luck – lock. And bus – boss. ‘color’ – direct it forward and up – color. collar, collar. color – collar. Very good.
Now, let’s talk about the ‘pool – pull’ vowel pair. The ‘pool – pull’ vowel pair is a tense ‘oo’ sound and a lax ‘u’. pool – pull. The tense ‘oo’ sound, I think of it like the cousins, the back cousins of the ‘sheep – ship’ vowel pair. Because one is tense: ‘oo’, pool, you – here the back of the tongue goes up, it’s really high up in the back. The lips round. It is a longer sound. ‘oo’, you, too. Just like the tense ‘ee’ is a little longer: see, we, read. Right?
And then the lax ‘u’ – it’s like the casual partner of the tense ‘oo’. It’s more relaxed. cook, look, book, foot. If you trying to figure out the spelling patterns and to understand which is which, I actually have a full video about this pair and, actually, all the other pairs. So if you want to go a little deeper, I’m going to list all those videos below. This is just an overview of all the confusing vowel pairs. But again, like if you want to go deeper and practice more each vowel pair, I got you covered. ‘covered’: ‘cup’, ‘cup’. Not ‘aa’ – ‘caavered’. ‘covered’.
So, back, tense ‘oo’, food – foot. pool – pull. who’d – hood. Luke – look, fool, tense ‘oo’ – full. So the jaw drops a bit, the tongue is a little lower, the lips round just a bit. Imagine like you have a hot potato inside your mouth. cook, look, book. Again, the casual, indifferent partner of the tense ‘oo’. Like you’re trying to make an ‘oo’ sound – ‘f[oo]t’, but then you’re pretty chill about it- ‘f[u]t’.
Whatever. You can say that – whatever. foot, book, Facebook. Who cares? Facebook. ‘uk’ It really helps. Try it out, try it out, I’m telling you. Don’t dismiss it. dismiss – also that chill sound, ‘i’, dismiss.
Okay. Last pair for today is the ‘ou’ versus ‘aa’. Here, it’s a little confusing because of the spelling patterns, and this is why I wanted to include this pair. So for example, ‘boat’ versus ‘bought’. ‘bought’ is a long open /ɔː/ sound. And it’s actually, it could be pronounced with the ‘aa’ as in ‘father’ – ‘bought’, depending on the dialect. Right? So he can say ‘bought’. And you can round the lips a little more to say ‘b[ɔː]ght’, right? Either way, it’s one continuous sound, right? It’s not changing.
Versus ‘boat’. Right? Here, it’s a long ‘ou’ as in go. And again, I have videos about each one of those vowel sounds. But notice that the ‘ou’ sound is changing. ‘boat. So even though in the word ‘bought’ there is O and U in the spelling, it’s one sound. ‘bought’. And in ‘boat’ we have OA, but it could also be OU or OW in terms of the spelling. And here we have ‘ou’ – boat.
So, please don’t look at the spelling and assume which vowel it would be, because it will confuse you and it will not be consistent. I want you to open up your ears and start hearing the sounds that we’re now making – you and me, right? – instead of trusting the spelling. Because spelling and pronunciation are very, very inconsistent. Even though there are patterns, it’s still very inconsistent. So you need to develop new systems to know what it is that you’re hearing. Okay?
So let’s practice a few of those vowel pairs. law – low. Now, if you struggle with the long ‘ou’ sound – some people might actually struggle with a diphthong, with making this long ‘ou’ sound – then these two words would sound the same: law and law, right? If you look at the spelling and you see AW, and you think, “Oh, it’s a changing vowel”, then again, both would sound the same: low and low.
So, try to place yourself on the spectrum. Try to understand what is confusing to you, so you’ll have a better understanding as to what you need to change in terms of your perception and in terms of your pronunciation. Okay.
So, let’s practice it a bit more. lawn – loan. ‘aa’ – ‘ou’. lawn – loan. ‘want’ – this is a good one – ‘want’ versus ‘won’t’. A lot of people tend to confuse those two. ‘want’ – ‘wou-‘, get to the ‘u’ sound. ‘won’t’. ‘want’ – ‘won’t’.
All right. So, I think we covered most of the confusing vowel pairs. I’m sure there are more, depending on the language that you speak. Of course, there’s also consonants, but we’re not going to talk about consonants now.
So, how to practice? If you found one of those vowel pairs exceptionally difficult, or you haven’t even noticed this pair before, that it existed – therefore it probably means that you were merging those two vowel sounds and then different words sounded the same – then I would encourage you to go online, or go to my website, and find lists of words where you see those pairs. So you can practice them. And I want you to practice with the notes you’ve gotten in the video. Because I gave you a lot of tips on how to tweak it and how to change it to understand the difference between the two.
So, first, perception. Now you understand the difference. Then we have pronunciation. So you need to practice it and even record yourself, and listen back to it to see that you’re actually hearing the difference. And then the act of practice is all about building pronunciation confidence and building muscle memory. So you want to repeat it again and again and again and again – the new pronunciation – until you build those new habits.
And then you won’t have to think about it, and you would automatically go to the new sounds instead of the old sounds. Not that there’s anything wrong about your old sounds, let’s put it out there. But when it comes to confusing vowel sounds, then sometimes you might say ‘Strip’ instead of ‘Streep’, and then you might be in a situation where it’s like, “Why are people talking about how I’m saying things instead of what I’m saying?” Cause it’s all about making you feel more powerful in your English. OK? And aware, and in control, and in charge – like you deserve.
Thank you so much for being here. And during this lesson with me, I want to tell you how much I appreciate you for doing the work and for watching it all the way to the end, and for trusting that it is possible. Because it is. I promise, I guarantee.
So, just for fun, put in the comments one vowel pair that was the most difficult one for you. And if you want, you can also tell me what your first language is. Cause then I can start putting all the pieces together and seeing how I can help you even more.
So thank you so much for being here. Don’t forget to like and subscribe, if you haven’t yet. And I’ll see you next week in the next video. Bye.
Which vowels do you confuse? Let me know in the comments below!
You might also want to watch this episode: American English Vowels | Pronunciation Masterclass