How to identify long & short vowel sounds

Written by aksana nikolai
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The vowel sounds in the English alphabet are divided into two categories, long and short. Linguists sometimes refer to short and long vowels as "lax" and "tense", respectively. Language curriculum geared towards young children who are learning to read or ESL (English as a Second Language) students often emphasise long and short vowels. Understanding the difference between the two types of vowels and learning to identify them can help speakers to improve the accuracy of their pronunciation.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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  1. 1

    Listen for the difference in pronunciation between long and short vowels when you say words aloud. For example, hear the difference between the "a" sound in the words "acorn" and "hat." Examples of word pairs that demonstrate between other long and short vowels include "leaf/egg", "pine/picture", "cone/sock" and "flute/truck."

  2. 2

    Keep in mind that the difference between long and short vowels does not lie in the length of time required to pronounce the sound. While this condition is sometimes true, the difference actually lies in the position of the tongue as you pronounce different sounds. When pronouncing long sounds, you typically place the middle of your tongue against the roof of your mouth--the bony, hard portion of the inside of the top of the mouth. When producing short sounds, on the other hand, the middle of the tongue stays in a lower position.

  3. 3

    Remember that in transcriptions of English words, a single letter typically represents a short vowel sound. Two letters, meanwhile, tend to represent long vowel sounds. For example, the "o" sound in "cow" is transcribed as "/aw/". In "no", the "o" is transcribed as "/o/".

Tips and warnings

  • Long vowels tend to sound their names.

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