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Difference Between Long and Short Vowels in English & How to Pronounce “Kim”

Let’s talk about something very important to me: how to pronounce my name, Kim!

Many non-native English speakers struggle with the name “Kim” because it contains a short vowel.

I recently received this question from Serg from Russia:

I’ve listened a lot of teachers in the internet, but I still can not hear any difference between short “i” and long “ee.” They seem to be sounding the same. No difference at all. How short is short? And how long is long? When you say “Kim” quietly it sounds like a short “i.” But try to say your name very loudly so that I can hear you from 100 meters and it becomes longer like “ee.” For Russian speaking people there is only one sound similar [to the] English “i” or “ee.” It can sound short or long, quiet or loud, stressed or unstressed but it is always the same sound.

Vowel sounds can be ridiculously confusing.

If you’re only paying attention to how long you hold the vowel sound, you’re not going to hear much of a difference between long and short vowels, as Serg observes above.

The situation gets more complicated because similar-sounding vowel sounds are produced differently in various languages. You may get close, but not close enough.

On top of that, when we distinguish between long and short vowel sounds, we don’t actually worry about their length.

Instead, we need to focus on the shape of your mouth and how this affects your pitch.

Pay Attention to How Your Mouth Moves When Saying Vowel Sounds

To distinguish between the short “i” and long “ee,” pay attention to how my mouth moves in the video above.

When I say “Kim,” my mouth does not open very much.

To produce the short sound “i,” my jaw drops a little bit and my mouth is more closed than it would be for a long vowel sound.

Keeping your mouth relatively closed is what creates a “short” vowel sound.

If you watch closely, my mouth stays closed for the vowel sound and only moves in order to produce the “m” sound, which requires a more open mouth position.

When you produce long vowel sounds, you need to shape the sound by creating an off-glide that affects your pitch. Learn how to shape the long vowel sounds here.

Let’s compare the short “i” and the long “ee.” Once again, notice how my mouth is moving.

When I say the long vowel “ee,” I create a “v” shape with my mouth, like I would to say the “y” sound.  As I pronounce the vowel sound, my mouth moves obviously.

For example, let’s practice the word “see.” As I say the vowel, my mouth moves open into a “v,” and then closes back down when the sound is over.

It’s this shaping on the vowels that creates the long vowel sounds.

You Need to Open and Close Your Mouth to Produce Long Vowel Sounds

Your mouth starts moving into an open position, and then it closes again. Watch carefully.

You need this shape in order to create the pitch variation so that you can hear the difference on the stressed syllable.

This “off-glide” shaping makes long vowels easy to identify for native speakers.

Let’s compare the word “seem” with “Kim,” let’s consider the word “seem.” When I say “seem,” my mouth opens up to the full expression of the vowel, and closes down on the consonant “m.”

You can hear a clear difference between the vowel sounds in “Kim” and “seem” because of how this mouth movement shapes your pitch.

It’s especially obvious when you use the words in a sentence: “Kim is my name” and “It doesn’t seem right.” On the long vowel sound “ee,” my mouth opens a little more.

Why Holding a Vowel Longer Can Help You

In order to distinguish between the short vowel sound and the long vowel sound, I often encourage non-native speakers to really hold the long vowel sound for a little bit longer (until it feels slightly uncomfortable).

This isn’t because long vowel sounds need to be so much longer in duration than the short ones.

Instead, this extra time gives your mouth time to fully shape the vowel.

You need a little more space to be able to create that shape on long vowels by opening and then closing your mouth.

When you say a short vowel like in the word “Kim,” the sound appears to be shorter because your mouth is not moving as much.

As you watch the video, pay attention to how my mouth is moving.

That’s what’s going to create the difference in sound between the short and long vowels.

Why People Mispronounce My Name

Without this shaping, the “i” and “ee” sounds appear to be the same.

As I mention in this article and video on long vowel sounds, many languages have “pure” vowels that don’t include this vowel shaping.

They also don’t have short vowel sounds. 🤷

This is why so many non-native speakers pronounce my name “Keem.”

When I lived in South America, many people called me “Keem.”

Obviously, I understood that they were calling me by name, but I was most touched when people made an effort to pronounce my name correctly.

I’m sure you can relate!

I often feel bad when I’m saying names that aren’t familiar to me on video because I want to make sure to pronounce your name correctly.

If you live your life in another language, you get used to people mispronouncing your name.

Although I don’t mind when people say “Keeeem,” my name is actually “Kim” with the short vowel sound.

When people say “Keeeem” with the long vowel sound, it’s cute! I know that they probably speak a Romance language and that’s the way the pure vowel would be produced.

(Don’t feel bad if you’ve been saying my name wrong! 😜)

Your Turn

So I hope this helps you understand the difference in the mouth shape that you need to produce the short vowel in “Kim” and the long vowel in “seem.”

It may seem hard to believe, but this simple shaping creates a noticeable pitch variation that will help you produce the appropriate vowel sound!

For more guidance on how to stress and shape your vowels, be sure to sign up for my free email course, Sound More Natural in Just Five Days. This email course will help you understand the importance of stressed syllables and how to increase your understanding of vowel sounds so that you can produce those stressed syllables more accurately.

If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!

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