What are vowels and consonants?

When we speak, we produce a continuous stream of sounds. Unlike writing, it can be hard to identify where each sound or word starts and ends, as sounds affect each other.

Sounds are divided into two sets: vowels and consonants.

Vowels are sounds produced without any blockage or constriction in the mouth, like a e i o u etc. Consonants are made by blocking or restricting the airflow through the mouth by using the tongue, lips or teeth, like m th j g h z l etc. Consonants are the solid blocks with which words and phrases are built, held together by the vowels.

Sounds are represented in the writing system by letters, but in English there is not always a direct correspondence between sounds and letters, so you can’t rely on spelling to help with how words are pronounced.

Why are vowels and consonants important?

Vowels and consonants are the fundamentals of pronunciation. If your pronunciation of particular sounds is not clear or consistent, it can make things difficult for people who listen to you. They have to work harder to understand you, and there is more chance of misunderstanding.

Why are vowels and consonants difficult?

Most non-native speakers of English have trouble with specific sounds or sound patterns that are not found in their own language. Speakers tend to rely on the pronunciation rules of their own language, which may be very different from English, and can make it harder to understand.

Common errors include:

  • replacing a difficult sound with a sound from your own language
  • leaving sounds out

While individual sounds are important, pronouncing all of them correctly is probably not the most essential part of pronunciation. If other aspects of pronunciation are used effectively, listeners can often understand the meaning even if some sounds are not pronounced as expected.

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