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I am a learner from China, and I'm always confused with sounds of /e/, /æ/, /aɪ/ and /ʌ/, no matter when I'm speaking or listening because all of them sound so much alike.

I find there are a few differences between British English and American English of these four sounds. The following sounds are what I found in https://dictionary.cambridge.org:

(click to listen)

bet: [UK] , [US]

bat: [UK] , [US]

bite: [UK] , [US]

but: [UK] , [US]

Especially the sounds of 'bat' and 'but' in British accent, which sound almost the same except for 'bat' is a little longer than 'but'. When people speak fast, there could be no difference if listeners don't have the context.

The most difficult sound for me is /æ/, I even don't know how to pronounce it. It sounds like a voice between /e/ and /ɑː/, but I'm really not able to say it correctly.

So, do you native speakers have any good suggestions for me? I would be very appreciated for your answers.

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    i see there's already an answer with a complicated-looking table that I don't even understand as a native... however - The differences between UK & US pronunciations of any of them are possibly greater than the differences between each vowel sound in a single accent. You might have to pick an accent to study; then later study another. They are really different. Only 'bite' is relatively similar between US & UK, the rest are vastly different. – Tetsujin Jun 26 '18 at 16:20
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    Note that even within Britain and the US, you'll find wide regional variations in pronunciation. Many people from the Southeastern US, for example, will pronounce "bit" and "bet" almost identically. In the Northeastern US, those words are much more distinct. – Canadian Yankee Jun 26 '18 at 16:29
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    North to South UK has massive differences too. Frankly, it's a mine-field. I once spent 2 weeks with an American friend travelling round the UK, through some of the 'big accent' areas & half the time he couldn't understand a word... & that's for a Native Speaker :0( I have a Japanese friend who learned my Northern accent by me 'not even attempting to slow down or pronounce correctly'. It took a few years. – Tetsujin Jun 26 '18 at 16:36
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They are all different sounds, you only have to get used to them.

/aɪ/ is a diphthong and it shouldn't be hard to tell it's different from the other sounds. There's a glide from /a/ to /ɪ/. You can distinguish two different phonemes.

It sounds like a voice between /e/ and /ɑː/

Remember /ɑː/ is a back vowel (the tongue is positioned back in the mouth), so you probably mean a sound between /e/ and /a/ (both front vowels). A sound between /e/ and /ɑ/ would sound really strange, since those two vowels are really different.

/ʌ/ is the only back vowel from those four you mentioned, the others are front vowels (your tongue is positioned in front in the mouth). Hovewer, the word "but" is usually pronounced with a schwa /ə/, when it's not a prominent word in a sentence.

When pronouncing /e/ your tongue should be closer to the roof of your mouth than when you pronounce the other vowels you mentioned, but not too close, or it will become an /i/

Check this chart. Imagine that's your mouth and you're looking to the left. Each vowel is in the position your tongue should be in order to pronounce them:

  • The distinction between phonology and phonetics is really important here. /aɪ/ is only a single phoneme; a diphthong is a single phoneme which starts at one place of articulation and ends at another. You can say there are two different phones, [a] and [ɪ], but the diphthong can't be split into /a/ and /ɪ/ phonemes. In fact, English has no /a/ phoneme, even though it does have the [a] sound as part of /aɪ/ and /aʊ/. – snailcar Jun 28 '18 at 12:54

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