How do you know that I’m a native speaker of American English? You might say, because you sound like you are. But what does that mean, I sound like a native speaker? My pronunciation is like a native speaker, that’s true, but there’s something else in my voice that gives it away.
It’s the placement or the quality of my voice. And in this video, you’ll learn about the placement of the American English front vowels.
Let’s start this video with a listening exercise.
I’m going to play the audio from an online lesson about grammar. I know, I know, grammar isn’t the most exciting topic to discuss. But the purpose of this listening exercise isn’t to teach you grammar. It’s to show you the differences in the voice placement or voice quality between speakers of two different native languages.
I’ll play the audio now. Pay attention to the quality of the voices that you hear. Can you describe what the voices sound like? Are they high, low, nasally, or rough?
Let me give you a little more background. This audio was from a video about the grammar of English and the grammar of Japanese. One speaker was a native speaker of American English, and the other was a native speaker of Japanese.
What did you think about the placement or the quality of their voices? Did they sound like they shared the same vocal qualities? Were both of their voices low or high, or placed up in the nose, or down in the throat? Or did they sound…different in some way…and I mean different other than their pronunciation.
If you think that their voices sounded different, what was different about them? Can you describe it?
American English voice placement
When we talk about pronunciation, many times the focus is on things like tongue placement: is the tongue at the front of the mouth or at the back? Is it high in the mouth or low? Or we focus on voicing: are the vocal cords vibrating or not? But there’s another piece to the pronunciation puzzle that’s very important to having a good American accent and that’s placement of the voice. Where is the voice resonating or vibrating? Does the voice sound like it is placed higher in the head? Or lower in the chest? Or at the back of the mouth? Different languages have different voice placements, and if you want to pronounce American English as naturally as possible, you’ll want to imitate the placement of a native speaker.
The best way to work on placement is to focus on the vowels of a language. Vowels are made with a relatively open vocal tract - the throat, mouth, and nose are more open when you pronounce a vowel. The voice can then resonate or vibrate in this open space. And if you can imitate the placement of a vowel, it will help you to pronounce that vowel with a much more native-like sound and quality.
All vowels have specific placements, but in this video, we’ll practice two of the front vowels of American English: the EE /i/ as in see vowel and the AA /æ/ as in apple vowel.
The training you’ll receive in this video is the same type of training that I use in my group English class called Julie’s Conversation Club. And in fact, during our last live class we practiced the placement of all of the front vowels of American English - EE, IH, AY, EH, and AA. If you want this type of detailed practice, too, then join Julie’s Conversation Club and come to my next live class. I’d be happy to help you with it! The link to join is in the description below.
Voice placement of vowels: EE /i/
Let’s begin by discussing the EE /i/ as in see vowel. The EE vowel is in many different languages around the world, so chances are that you have it in your native language. Just say it a few times - EE, EE, EE. Can you describe where you feel the sound resonating? Is it low in the mouth? In the middle of the mouth? High? Front? Back?
EE, EE, EE.
When I say the EE vowel, I feel that it is placed high in my mouth, close to the palate. It sort of resonates in the small space that’s between my tongue and the palate. It also feels like it is placed at the front of my mouth, directly below my nose.
EE, EE, EE.
I also feel like the vowel glides down in pitch as I say it, though I don’t have to use this downward gliding motion in my voice. But it feels natural for me to glide the pitch of my voice down as I say it.
EE, EE, EE.
I also feel some tension in this sound, especially in my tongue and in the muscles underneath my chin. The tension is most obvious at the place where the EE vowel resonates, close to the palate.
EE, EE, EE
So in summary, the placement of the EE vowel is:
- High in the mouth, close to the palate
- At the front of the mouth, just below the nose
- It resonates within the small space that is between the tongue and the palate
- The voice may glide down in pitch as you say it
- And there is tension within the tongue, especially the part of the tongue that is close to the palate, and in the muscles underneath the chin
Do you feel that as well? Or does your EE vowel feel different in some way? Try to describe the placement of your EE vowel - where do you feel it?
Voice placement of vowels: AA /æ/
Now let’s discuss the AA as in apple vowel. This vowel is not as common in other languages, so it’s likely that you don’t have this vowel in your native language. Just say it a few times - AA, AA, AA. Can you describe where you feel the sound resonating? Is it low in the mouth? In the middle of the mouth? High? Front? Back?
AA, AA, AA
When I say the AA vowel, I feel that it is placed low in my mouth, and I also feel like some of the placement shifts to the back of my mouth.
AA, AA, AA.
I feel slight tension in the back of my tongue and throat, so that’s why the placement also feels like it is farther back in my mouth. It’s almost like the AA vowel is located directly beneath the soft palate - the squishy part of the roof of the mouth.
AA, AA, AA.
The resonance feels more open compared to the EE vowel, and I can sense there is more airflow with this vowel compared to EE.
But there is some slight tension at the back of my mouth.
AA, AA, AA.
So in summary, the placement of the AA vowel is:
- Low in the mouth
- Slightly at the back of the mouth, just below the soft palate
- It has a more open resonance compared to the EE vowel. It feels much less constricted, and it feels like there is more airflow with this vowel
- But there is slight tension at the back of my mouth
Do you feel that as well? Or does your AA vowel feel different in some way? Try to describe the placement of your AA vowel - where do you feel it?
Voice placement of English: Practice
Now, let’s practice the placement of these vowels in different words. You’ll hear each word three times, and I’ll use different placements each time. I’ll start by demonstrating my natural, native placement. Then I’ll demonstrate two additional placements that are not my natural placement. I want you to imitate the placement that you hear.
I'm going to replay the audio from the beginning of the video, the one of the native speakers of American English and Japanese discussing the grammar of each language. Listen carefully to their voices and try to describe what you hear in terms of placement, then try to imitate the different placements.
Describing and imitating the placement of vowels might be really challenging for you at first, especially if you’ve never done it before. And if this is the first time that you’ve even heard of voice placement, this video might be really confusing. Don’t give up; keep trying to imitate the placement that you hear. Having a good American accent involves changing your voice so that you’re using the same placement of a native speaker. It’s hard work at first, but it will result in a much more clear and natural American accent.
If you have questions about voice placement and you want to practice with me, join my next live class at English Pro™ Live. The link to join is in the description below.
Thanks for watching and have a great day!
And I'd love to hear from you - contact me to learn how we can work together to perfect your American English pronunciation!