When learning Japanese, I didn't often get words wrong, but it felt like when I did, it was the vowels I got wrong, not the consonants. As background, I learnt Japanese using romaji for a while, but then used hiragana, katakana and a little bit of kanji.

I used to mispronounce the "ei" vowel combination as I wasn't taught about the combination, but usually it was mis-remembering which vowel a word used, possibly because many Japanese words are so foreign to English in terms of what vowels they use where. Also, there were kana where I could recall which consonant they were, but not which vowel.

While learning the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, although a few consonants were tricky, vowels seemed to be the most work in terms of defining.

Is it something that just affects me? Or is it a more general problem? If so, why are vowels more difficult? Is it because of the languages I'm learning, or is it to do with my native language of English and how horribly unphoenetic it is?

  • There is a lot on this subject. Can you narrow it down a little? For example, english has between 10 and 15 vowel sounds (not including diphthongs) depending on where you live. Interestingly enough, all of the vowels in Japanese are in the set of vowels in English, but the anticipatory co-articulation related to the vowel's environment changes how it sounds. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 22:38
  • @callyalater I've added a bit of detail.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 22:54
  • Did you learn English using Phonics? This method has been used in US grade schools over the years. Personally I think it helps avoid the problems you mention.
    – user3169
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 0:14
  • @user3169 I've spent most of my life in Australia, and finished high school in 1997. (I worked for one year in the US, but I didn't even pick up an American accent while living there). Here's what's said about phonics in Australia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonics#Phonics_in_Australia
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 1:33
  • Were you taught phonics in elementary school? If you were, I think you would remember it. Also, could you add some actual words that concern you?
    – user3169
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 2:52

1 Answer 1


Linguistically, it isn't particularly helpful or entirely valid to only consider either vowels or consonants independently without any consideration of the context in which they appear. (Yes, some may argue that the IPA is a list of distinctive sounds that occur in natural language, but there is a huge section of diacritics that alter how those sounds are made.)

There is an important concept in language (whether learning, using, creating, &.) that morphs our pronunciation. It is called Coarticulation. There are two main kinds of coarticulation: anticipatory and carryover/perseverative. This is something that we cannot escape from in language. The central concept behind coarticulation is that we cannot isolate individual sounds from their environments. We either prepare for the next sounds (anticipatory) or characteristics of one sound are carried over to the next (perseverative).

Anticipatory Coarticulation

The sounds that precede another sound (usually a consonant) are affected by those following sounds (either in the same word or in the next word, known as liason). In this case, we prepare for the next sound by modifying the current sound. (One of my linguistics professors said this was the most common form of coarticulation, but I cannot remember the source he quoted.)

An example. In English, take the words "high" and "hue". Notice the position of your mouth when saying "high". The initial /h/ is open and unobstructed because it is preparing for the open unrounded /ai/ that is to follow. But when you say "hue", your tongue comes up to the top of your mouth and prepares for the /j/ (y-sound) that comes after it. Which one of these "h"s is the real "h"? They both are, but their pronunciation is affected by preparing for the subsequent sounds.

Though English has one of the richest vowel systems (and its vowels contain the vowels of most other languages), it does not have all of the consonants that would change how those vowels are pronounced (advanced tongue root, retracted tongue root, centralized, &c), nor does it have all the features of other languages that are applied to vowels or consonants (like breathy voice, creaky voice, rhoticity [English actually has this one], nasalization, more/less rounding, &c.). This makes the topic of vowels and consonants very difficult across languages.

It is ultimately wrong to only consider vowels and consonants as being "fixed" or "static" because they change so much across cultures, regions, languages, and dialect. Fully embracing and learning to pronounce all of the "vowels" and "consonants" of a language will lead to you naturally utilizing coarticulation to morph the sound into the correct one. In Chinese, when I learned the palatalized and retroflexed consonants as well as the /y/ sound, I realized that I naturally started pronouncing the words better and the Taiwanese people noticed. So, learn the sounds independently, yes. But practice them together with other sounds and you will find it helps your overall pronunciation.

  • So does this mean that vowel sounds are more difficult for English speakers (than speakers of other languages, I guess)?
    – Flimzy
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 19:16

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