165: What is the vocal tract?

From the lips to the throat and the nose down to the vocal cords.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 165th episode.

I talk a lot about the vocal tract when I am explaining how to create sounds. But what exactly is the vocal tract?

An illustration might be helpful during this episode, so I'll link to the Pronuncian.com Vocal Tract lesson so you can see an illustration of the vocal tract from this episode's transcript page. You can find all of our transcripts, including for the episodes we have translated into Spanish, by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast.

The vocal tract is really pretty big. From top to bottom, it begins at the nose and goes all the way down to our vocal cords deep in the throat. From front to back, it begins with the lips and goes all the way back to the back of the throat.

Let's explore this in a little more detail. We're only going to use consonant sounds as examples today because those are the easier sounds to "feel," and I want you to be able to feel all the parts of your vocal tract.

Let's begin with the lips. We use our lips to create the m sound, p sound, and b sound. Make a p sound with me and notice that the sound needs both lips to press together and then open again for the sound to occur:

(p sound, p sound)

Behind the lips, obviously, are the teeth. Some sounds, like the v sound and f sound require interaction between the lips and the teeth. To create these sounds, air is forced between the bottom lip and the the top front teeth. Listen to and repeat those two sounds:

v sound (v sound)
f sound (f sound)

Moving from the front of the front teeth to the backside of the front teeth, we can experiment with the th sounds. The way I recommend creating the voiced th and unvoiced th sound is by forcing air between the tip of your tongue and the backside of the top front teeth. Listen to and repeat these two sounds.

(voiced th, unvoiced th)

Behind the top front teeth there is a bony bump that you can feel with the tip of your tongue. This bump is called the tooth ridge, and there are a lot of sounds that are created by being very accurate with how close the tongue is to the front, middle, or back of this small space. The t sound, d sound, n sound, and even the l sound are created toward the front of the tooth ridge. The ch sound, j sound, s sound, and z sound are a a little farther back. The sh sound and zh sound are created when air is forced between the front of the tongue (but not the tip) and the back of the tooth ridge. With so many sounds using this small section of the vocal tract, it is no surprise that these sounds sometimes give English learner's some trouble!

I'll say the unvoiced of the "tooth ridge" sounds, the t sound, ch sound, s sound, and sh sound. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me so you can hear and feel these sounds:

t sound (t sound)
ch sound (ch sound)
s sound (s sound)
sh sound (sh sound)

Behind the tooth ridge is the hard palate. This is the highest part of the inside of the mouth. A lot of vowel sounds are distinct based on how close or far away the tongue is from the hard palate.

If you have a flexible tongue, you can reach way back and feel the soft palate behind the hard palate. There are three sounds that occur when the back of the tongue presses into the mushy soft palate: the g sound, k sound, and ng sound.

I'll say those sounds so you can repeat after me:

g sound (g sound)
k sound (k sound)
ng sound (ng sound)

Now if we move down deep into the throat we have the vocal cords. You can't really feel these sounds from the inside, but if you put two fingers against the front of your throat, you can feel them vibrate during voiced sounds.

Let's say the p sound and b sound again, and if your fingers are placed against the outside of your throat, you should be able to feel the difference on your fingers.

(p sound, b sound)

Could you feel the vibration during the b sound? If the sounds felt the same to you, you may have been adding an accidental vowel sound to the p sound, making it sound like "puh." If you do that, you'll feel the vibration of the vowel. I'll say the p sound and b sound again.

(p sound, b sound)

The last part of the vocal tract that we're going to play with is the nose. Yes, that does sound weird, but some sounds come out our nose.

I'd like you to say the m sound for a little bit. You have to hold your lips closed to say the m sound.

(m sound)

Now, I want you to hold you nose closed with your fingers and try to say the sound again.

(intentional pause)

If you're creating the m sound correctly, you can't make the sound with your nose held shut. Air needs to pass through your nose for the sound to occur at all. Sounds that come out our nose are called nasal sounds and we have three of them in English: the m sound, n sound, and ng sound.

So that's the whole vocal tract. It is important to know that parts of the vocal tract if you're trying to learn about pronunciation. The better you understand everything involved in creating sounds, the better you can learn to hear and compare your pronunciation with that of a native speaker.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy Digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.