YES! This is it. I want to tell you what a consonant and a vowel REALLY is. You’re probably thinking that you know what they are. But fifty percent of people I ask can’t actually remember what they are, even if they learnt it at school a million years ago. And the other fifty percent define a consonant as, ‘not a vowel.’
That’s sweet, but it’s not a helpful definition.
With the right definition it can actually help you with your pronunciation and accent goals. Alright, so I’ll tell you my definition.
A consonant is a sound you make when your mouth touches itself. “HUH??” I hear you say. “It’s a what? when your mouth does what?”
Yes, a consonant is sound you make when your mouth touches itself. For example when your lips touch together you can produce /p/ /b/ /m/ /n/. When your teeth touch your lips you can produce /v/ /f/. When your tongue touches your teeth you get /th/. When your tongue touches the roof of your mouth you can get a /d/ or /t/ /k/.
So that must mean a vowel is the sound you make when your mouth DOESN’T touch itself. Yep. That’s it folks. aaaaaooooouuuiiiiioooeeee. Your mouth changes shape but it doesn’t touch itself.
Why is this definition important?
Because native English accents are defined by what I call ‘flow’. Think of a river flowing, or even better think of air flowing. Air flows through the house unless the windows and the doors block it. Well, your voice flows on breath or air. And when you close your mouth, or your tongue touches something you block the air flow. Your lips and your tongue are the windows and the doors. If you want your speech to flow and to sound like a native English accent then we need to keep the windows and the doors open to allow the air to flow!
Now here is the interesting bit. The consonants, or when the mouth touches itself, create blocks to that flow. Think about it. If you close your lips to produce a /p/ or /b/ then for a brief moment you restrict the air flow and block the smooth flow. This is what makes an accent sound foreign.
So I want you to relax your mouth muscles as much as you can and thereby soften the consonants and let the air flow. Vowels love the air flow. The more air flow the more beautiful the vowels sound. And also the more clear they sound.
A few exceptions
IF consonants are sounds we make when the mouth touches itself then what about /R/ /h/ /w/ ?? Good point. These guys I consider vowels. I’m such rebel, I know. I don’t care what you learnt at school. Im nothing if not a pragmatist. Yes, /r/ /h/ and /w/ do not require the mouth to touch itself but they are officially considered consonants. But as I said, for me it’s all about the flow. These guys don’t create blocks to the airflow, so for me they are functioning as vowels.
If you think of language this way then it can be enourmously helpful to understand how native English accent and pronunciation is functioning and to begin working to reduce your accent.
Let if flow or let it go.
All my best wishes to your success,
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