Popenoe Method

The Art of Pronunciation


The Popenoe Method - Element #1 - Vowels

Vowels are open sounds, which means the voice flows freely through the mouth without being blocked or obstructed in any way. The mouth is like a tunnel, and as the voice flows through it, we change the shape of the tunnel with our jaw, tongue, and lips to form the sound of each vowel. In English there are two primary types of vowels, "pure" vowels, made by one mouth position that produces one vowel sound, and "diphthong" vowels, which move from one vowel sound to another as the mouth position changes.

The English alphabet has five written vowels, A-E-I-O-U, but quite a few more spoken vowels, so written English cannot be an accurate guide to pronunciation. For example, the English letter "O" is pronounced five different ways, as in
hot, love, soft, home, do. To speak English well, it's essential to use a phonetic alphabet guide, which provides a different written symbol for every vowel and consonant sound, giving you a way to learn and notate the correct pronunciation of any word.

Some languages don't require a great deal of movement in certain areas of the mouth; the jaw may not open wide, or the lips don't move very much. Good sounding English, however, requires flexibility, control, and precise articulation of the muscles in and around the mouth. Our exercises are designed to bring consciousness and control to all areas of the mouth required to pronounce English well.

The Popenoe Method - Element #2 - Consonants

Whereas vowels are open sounds, consonants are closed sounds, produced by various kinds of contact between the "articulators" (tongue, teeth, and lips) that block and release the flow of breath and voice, or restrict them to create friction.

Some languages are constructed from fixed consonant-vowel units, so there's no reason to separate them, but English consonants and vowels combine in many different ways, so we have to learn each one separately.

There are twenty-four consonants in English. Sixteen consonants form eight pairs called "cognates," each pair made with the same physical technique, the difference being that one consonant is made with the breath alone (unvoiced), and the other is made with the voice (voiced).

Foreign language speakers often pay more attention to vowels, because they are the moving center of every syllable and word, but in English, it's important to pronounce consonants correctly, and understand how voiced and unvoiced consonants affect the rhythm and flow of speech. Did you know that a vowel will be longer or shorter depending on whether the consonant following it is voiced or unvoiced? Understanding this simple rule will make a significant difference in how natural your English sounds.

We naturally think of opening our mouth to speak, but are you aware that there are 3 consonants that require opening the air passage through the nose? These are called Nasal consonants.

Learning the consonants is just as important as learning the vowels.

The Popenoe Method - Element #3 - Rhythm

Consonants and vowels are the basic sound elements of English, joining together to form syllables, which join together to form words. The movement of one syllable to the next creates rhythm, and as words flow together in speech, they form various consistent and recurring patterns based on the linguistic structure of English. Speech moves quickly, so rather than focusing on each word individually, we rely on these familiar patterns of rhythm and word structure to help us catch the meaning.

English vowels and the syllables they form can be larger or smaller, longer or shorter, stressed or unstressed. This gives English more rhythmic contrast than many other languages, making the correct use of rhythm more critical.

To accentuate rhythmic contrast even more, in English we have a small, neutral vowel called Schwa, which has no specific shape or sound. It's purpose is to make a short, fast, rhythmic space between consonants. Schwa can take the place of any regular vowel in a reduced syllable.

As an example, say the word
banana. Notice that the first syllable is short and fast, the second syllable is longer and stressed, and the third syllable is short and fast again. It looks like this: banana

Try more words with the same rhythm; ● ▬ ●
Connection, condition, impatient, exciting, mistaken, together
Remember, the first and last syllables should be as small and quick as you can make them.

This may be surprising, but Schwa is the most common vowel in English, and occurs in almost every word and sentence. Learning which syllables are full and accented, which are reduced and small, and the common rhythm patterns they form is essential to make your English sound more natural, and be easy to understand.

The Popenoe Method - Element #4 - Connection

Why are some foreign English accents described as broken or choppy, compared to the sound of native English? One reason is that people often separate words when it's difficult to connect them by unconsciously breaking the voice stream. Stopping and starting your voice often, creates a choppy effect.

Some languages are made from single consonant-vowel units which connect one after the other smoothly.
The vocabulary of English, however, results in "consonant clusters", both within and between words, where two, three, and even more consonants are connected to each other, and pronouncing these smoothly can be a challenge for non-native speakers.

Some examples:
small vase XXjazz technique XXWhat's the last name? XXSend these clients fresh flowers.

When consonants are connected, there should be no open space between them. Any open space between consonants will act like a vowel sound and create another syllable, which changes the rhythm of the phrase, making it possibly hard to understand.

In order to create natural sounding speech, words should be linked together smoothly, and your voice-stream should continue through all the words in a phrase, without stopping or breaking.

There are various techniques that will help you connect your words smoothly, but one simple and effective way is to imagine singing the phrase or sentence, which will automatically connect the words more naturally. Think of speech as a kind of singing, with a different melody. Often, this is enough to help you understand how to connect the words in a more natural way. Try it and see.

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About Joshua Popenoe