One of the points that arose from Jennifer Jenkins’ early research into intelligibility in English as a Lingua Franca* was that vowel length was an important distinction to be made.
This is not only in terms of well-known pairs of vowels like in “ship” and “sheep”, but the key insight was that it’s important to preserve the length of a vowel before lenis (voiced) consonants and shorten it before fortis (unvoiced) consonants.
Let me give you an example.
The words “hat” and “had” actually contain the same vowel (at least, in my accent and most of those I know well). But if you say them aloud to yourself, the vowel in “had” is actually a bit longer.
Makes sense, really – voicing is ‘switched on’ when you start to produce the vowel, and either continues through the voiced sound that follows it (in the case of /d/) or has to stop abruptly if an unvoiced sound follows it (in this case, /t/).
Visually, it might look something like this: hat vs. had .
What effect does this have on the listener?
Simply put, the vowel in “had” sounds longer than the vowel in “hat”.
It follows that, if the vowel isn’t shortened before the /t/ in “hat”, it can cause confusion.
And it doesn’t matter so much about the quality of the actual vowel – many native speakers would produce it quite differently (contrast US, southern British and New Zealand accents, for example), so there’s no reason it should be a big deal for learners if they’re pronouncing “had” more like “head” – context and consistency (i.e. that they always pronounce it this way) should sort out any confusion.
Same goes for “peace” and “peas”.
Try it yourself. If it helps, put it in a sentence (if you can say this without laughing): I yearn for peas… I yearn for peace. Or try swapping ‘peace’ for ‘peas’ in the image caption below…
How to work on this in the classroom?
Such a situation arose in my advanced class a couple of weeks ago. I can’t remember precisely what happened, but I believe someone misunderstood someone else, and I identified this issue of vowel length as the problem.
Here’s what happened next:
1. I boarded a few examples of pairs of one-syllable words where the only phonemic difference was whether the final consonant following the vowel was voiced or not.
2. We did a bit of receptive work first – I modelled pairs of words and they had to tell me which one sounded ‘longer’ by pointing to the appropriate section of the whiteboard (see my other post on this). This was fairly straightforward.
3. Then a bit of discovery… they had to try and work out why one set of words sounded longer than the other. This was harder, probably not helped by the fact that while we do a lot of pron work in class, we hadn’t really focused on voiced/unvoiced sounds before. But we got there in the end. This pic I took of the whiteboard (sorry for the quality) shows how it looked after we’d grouped and analysed the words:
4. Then some productive work. Students in pairs had to do what we’d just done as a class – one says a word; the other points to the one they heard. This was a bit tricky, but the students acquitted themselves quite well on the whole.
Next up… minimal trios
For the next lesson, I prepared some more words that featured a vowel length distinction like this. But this time, rather than minimal pairs, I went for what I’d like to call ‘minimal trios’ — a.k.a. ‘odd one out’. That is, each distinction was illustrated by a set of 3 words, not just 2, and students had to identify the word whose vowel was different from the other two.
This is what went up on the board (via a projected Word doc):
This was quite difficult and a bit messy for me to monitor, to be honest. Moreover, the students found it very hard. As this lesson took place a couple of days after the previous one, they may have just been a bit rusty on what we’d studied, or perhaps they hadn’t really got it the first time! But after a good go, we talked about it again, practised a bit more, and they really seemed to be making progress.
Overall, though, while the students found this very challenging, they later commented that they also felt it was very useful. 🙂
Would love to hear from others who’ve tried similar stuff, or who try the ideas outlined above…
*ELF = a phenomenon whereby English is used as a language of communication, because interlocutors do not speak each other’s first languages. Initially, this was considered to exclude native speakers of English altogether, but now it’s accepted that they might be present, but in a minority. A good everyday example of ELF communication for those of us who teach in countries where English is the native language (e.g. the UK) is in our very classrooms – assuming groups are multilingual. An Italian student talking to his Japanese classmate in English exemplifies ELF.