The Necessity of Comparing Vowel Systems for Teachers to Anticipate Learners’ Problems

A Contrastive Analysis of the Vowel Systems of Standard German, British English (RP), Argentine Spanish and Hanoi Vietnamese

Term Paper, 2021

26 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Vowel Classification
2.1. Monophthongs
2.1.1. Quality
2.1.2. Quantity
2.2. Diphthongs

3. Cross-Language Phonetic Similarities of Vowels Systems

4. Vowel System Inventories of Some of the World's Languages
4.1. Standard German
4.2. British English (Received Pronunciation)
4.3. Argentine Spanish
4.4. Hanoi Vietnamese

5. Contrastive Analysis and Consequential Problems for Learners
5.1. Quantity as a Contrastive Parameter
5.2. Contrastive Vowel Qualities
5.3. The Co-Occurrence of Different Phonetic Parameters
5.4. Diphthongs

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

There are countless human languages on our planet and all of them have their own unique history. They have developed differently over the centuries, have merged to some extent and now, “human languages are extremely diverse” (De Boer 1). Not only do they differ in their vocabulary or grammar, but also concerning their phonetic properties. Some phonetic features are characteristic for certain languages while others do not have them at all. For example, Clicks can mainly be found in African languages but are extremely rare as contrastive features in the phonetic systems of other languages. The segments which occur in a language “may vary widely” (Maddieson 7) and even though there are some general tendencies with regard to the size of phoneme inventories, “considerable variation in their size and structure occurs” (ibid. 23). Many consonants of different types as well as vowels can be found in the languages of the world, but each of them has only a certain set of those. While some types overlap, however, the consonant and “the vowel systems differ considerably” (Konig 21) from one language to another. In addition to that, it has to be mentioned that “[t]hese difference go beyond the mere existence or non-existence of a given phoneme [.] and concern the entire make-up of the systems” (ibid.).

When learning a foreign language, it is therefore of utmost importance for teachers to understand the phonetic differences between the native and target language in order to anticipate possible areas of difficulties thatlearners might encounter.Thisis crucially important as “having accurate pronunciation when communicating in a foreign language is fundamental in order to transmit the intended message with clarity and avoid misunderstandings” (Sanchez 2), but “the L2 sound system remains a big challenge for the vast majority of learners even after other grammatical (e.g. morphosyntactic) facets of the target language have been mastered” (Altmann 2012: 388). Learning the sound structure of a foreign language is particularly difficult because “learners [do] not only need to know what the contrastive segment categories of the L2 are, but they also have to acquire the specific phonetic targets for their realization in production, and become responsive to the relevant cues for their identification in perception” (Mayr 279). If those difficulties are not addressed, the result is that learners acquire “a distinct and discernible non-native accent [.] which has been shown to slow down speech comprehension in native listeners [.] and may even lead to lexical confusion” (Altmann 2012: 388). This can, however, be prevented or at least reduced by instructing teachers more in depth in this domain as an enhanced knowledge of the different vowel systems, namely the native one and the one of the target language, will help them to develop learning strategies to support language learners more effectively. Unfortunately, “[s]ome language instructors tend to ignore this micro skill because they prefer to focus on other areas of the language such as grammar or vocabulary” (Sanchez 2).

This paper argues that understanding and comparing the vowel systems of the native (L1) as well as the target language (L2) is a necessity for language instructors to anticipate problems that will most definitely occur in the classroom as well as to develop strategies to deal with those difficulties. In order to demonstrate how much the vowel systems of the languages of the world can actually differ from each other, the vowel inventories of four different languages which differ in several phonetic parameters will be analysed and discussed with regard to the problems that might occur due to those differences. The languages chosen are Standard German, British English (Received Pronunciation), Argentine Spanish as well as Hanoi Vietnamese because their vowel system inventories feature certain properties that could be problematic while studying this language. Moreover, most of them are highly relevant in today's societies and are taught as well as studied frequently.

2. Vowel Classification

In order to establish a theoretical framework for the following analysis and “to understand the systematicity underlying a vowel system” (Konig 18), the next chapters aim at providing a general overview of how vowels can be classified. This is important because knowing how they differ from each other is necessary to adequately compare vowel inventories of various languages. As there are different groups of vowels, namely monophthongs and diphthongs, they will be dealt with separately and the different parameters, which are used to describe them, will be explained for each of them. It should also be noted that “[t]he main articulators involved in the utterance of vowel sounds are the tongue, the lips and the jaw” (Sanchez 4) as they will frequently be referred to in the analysis of the vowel inventories.

2.1. Monophthongs

First of all, a monophthong is often referred to as “a pure vowel” (Roach 2009: 17), because it “remains constant and does not glide” (ibid.). These sounds can be classified in terms of quality and quantity and the following chapters will deal with the parameters involved in this classification. As they can be rather abstract, they will be explained by means of illustrations that demonstrate how those different parameters are embedded in the human vocal tract. Furthermore, the primary cardinal vowels will be used as reference points for this general overview. They mark the extreme vowel qualities that are possible for humans to produce and are therefore not sounds of any language but merely display “the range of vowels the human vocal apparatus can make” (ibid. 16).

2.1.1. Quality

With regard to vowel quality, there are three parameters that are of great relevance. According to Ladefoged, “[t]he basic building blocks of most vowel systems are the three qualities that are traditionally called high-low, front-back and rounded-unrounded” (Ladefoged 94). The first of the qualities mentioned refers to the parameter ‘tongue heigt', front-back is the description of ‘tongue advancement' and the last one deals with lip rounding.

The first parameter that will be explained is tongue height. It is concerned with “the distance between the surface of the tongue and the roof of the mouth” (Roach 2009: 11) and can therefore be changed by either “moving the tongue up or down, or moving the lower jaw up or down” (ibid.), but it usually is a “combination of the two sorts of movement” (ibid.). In the following, the “four degrees of height” (Konig 18), namely ‘close,' ‘close-mid,' ‘open-mid' and ‘open,' that can be seen on the left axis of the chart in Fig. 1 will be used to describe vowels with regard to their height in the following.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1 Primary cardinal vowel chart (Roach 2009: 12) in the human vocal tract and the tongue positions for different vowel qualities

Another parameter that is illustrated in Fig. 1 is tongue advancement. It describes which “part of the tongue is the highest point” (ibid.) during the articulation of a certain vowel. For example, cardinal vowel [u] can be classified as a back vowel because “the back of the tongue is the highest point” (ibid.). In general, there are “three degrees of tongue advancement” (Konig 18), so we can distinguish between front, central and back vowels. As vowels cannot only occur on the lines that mark the different degrees but also in between them, there is an incredible amount of possibilities for where vowels of the world's languages can be produced.

The last parameter related to vowel quality is lip rounding. According to Konig, “the rounding parameter is binary, i.e. every vowel is either rounded (the lips are rounded during articulation) or unrounded (the lips are spread or relaxed)” (ibid.). For example, cardinal vowel no. 1 [i] is produced with spread lips and it is also the vowel where this can most clearly be seen while cardinal vowel no. 8 [u] is produced with lips in rounded shape and even though the other cardinal vowels that are classified as ‘back' (no. 5-7) as well include lip rounding too, the rounding is best visible here.

2.1.2. Quantity

Concerning quantity, the relevant parameters are length and tension and both of them are problematic as it will be demonstrated in the following. With the former, vowel length, it can be differed between long and short vowels. The difficulty regarding this parameter is that, depending on where the sounds occur in a word or syllable, long vowels are not always long and short vowels are not always equally short. In fact, long and short “vowels can have different lengths in different contexts” (Roach 2009: 13). For example, a phenomenon that can be found in the English language is the so-called pre-fortis clipping. This means that depending on the sound that follows the vowel, the vowel itself will be shortened if it precedes a fortis sound. For example, the words “hard” (/ha:d/) and “heart” (/ha:t/) both have the vowel /a:/, which is classified as a long vowel, but it is shorter in the second word because the following sound is a fortis one. Moreover, not all languages use vowel length contrastively, but that does not mean that those languages do not have long and short vowels. They are simply not used to distinguish different lexemes, but are allophones of the same phoneme.

The second parameter in terms of quantity is tension and “refers to the amount of muscular energy spent during articulation” (Konig 19). In general, “tense vowels are [.] longer than lax vowels. This rule, however, applies only to stressed syllables” (ibid.). They do not only differ in quantity, however, but also in quality. Whereas “lax vowels are generally more central” (ibid.), tense vowels are articulated closer to the periphery of the vowel space. This centralization of lax vowels is closely connected “to the relative muscular relaxation associated with them” (ibid.). What is problematic here is that even though tension is a “useful criteri[on] to classify German vowels [.], such a classification is more difficult to justify in English” (ibid. 20) and other languages of the world as “the distinction between tense and lax vowels seems to be more difficult to motivate” (ibid.) because we do not always have “clear pairs of vowels that have the same specifications for height, advancement and rounding, and that differ only in the degree of tension or centralization” (ibid.). For this reason, it makes sense to “take distributional criteria into account” (ibid.) in order to alter the previous definition, so it can be applied to more than just some languages. It can be said that “[t]ense vowels are those vowels that can occur in final stressed open syllables” (ibid.) and by defining tension in this particular manner, this parameter can be used cross-linguistically as it can now be applied to more languages than before - if not to every language in the world.

2.2. Diphthongs

In contrast to monophthongs, diphthongs are “sounds which consist of a movement or glide from one vowel to another” (Roach 2009: 17). When comparing them to the monophthongs, it becomes clear that, with regard to their length, they “are similar to long vowels” (ibid.). An important aspect that needs to be mentioned is that “the first part [of a diphthong] is much longer and stronger than second part” (ibid.) and the glide is not noticeable until “the last quarter of the diphthong” (ibid.). During this movement from one vowel to another, “the loudness of the sound decreases” (ibid.). Consequently, the second part “is shorter and quieter” (ibid.).

There are different groups of diphthongs and the sounds are assigned to those according to the direction of the glide. The most common groups that can be found in the languages of the world are the closing and centring diphthongs. As the name indicates, the latter glide towards the centre of the vowel chart whereas the former ones “all end with a glide towards a closer vowel” (ibid. 18). Less frequent are the opening diphthongs (e.g. in Finish) that start with a rather closed vowel and end with a more open one. A very rare type of diphthongs are the height-harmonic ones (e.g. OE) where both elements have the same height. It has to be noted, however, that even though these groups are referred to as ‘closing,' ‘centring,' etc., the diphthongs “often do not reach a position that could be called close” (ibid.), central or open. It merely describes the area in the vowel chart the diphthong glides towards during its articulation.

3. Cross-Language Phonetic Similarities of Vowels Systems

Even though “human languages are extremely diverse” (De Boer 1), “[t]he phoneme inventories of the world's languages show [...] remarkable regularities” (ibid. 7). The most important aspect of those regularities is that they do not only occur within a language family but can also be found in languages that are genetically not even remotely related. This observation suggests that “unrelated languages can have similarities in all respects: in their sound system, their syntax, their morphology, [etc.]” (ibid. 1). And as there seems to be an underlying pattern and as those regularities are wide-spread phenomena that can be found in many languages around the globe, they cannot have happened by chance. Those “similarities that occur in many unrelated languages and that cannot be attributed to chance are called universals” (ibid.). In order to investigates those universals, it will be drawn on insight from Maddieson's UPSID (UCLA Phonological Segment Inventory Database) that was “designed to answer [.] questions concerning the distribution of phonological segments in the world's languages” (Maddieson 5). It “contains the phoneme inventories of a representative sample of 451 of the world's languages, a total of 921 different segments occur. Of these, [...] 180 are vowels, and 89 are diphthongs” (De Boer 7)which shows that “the human vocal tract is capable of producing an amazing diversity of sounds” (ibid. 7-8). It has to be noted that itincludes “only one language [.] from each small family grouping” (Maddieson 5), for example from the language family ‘West Germanic,' and they were chosen with regard to their “[a]vailability and quality of phonological descriptions” (ibid.). Factors such as “the number of speakers and the phonological peculiarity of the language are not considered” (ibid. 6).

It can be argued that “phonemes that a language uses are not chosen randomly from the possible sounds the human vocal tract can make,” (ibid. 8) but that there are certain reoccurring patterns that can be found in the languages of the world. Not all sounds, however, appear equally frequently. In fact, there is a tendency that some phonemes are preferred over others and “[c]ertain systems seem to be favoured, while others seem to be avoided” (ibid. 9).

First of all, “[f]ront vowels are usually unrounded, back vowels are usually rounded” (Maddieson 134) as figure 2 clearly shows. In all languages that are included in UPSID, 958 of the 1019 front vowels are unround which equals 94% whereas 901 of the 964 back vowels are round. This equals 93,5%. However, it is more likely that “front rounded vowels” (ibid. 125) occur “than back unrounded” (ibid.) ones. The chart below also indicates that “[v]owels in the mid range are a little more common than high vowels” (ibid. 124), namely 1032 and 994 respectively. Low vowels, on the other hand, are significantly less frequent than the other two types with only 523 of the 2549 vowels in total.

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Fig. 2 Broad classification of types of vowels in UPSID (ibid.)

It should also be noted that the existence of a certain rare phenomenon like front rounded vowels implies the existence of the more common feature like front unrounded vowels. This means that “rounded front vowels do not occur unless unrounded front vowels of the same height occur” (ibid. 14) and in the UPSID, there are only 2 exceptions where this is not the case. Moreover, “[p]honeme inventories tend to be symmetric. If, for example, a language has a front unrounded vowel of a certain height such as e, it tends to have a corresponding back rounded vowel of the same height” (De Boer 8) as well.

In addition to that, the figures below clearly show that most languages have 5 vowels (with a probability of 21,5%) as well as 5 vowel qualities (30,9 %). The difference is that, for example, German /a:/ and /a/ are two different vowels but count as only one vowel quality as they only differ in length but not in tongue advancement, tongue height or lip rounding. It can be seen that most frequently a language has between 5 and 9 vowels as well as between 4 and 9 vowel qualities. Everything below or above those numbers can only rarely be found in the languages of the world.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

And even though there can be many different vowel qualities in the languages of the world, there are some that seem to be obligatory in vowel inventories. Figure 5 shows the most common vowel qualities that occur in the languages of the world and it is those three vowels “at the corners of the conventional vowel triangle /i, a, u/ [that] are the most widespread” (ibid. 125) as they occur in 91,5%, 88% and 83,9% of the languages respectively. The other vowels that are produced between the extremes of the triangle (high & front, high & back and low) are significantly rarer in the vowel inventories of the languages of the world. In addition to that, “higher vowels are usually more rounded than lower vowels” (Ladefoged 99).


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The Necessity of Comparing Vowel Systems for Teachers to Anticipate Learners’ Problems
A Contrastive Analysis of the Vowel Systems of Standard German, British English (RP), Argentine Spanish and Hanoi Vietnamese
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necessity, comparing, vowel, systems, teachers, anticipate, learners’, problems, contrastive, analysis, standard, german, british, english, argentine, spanish, hanoi, vietnamese
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Anonymous, 2021, The Necessity of Comparing Vowel Systems for Teachers to Anticipate Learners’ Problems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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