Eyes vs. Ears: The Problem of Vowels

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece about how our eyes play tricks on our ears. We experienced the McGurk Effect and we listened to “Obama’s Elf,” and I believe most of us had fun realizing that no matter how much we know about language, our perceptions of language can still mislead us.

This week, I thought I’d explore how letters—specifically vowel letters—further lure our eyes into deceiving our ears.

I’ve been surveying ESL teachers at conferences for years, asking, “How many vowel sounds do we have in English?” The answers have ranged dramatically, from “five!” (mistaking vowel sounds for vowel letters) to “sixty!” (erroneously estimating total number of phonemes in English).

I started wondering: If ESL teachers answer this question in such variety, how might nonteachers answer? I started asking friends and family.

My good friend Kerry, shown in the video below, is a first-class fisheries management expert, an awesome bluegrass fiddler, a dedicated father of two, and an all around good guy. The “good guy” part is verified by the fact that he tolerates me asking him this odd question and videotaping him while he drives down the freeway:

It’s not at all surprising to me that Kerry doesn’t know the answer to my question (after all, as a fisheries guy, does he really need to know?), but rather, that his answer is so similar to the answers given by hundreds ESL/EFL teachers I’ve surveyed in my workshops over the years (after all, as language teachers, shouldn’t they know?). It’s as through the question of vowel sounds is an equalizer, catching all equally off-guard regardless of whether they should know the answer.

While it’s true that ESL/EFL teacher education often lacks substantive training in phonological awareness and the teaching of pronunciation (Murphy, 2014), it’s important that we understand the role that language itself plays in obscuring our conscious need for such training.

First, vowel sounds are elusive. In a recent post, Tamara Jones makes the point that vowel sounds are conceptually abstract precisely because they are not concrete like consonant sounds. Unlike consonant sounds, where some part of the mouth touches some other part of the mouth to create a sound like /m/ or /t/, vowel sounds involve no points of articulation. Moreover, they defy description: they’re all voiced (unlike consonants, which are either voiced like /b/ or unvoiced like /p/), and they’re all continuants (unlike consonants, which are either continuants like /sh/ or stops like /ch/). If consonants are like stars in the night sky, vowel sounds are the black space between them: essential yet unnoticed, ubiquitous yet elusive.

Second, the letters we use to represent the vowel sounds of English are misleading. Simply put, our workforce of English vowel letters (A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y) is sorely understaffed. Each letter does more than double duty, both individually and in combination, to convey 15 vowel sounds.

In other words, vowel letters are not to be trusted. What’s fascinating is that despite all we know as educators and language professionals about our 15 vowel sounds, we are still bullied by our eyes and swayed by our preference for the letter we see over the sound we hear.

Case in point: The video below solidly demonstrates the 44 phonemes of English, but beware. Letters flash by with each sound we hear, and this works acceptably well until minute 1:09, when the vowel sounds start.

“A” flashes in representation of the sound in “bat” (BLACK), and we’re probably okay with that. But before long, we see “IE” to indicate the vowel sound in “pie;” and I can’t stop myself from thinking of words like “thief” (GREEN) and “friend” (RED). “OU” appears a bit later to represent the sound in “outline” (BROWN), and I think of “young” (MUSTARD), “shoulder” (ROSE), “would” (WOODEN), “tour” (BLUE), and “journey” (PURPLE). (Note: The color words shown in parentheses refer to Taylor & Thompson’s Color Vowel Chart.)

If you view the video in YouTube and read the creator’s comments, you’ll see that she is entirely aware of the problem posed by vowel letters, yet decides to use them anyway. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing the least-worst option. Eschew letters in favor of our more accurate but less accessible phonetic symbols, and she’ll lose the average parent viewing the video. Go with letters, and you have someone like me pointing out how it misleads learners.

And so it is that we are forever left grappling with the fascinating problem of English. How do you address this problem of vowel sounds in your teaching?



Murphy, J. (2015). Teacher training programs provide adequate preparation in how to teach pronuncation. In Grant, L. (Ed.), Pronunciation Myths. Ann Arbor, MI: U. Michigan Press.

Taylor, K. & Thompson, S. (1999, 2005). The color vowel chart. Santa Fe, NM: English Language Training Solutions.

About Karen Taylor de Caballero

Karen Taylor de Caballero
Karen Taylor de Caballero is an educational consultant and trainer. She holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She has taught extensively in the Washington DC area, as well as in Namibia and Mexico, where she served as a Fulbright TEFL specialist. Karen is co-author of the Color Vowel Chart and co-founder of English Language Training Solutions, dedicated to empowering teachers, learners, and our society at large with sound awareness for mutual comprehensibility. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Visit Karen's personal blog at http://elts.solutions/category/blog/
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One Response to Eyes vs. Ears: The Problem of Vowels

  1. Robin C. Barr says:

    And you’re just talking about vowel phonemes, for native speakers of English. Learners with different native languages, or particularly phonologically-aware English speakers, will hear even more vowel sounds. What about nasalized vowels as in ‘can’ vs. ‘cat’ ? French speakers will perceive these as different phonemes. Or what about vowel length, as in ‘cat’ vs. ‘cad’? A speaker of, say, Italian, will perceive these as different phonemes. For them, ’26’ might be a reasonable answer.

    Then there’s the question of diphthongs: some diphthongs (like /aw/ as in ‘house’) are phonemic, while others are automatic phonetic realizations of tense [+ATR] vowels,, like /ow/ ‘go’ and /ey/ ‘say’ (and some dialects may not have this diphthongization rule). But to the learner, these diphthongs may have the same status. So, is /aw/ another ‘vowel’ or a sequence of the /a/ we’ve already counted, plus /w/? Maybe it would be better to count syllable nuclei, to include both vowels and diphthongs? Have we reached 60 yet?

    Your post raises all sorts of interesting questions about terminology that we’ve been taking for granted. It also makes me wonder how meaningful the ’15-vowel’ number is for our learners, who are probably perceiving either more or fewer.

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