What Color Do You Hear?

February 13, 2018 by admin

The idea of ‘hearing’ a color — or coloring a sound, for that matter– may seem foreign at first, but think about it: what better way to explore the spectrum of vowel quality than through the spectrum of color?

I hear RED… or is it GRAY?

Take the word egg, for example. Say it. What Color is the vowel sound? For me (I’m from California), egg is RED. For my co-author Shirley (who’s from Michigan), egg is GRAY. Which one of us is right?

You guessed it: We’re both right.

See, we’ve designed the Color Vowel® Chart to mirror the continuum of jaw, tongue, and lip movement precisely so that we can convey the ‘rightness’ of accent variation: if you say egg as GRAY and I say it as RED, we still understand each other without a hitch. But change the vowel to BLUE or ROSE, and egg is egg no longer.

As another example, consider the word want. For me, want is MUSTARD. For my colleague from Vermont, it is OLIVE. Should we be worried? Won’t we confuse our students if I tell them one thing and she tells them another?

Worry not. Look at the Color Vowel® Chart and you’ll notice something:

See how GRAY and RED share borders? True also for MUSTARD and OLIVE. The Chart supports accent variation, allowing teacher and learner alike to explore accent differences visually. After all, our learners aren’t limited to the spoken English we present to them; they encounter all kinds of accents outside of class, and the Color Vowel Chart provides them with a way to identify what they’re hearing and align their own pronunciation to the sounds of English.

Back to the basics

Regardless of proficiency level or L1 background, all English learners need to be let in on the secret: English is a stress-based language, and without effective placement of stress, even the most advanced learner’s speech can be rendered incomprehensible. By adopting just two Color Vowel questions into their daily learning routines, learners can make significant gains in comprehensibility:

1) Which syllable is stressed (in this word or phrase)?
2) What ‘color’ is it? (i.e. what is the vowel sound at the heart of the stressed syllable)?

As a quick example, look at what happens to the words molecule and photograph, and how they ‘change colors’ as they change word form:

  • molecule – OLIVE
  • molecular – RED
  • photograph – ROSE
  • photographer – OLIVE
  • photographic – BLACK


The Color Vowel Chart provides us with an easy way to talk about how words behave.

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