Spanish has only one type of [i] sound, but English has three: first, the phonemes /iː/ and /ɪ/, which are completely different, and then there is another sound, /i/, which is a mixture of /iː/ and /ɪ/ and is the same as the Spanish i. Unfortunately for us, it is not as important as the other two.
Spanish speakers often forget to make the contrast between /iː/ and /ɪ/, but this distinction is essential for native speakers. Just think of the difference between saying these and this, leave and live, beach and bitch. The list is endless, as is the possibility of actually saying something that has very little to do with what you really mean.
Here are some examples:
Now, let’s have a look at the three types of English [i] sound one by one.
iː The tongue is tense and high at the front of the mouth. The lips are spread. It’s similar to a Spanish i, but much, much longer.
- How to do it? Spread your lips and say a long [i] without opening too much your mouth.
- Spelling. The most frequent spellings are ee (see, need), e (these, even), ea (leave, mean), ie (piece), ei (receive), ey (key) and i (police).
ɪ Here the mouth is a bit more open and the tongue a bit lower. There is more relaxation in the tongue and lips than in /iː/. One important point is that this sound is closer to a Spanish e than to a Spanish i (you might find this surprising, but believe me, it’s true). It is a short vowel.
- How to do it? Say a short [i] with your mouth a bit more open and your articulators (tongue, lips) more relaxed. Keep in mind that it must sound more like a Spanish e than an i.
- Spelling. In stressed syllables it almost always corresponds to the letters i and y (big, this, little, interest, gym, crystal), although there are a few exceptions (English, pretty). In unstressed syllables is often found as e (begin, recover), but there are many other spellings as well: i (outfit), ui (biscuit), age (village, manage), u (lettuce), ei (foreign).
If you find it difficult to recognize or reproduce these two sounds, a very good exercise is to say /iː/ and /ɪ/ close together. Like this:
i Short sound produced high at the front of the mouth. It has the vowel quality of /iː/ and the length of /ɪ/, so it is a mixture of both. It only occurs in unstressed syllables and it’s exactly like the Spanish i. This sound is usually left out of the vowel chart. If you want to know why, click here.
- How to do it? Like /iː/ but short. Just as you do an i in Spanish.
- Spelling. It is usually found at the end or words, mainly as y (city, pretty) or ey (money, valley), but also ie (auntie), e (acne) or even i (graffiti). Spelled as e, it is also common in unstressed function words (she is, he was, the owl, etc.). It also occurs in the middle of words (malleable), most often when they are compounds (jellyfish, antiseptic) or there is a prefix (reaction ).
There are many two-syllable words which follow the pattern /ɪ/ + /i/. See if you can recognize them. Notice how the two vowels have the same length but differ in quality.
This is the type of analysis I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.
And here is a good example of /i/, which appears five times in this short exchange. Notice how it is always unstressed.
ǀ ʃiˈwɒntɪd ǀ
ǀ ʃiˈdɪd ǀ
ǀ ʃid ˈækʧəli ˈwrɪtən ˈkæθliːn fə mi ǀ
This example also gives you the opportunity to compare the quality of /i/ with that of /ɪ/, found in words like wanted, did or written.
To remember: There is a clear parallel between the group /iː/, /ɪ/ and /i/ and the group /uː/, /ʊ/ and /u/.
- Both /ʊ/ and /ɪ/ are short and stand midway in quality between the long vowels /i:/ and /uː/ and the schwa, /ə/.
- In both groups there is a third, mixed sound, /i/ and /u/, respectively, which is not a phoneme and only appears in unstressed position.
This similarity can help you remember its characteristics and produce them correctly.
Now, let’s listen to some more natural occurring examples: