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As an intermediate English learner, when I talk to my American friends, sometimes they will misunderstand my [ɛ] and [e] sounds. For example, measure mistaken for major, pepper for paper, and for end ... etc.

What can I do to ensure that [ɛ] and [e] are easily differentiable?

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    As Ross notes, this question would be much easier to answer if we know your language background. With knowledge of your mother tongue, we could potentially give specific examples that relate between it and English. – Jonathan Garber May 9 '14 at 14:55
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    The right way is fix this is to imitate the way your friends pronounce them. A quick fix I can think of at the moment is to make the length of duration clear. Most dictionaries would make it clear that it's /eɪ/ not just /e/ in paper, while it's only /ɛ/ in pepper. So making the /eɪ/ sound longer than /ɛ/ should help. A more complicated fix is to get to know tense & lax vowels and diphthongs. They can help your pronunciation! – Damkerng T. May 9 '14 at 15:28
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I think this is a good audio example:

Paper: http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=paper

vs.

Pepper: http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=pepper&submit=Submit

A tip would probably be easier to provide if we knew what your mother tongue is.

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My mother language is Chinese.

According to the Chinese vowel diagram on Wikipedia, Mandarin Chinese includes the vowels:

  • ㄝ (IPA [ɛ]), as in ㄧㄝˋ (夜, night). This is the same as the first e [ɛ] in English pepper.
  • ㄟ (IPA [ei̯]), as in ㄌㄟˋ (累, tired). This is similar to the a [eɪ] in English paper.

(Disclaimer: I don't speak Chinese, and can't vouch for the accuracy of the above.)

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Like Damkerng T. says, the American English [e] is actually more-or-less a [ei] or [ɛi] diphthong. So, for practice sake, try wedging in an explicit [i] (as in the word "bee") after the [e] and smooshing it into it. That is, try pronouncing "paper" as [pɛi-pɛr] and major as [mɛi-jɛr]. You might start by making it three syllables [pɛ-i-pɛr], and then try running them together.

  • @snailplane Wait, is the American "a" in paper [ei] or [eɪ]? I thought it was [ei]. (I'm from Boston, if it matters.) (Thanks for the rest of the IPA!) – Codeswitcher May 10 '14 at 18:36
  • Every online dictionary I've seen has it as [eɪ], even though it sounds more like [ei] to my Houstonian ears. – dan04 May 10 '14 at 19:01
  • @Codeswitcher what's the difference between [ei] and [eɪ]? Is [eɪ] the same as [ej]? – Anixx Dec 27 '14 at 11:11
  • @Anixx I think all three are supposed to be different, but I'd be hard pressed to differentiate [ei] and [ej]. As an aside, amusingly, I just discovered that on the wikipedia page for IPA, "IPA" is written in IPA, the the last is written as [eɪ], so I'm willing to concede the point! – Codeswitcher Dec 29 '14 at 2:23

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