One Easy Change to Sound More Fluent in English

English has many vowels that are not present in other world languages. Take for example the difference between /u/, as is found in words like “boot”, “Luke”, and “food”, and compare it with /ʊ/, which is found in words like “book”, “look”, and “foot”. Have you ever wondered how English speakers make these sounds? Then you’ve come to the right place!

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN /u/ AND /ʊ/?

The /u/ sound is common in many languages around the world, and chances are you have some variation of it in your own language. /ʊ/ — not so much! So if you find this sound difficult, you are NOT alone! But don’t worry, we are going to walk through how you make these sounds.

If you read my previous post about the vowels /i, ɪ, ɛ, and æ/, you’ll remember I talked about noticing how open or closed your jaw is, with

  • /i/ and /ɪ/ = high jaw position
  • /ɛ/ = mid jaw position 
  • and /æ/ = low jaw position

What position is your jaw for the /u/ sound? If you guessed high, then you are correct! Also notice that the lips are round. These rounded lips are a key feature of pronouncing /u/!

For /ʊ/, the jaw position is high like /u/, but the lips are more relaxed and less round than they are for /u/.

We talk about jaw height because we don’t want to drop the jaw down for /ʊ/ — otherwise you’ll end up with more of an “uh” sound (written as /ʌ/).

Saying “I have a thousand books” (high jaw position) is VERY different from saying “I have a thousand bucks” (mid jaw position)!!!

LET’S PRACTICE!

Try saying the following word groups, remembering the following:

  • /u/. High jaw position, rounded lips
  • /ʊ/. High jaw position, relaxed lips
  • /ʌ/. Mid jaw position, relaxed lips

 

  • Luke — /u/
  • Look — /ʊ/
  • Luck — /ʌ/

 

  • Boot — /u/
  • Book — /ʊ/
  • Buck — /ʌ/

 

  • Shoot — /u/
  • Should — /ʊ/
  • Shut — /ʌ/

 

Alright, can you now hear, see, and feel the difference? If so and you want to practice making these sounds, I usually recommend starting small with the individual sounds, then building your way up to short words then sentences.

Try these in front of a mirror so you can watch that your jaw stays high and that your lip shape changes from round for /u/ to relaxed for /ʊ/

 

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH WORDS ARE /u/ OR /ʊ/?

One final question I often get from my students about these sounds is “How do I know when to use which sound? You said that “boot” is pronounced with an /u/ sound, and that “book” is pronounced with an /ʊ/ sound, but both are spelled “oo”! What’s going on?”

Unfortunately, as you may have learned or will come to learn with continued practice in English pronunciation, you CANNOT trust spelling.

My two biggest tips are to:

  1. Listen closely to native speakers. Now that you know there is a difference and how we as English speakers make the difference in terms of how they sound and look, you should now be better able to identify which sound to use when
  2. Look at the pronunciation guide in most English dictionaries. Did you ever notice that they use funny symbols? They often use what is called the International Phonetic Alphabet, which allows us to clearly write each individual sound of a word given that unfortunately English spelling is not reliable! Look and see if the dictionary writes /u/ or /ʊ/ in the pronunciation guide — this will tell you for sure which one to use in which words!

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