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Something you may not know


Referent Vowels

I don’t want to sound like a smarty-pants, but I asked friends and colleagues if they had heard of referent vowels and nobody had. For that reason, I assume many of you don’t know about them either.


Research has discovered that vowel discrimination is often asymmetric. This means that discriminating a vowel change in one direction is easier compared to discriminating the same vowels in the reverse direction. For example, both Danish infants and adults are more accurate when discriminating a change from /I/ to /i/, bit to beat compared to the reverse direction of change from /i/ to /I/. This bias is found across language groups and is believed to be a universal bias rather than an effect of language- specific attunement. This discovery led to a new conceptual framework for understanding vowel perception: the Natural Referent Vowel Framework.


If you want to know the how and why of this you can start here:

Natural referent vowels guide the development of vowel perception by Polka, Bohn and Molnar. From: The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America · April 2005 DOI: 10.1121/1.4785978


The article discusses a study done on Danish speakers. It talks about formats, and frequencies, focalization and such things. A little technical but understandable. The main point is that certain vowels appear to be universal across all natural languages, and these vowels act as anchors when learning the language. The vowels on the outer edge of the chart below are the referent vowels. The idea is that these vowels are learned first and anchor the learning of more nuanced, language specific vowels. Listeners can distinguish vowels easier if the discrimination task begins with the central vowels and moves to the outside. Importantly, findings suggest that the vowel perception biases observed in infancy resurface in second language learners as they learn the vowels of a new language.



The importance of contrasting the sounds should be clear. If teaching the /i/ sound of English, for example, the teacher can say wit, sit, hit a million times and it will do no good. Students cannot hear the sound. Sounds have to be contrasted to become salient. What the existence of referent vowels implies is that teaching the contrast will be more effective if you move in the direction of the arrows. This optimizes perception.


If you are not sure what vowel is more central, cover all bases. Contrast the sounds in both directions. Beat / bit;  bit / beat. It is also good to put the sounds into various phonetic environments.


An short example is at:



This is what b4 does.

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