The Vowel Prism Effect: Using English to improve language pronunciation

Are foreigners dumb?

Are non-Americans crazy?

Or does this apply to foreign-exchange students here?

The silly foreigners that couldn’t pick up English?

Do you know the look people who can’t speak English well give after they’ve said something? Anything? It’s kind of a mix between uncertainty, asking a question, and waiting on the edge of their seat for your response.

And fear too, expressed in their face, if you can imagine it, with a tad of “please don’t make fun of me”.

But why are they scared to talk? English is the closest thing there is to an international language. Don’t these foreigners want to learn how to speak English properly? Is it laziness?

Sutiben can’t understand why Chinese friend struggles with this problem. It’s a fairly easy language. Heck, you can represent any foreign word with the Roman alphabet. 1

  • For Japanese, you have Romaji. Example: ねこ becomes “neko”
  • You have RR for Korean. Example: You write 사랑 as “salang”.
  • There’s Pinyin for Chinese. Example: For 妈妈, you’d write it as “māmā”.

Sutiben doesn’t get it. They have to be slow, right?

First instinct is to say yes but is that really the answer?

*shakes head hard*

English is an easy language to write and speak… if you grew up hearing it and using it to interact with other native speakers

The same thing happens with people from other countries and their native tongue.

Learning new languages: Everything always ends where it started

Today, sutiben will talk about a recent finding 2 that came across while thinking about own struggles to read and write in another language. Although unsure if it’ll be useful to anyone else. Kinda scared that everybody will just say, “Well, duh! That’s obvious”. 3

Anyway, can’t believe never thought of this before. Maybe this can help you. The idea hit suti in the head and made sutiben view the study of languages a bit differently.

⚛ o(。・д・。)o ⚛ suti began seeing light bulbs everywhere…

Think ‘tis a clue to:

  • Why had trouble learning the alphabet of other countries. *thinks back to Hiragana & Katakana before looking away*
  • The reason suti no like the Romanization of languages, mostly Korea’s Hangul.
  • How come Chinese T.A. 4 kept correcting suti’s way of talking Mandarin. And what’s more, years later Chinese guy friend did the same. hehe. Sutiben speaks Chinese like a Chinese speaks English.
  • Helps explain a lil’ bit on why immigrants can’t speak English correctly at times.

In Sutiben’s case, it’s been hard recognizing Asian symbols5 and that’s simply the writing system, it doesn’t include speaking.

Maybe ‘tis obvious but never heard anyone break it down like this and sutiben really wanna share it with you.

English done right: The revealing traces

Going back to foreign exchange students, they read English sentences assuming each letter has the same sound, the same way of speaking.

Chinese guy friend does this.

And if think back to old Japanese friends, think they too.

Quick, how would you say the word “whale” outloud?

Then what about “machine”? Try pronouncing it even if only in your mind.

Now, say “race”.

How about “war”?

Did you spot it?

Notice how all 4 words above contain the same letter ‘a’, yet if you go back and repeat them, ‘a’ has a completely different sound each time, no?

If you had no problems reading those words, chances are it’s second nature. You no longer think about this nuance since it’s second nature.

For foreigners though, it’s a battle. How do you know what ‘a’ sound to use? Where’s the clue? Nothing tells you how and when to pronounce certain words. Situation dictates how to speak.

If English is a second language to you, then you clearly know it’s a rather weird and inconsistent language. This is why it’s hard for non-Americans to follow along. So many variations and no one around to spell them out. It’s a pattern native speakers pick up and become familiar while growing up. No need to give it a second thought. It just makes “sense”.

Sutiben’s Vowel Prism: Uncover what you know but don’t hear

Photo by rjw1 of a chalk pyramid prism splitting light drawn on the ground

Of course, that’s not what sutiben discovered. In the span of a single day 6 sutiben pushed further and found that this pronunciation effect applies to all 5 vowels: a, e, i, o, & u.

More than that, there’s some order to the madness which suti calls the “Sutiben Vowel Prism

(*^_^*) *chest fills with air* Sutiben likes naming things. Makes suti feel like did something big.

What’s that?

It’s the idea that not only do English vowels carry many sounds depending on the word it’s in, but you can identify and group the different pronunciations.


Uh… just look below.

The many faces of the vowel “a”

Vowel ‘A’ pronunciationsExample words & phrases
“eh”As in whale, ware (kitchen ware), ale, brain, rare, away, waist, rain, maid, sail, male, wait, waiter, wail, etc
“aw”As in warp, wall, war, walrus, warranty, Walt Disney, raw, margarine etc
“aah”As in wag, wax, etc
“ei”As in rave, waste, wage, made, race, wager, awake, wane, wave, maven, radiant, rage, rake, make, rate, made, rape, razer, mage, etc
“uh”As in machine, arrange, etc
“ah”As in wand, sakura (similar to Japanese tattekudasai, kawaii & wakaru?)

The children of the vowel “e”

Vowel ‘E’ pronunciationsExample words & phrases
“ooh”As in new, sewers, etc
“eeh”As in redact, rebate, dream, recount, record, redistribute, rewind, refrain, meal, meat, meet, mean, measle, meow, meanie, money, tea, here, Nemo, see, seat, seer, reel, reef, etc
“eh”As in t-rex, wreck, record hit, red, ready, referee, regular, met, message, melon, smelly, mellow, next, Nevada, breast, hey, etc
“uh”As in herpes, her, etc
“oh”As in pummel, funnel, etc
“ei”As in Megan, meta tags, negative?, etc
“ih”As in market, naked, etc

The different shades of the vowel “i”

Vowel ‘I’ pronunciationsExample words & phrases
“ai”As in kite, kind, diner, etc
“eeh”As in kiwi, cookie, diva, chiwawa, Ichigo, kimono, etc
“ih”As in kick, kidding, kin, kiss, ship, dolphin, fish, etc

The split personalities of the vowel “o”

Vowel ‘O’ pronunciationsExample words & phrases
“oh”As in origami, yoyo, rode, robot, roll, Rome, rope, row, rotate, robe, hole, etc (Japanese otousan)
“ah”As in rod, yonder, rob, rock, rocket, rot, mob, nominate, mocking, mom, hockey, hop, hot, nod, etc
“uh”As in blood, money, hover, honey, none, ricochet?, etc
“ooh”As in movie, soup, oops, yoohoo, you, routine, roof, football, etc
“ao”As in cow, owie, loud, etc

The wild pronunciations of the vowel “u”

Vowel ‘U’ pronunciationsExample words & phrases
“ooh”As in nubian, nuke, nuclear, nude, annual, numeral, sumo, suit, sushi, Rukia, ruby, ruler, Uchiha, full, tofu, dufus, truce, etc
“uh”As in fun, fuss, nugget, number, supper, sucker, sum, rub, rubber, ruckus, truck, rug, uhm, yummy, mustard, mud, etc
“iooh”As in music, amuse, mundane?, mute, mural, musical, museum, fume, perfume, fumigate, fuse, future, futile, mu (μ symbol), etc
“euh”As in refurbish, fur, surreal, etc

The changing meaning of the Roman alphabet

Of course, these are all approximations and Sutiben still working to expand it but ‘tis a good start. Whereas before you might’ve believed all vowels had a simple pairing:

  • ‘a’ pronounced as ‘a’
  • ‘e’ pronounced as ‘e’
  • ‘i’ pronounced as ‘i’
  • etc.

You can now spot the nuances and what immigrants have to battle with.

Visually shows the Roman alphabet A and its different pronunciations

What does this all mean though?

English letters, vowels in particular, have different pronunciations depending on when you use them.

Like white light that hits a prism at an angle and disperses into a rainbow of colors, so too these alphabets. Each vowel strikes Sutiben’s prism to reveal the hidden sounds it carries.

The overlooked options.

The pattern.

This can help explain a bit why when you attempt reading new writing systems, like say the German sentence “Dies ist, warum Sie eine fremde Klang seiner eigenen Alphabet zuordnen müssen”, you always fall back to how you say it in your native tongue. You first try reading it with an American pronunciation. It’s all you know.

Your mind has already associated certain sounds to a symbol— German uses the same Roman alphabet more or less as in English— and instinctively applies them whenever it sees it even though it’s not the same.

Sutiben was so happy when first discovered the many sounds vowels have.


Because didn’t learn it from a book or a teacher! Only realized English vowels had different sounds when couldn’t say some foreign words correctly and investigated.

*nods* Believe it or not, took long time to organize and understand them.

^^ *covers mouth* hehe. Sutiben’s Vowel Prism. That’s the best name ever.

The power of the letter: How to use this to your advantage?

What this vowel prism should make extra clear is how much information the alphabet contains and the burden placed on your brain to remember the changing circumstances. ‘Tis like an atomic bomb! ☢ ‘Tis overloaded.

  • Does today the letter ‘e’ go with the “eeh” pronunciation? Or was that ‘ei’?
  • What of the letter ‘u’ now? Is it ‘ooh’, ‘uh’, or ‘iooh’?
  • Can you imagine reading a long word with multiple vowels?
  • Forget that. Think of how long a normal sentence tends to be and the number of words inside.
  • Now put yourself in a conversation with someone who talks quickly.

*wipes forehead* Whew. That’s a lot of work just thinking about it.

Sutiben know what you thinking: “How does this teach me to pick up new languages?”

Well, if English is your goal, how this helps should be obvious.

But if you’re going after a second language, knowing how your native language works a bit— English inconsistencies in this case– goes a long way. Before you can study something new, you must understand the old. 7 This is a good step towards that.

You can also add the sounds you do wanna learn from the foreign tongue onto the charts. Compare them and see where they fit. Maybe you find a pattern of your own.

Sutiben sure you can find more ways how this helps. There is, however, an important takeaway that this information points to. A danger. A pitfall when acquiring languages. One sutiben fell on. Think about it. No sure if made it too subtle. For now, all will say is this: How good of an idea can it be to use Roman alphabets to teach a new language?

In the meantime, what other unique vowel sounds and/or example English words can you come up with? Will add suggestions to make charts above more complete.

You: Hey. Hey! I have a question.
Sutiben: er?
You: How qualified are you to speak on this topic?
Sutiben: What do you mean?
You: How many languages do you know? Are you certified to teach? Do you have training? Are you at least a linguistics major?
Sutiben: uhm… *looks left. looks right. Then runs away as quickly as possible* ─=≡Σ((( つ•̀ω•́)つ eeeeeeh.
You: …

Credits: svartedauden, desene_aerograf, rjw1

  1. Think they officially call it Latin script… not that sutiben really knows. ↩︎

  2. Although recently made the connections in the past weeks, sutiben been thinking about the problem of writing and speaking since summer of 2012. Just took a long time to connect the dots. hehe sutiben a lil’ slow. Just no tell anyone, k? ↩︎

  3. There was this one time where *whispers* Sutiben asked a question and after getting his answer, he then gave a look that said, “Why are you asking about this? This is so simple. You’re supposed to know this by now. Can’t believe you’re even here if you’re asking about that.” Then he stood up and left. As he did, suti saw he was trying to hide smirk. He so thought suti was dumb. T.T ↩︎

  4. *quickly stares at the floor* (●´∀`)つ ↩︎

  5. Only tried hand with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Eh… no think too much of suti for trying to learn many languages. There’s a reason for that and mostly because keep failing and moving to the next one. ^^; ↩︎

  6. T.T k… ‘twas many weeks. Happy? ↩︎

  7. Sutiben the philosopher. If you think suti smart, these tricks are working on you. hehe ↩︎


Hello! I don't know how old

Hello! I don’t know how old this webpage is, so I don’t know if this will be useful to you at all, but try checking out the pronunciation pages of dictionaries. As a native english speaker, I’ve never had much need for them, but I’ve always wanted to learn, and it’ll help any unsure pronunciations.
For example, ‘Whale’ would be written /weɪl/ phonetically, which is like ‘Pail’ /peɪl/, ‘Scale’ /skeɪl/, and ‘Fail’ /feɪl/.
You can find the index at the British English Oxford online dictionary, and the little speaker next to the phonetic spellings of the words will sound the word out.
It’s a lot of work for a little gain, but if pronunciation is as critical as you say in your wonderful article, then it should at the very least be useful!

{ノ。⊍_⊍。}ノ That... that's just

{ノ。⊍_⊍。}ノ That… that’s just confusing. suti no can even type some of those symbols. What does ʤ, ʒ, ə, ɔɪ even mean? It’s like trying to read an even harder language. hehe.

That looks like something complex only linguists would come up… for linguists, not normal people. Head hurts just looking at dictionaries. They usually no help.

Sutiben be better if stick with own ugly tables. It looks like how it should sound. ^____^

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