How to make the diphthongs of English

How to make the Sounds of English no 27: Diphthongs

Diphthong: The name comes from Greek di = double, phthong = sound. You can pronounce it either /ˈdifθɒŋ/ or /ˈdipθɒŋ/. A diphthong consists of two vowels joined together by gliding from the first vowel to the second, and this is the clue to how to make the diphthongs of English.

Here are the 8 diphthongs in Standard British English:

Two finish on /ʊ/:    /ǝʊ/ as in hope    /aʊ/ as in town

Three finish on /ɪ/:   /eɪ/ paid   /ɔɪ/ boy    /aɪ/ time

Three finish on /ǝ/:   /ɪǝ/ here   /ʊǝ/ sure   /eǝ/ hair

You can see that the symbol for each diphthong consists of the symbols for the two component vowels:

/ǝ/ + /ʊ/ = /ǝʊ/     /e/ + /ɪ/ = /eɪ/   /ɪ/ + /ǝ/ = /ɪǝ/     etc

Notice too that the individual vowels already exist as monophthongs on their own. The chart shows the diphthongs in the top right of the chart, using the same symbols as their component monophthongs in the top left of the chart

To watch a demonstration and explanation of how to make the diphthongs of English click here, choose videos 24, and 25 (each 3 minutes)

A diphthong forms a single phoneme

Each diphthong forms a single phoneme and therefore occupies one box on the chart. And a diphthong typically has a duration similar to the length of a long vowel like /ɑː/ or /uː/. The first sound (first element) of a diphthong tends to be more energised or prominent than the second

Teaching diphthongs

Listen and repeat is the best known technique. I’m sure you are familiar with that. For several reasons I think it is ineffective as a main learning strategy. Instead I use three other more powerful techniques for teaching how to make the diphthongs of English which give the learners a richer experience of internally processing a sound. I call these: Sliding, Miming and Inner Imaging

1.. Sliding

The student makes the diphthong from the two monophthings: Example /ǝʊ/ hope. The learners say the first vowel /ǝ/ and slide slowly to the second vowel /ʊ/.    /ǝ à ʊ/. This means going into slow motion and allowing the in-between passing sounds to emerge as well. This sliding technique draws attention to the two-sound nature of diphthongs, and gives insight into the muscular movement of tongue, lips and jaw. It gives students a way to build diphthongs from the component monophthongs which they already know. In this way a diphthong is not necessarily a new sound, and you don’t really teach it, but help them to build it. And this is fun to do.

2.. Miming

The student watches the teacher who mimes (or mouths) the diphthong – ie makes the mouth movement visible but does not voice it. Mime draws attention to the lip and jaw movement, and to some extent to the tongue position. This works very well for diphthongs since the slide from first to second vowel involves a strong visible movement, and by watching the physical clues learners explore and discover for themselves what to do in their mouths. I also use gesture to support the mime and to highlight length and tongue position.

To watch a demonstration and explanation of this technique, click here and choose video 26

3.. Inner Imaging

Teacher says the sound, and the students do not repeat it aloud, but repeat it silently, internally in the inner ear. This is my preferred alternative to listen and repeat, and it’s more like listen, listen internally, rehearse internally, and only then say it aloud. This technique requires learners to use the inner ear, and to process the sound internally before trying to say it aloud by activating the muscles. This deals with the problem that the muscles are are conditioned to L1 sounds, because internal listening takes place before activating the muscles. Another benefit is that If learners hear the new sound internally it creates a strong impression, and then when they say it aloud they can hear the difference between what they say and the internal representation, and they can judge that difference and then try again.. After a moment you can offer to say the new diphthong once again using the same procedure. And this time they will listen to it slightly differently since they already know something about it….

I find that this approach to how to make the diphthongs of English is more powerful, creative and memorable than straight repetition after the teacher. But try it and see what you think.

In the next post I will describe a teaching sequence for each of these three techniques Sliding, Miming and Inner Imaging

Remember: Enjoy diphthongs! They are easier than many people think because they are visible and physical and have the characteristic slide between two vowel sounds.

* Footnote   The symbol /aʊ/ as in town is composed of /a/ and /ʊ/ but the symbol /a/ does not appear as a separate monophthong on the left of the chart. it’s the same the diphthong /aɪ/ as in time. Phoneticians (not me!) designing the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) chose the symbol /a/ as the starting point for /aɪ/ high, and /aʊ/ how. In my view the difference between /a/ and /ʌ/ is phonetic, and not phonemic, and therefore of interest to language scientists but not relevant to language learners and teachers.

When designing the chart I retained the symbols /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ as these are used in the dictionary. So when teaching I use /ʌ/ as the starting point for the glide /aʊ/ I make the diphthong like this /ʌʊ/. It functions just the same. I do the same thing with the diphthong /aɪ/ time. So I slide from /ʌ/ to /ɪ/ making the diphthong like this /ʌɪ/.