While searching labialization on the Wikipedia, it is easy to find these statements: 'Labialized sounds involve the lips <...> When vowels involve the lips, they are called rounded.'

In Russian, as in many other languages, there is a rounded vowel [u]. It is very typical of Russian people, who learn English, to pronounce English labialised (~rounded) [w] with the same state of the lips, look at the picture:

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But when these Russian speakers come to a teacher who tells them not to use their lips at all and pronounce [w] in a 'smiling' manner (the best part of the teachers also tells students to use their velum), it is likely to get the question: if both sounds are labialised (of course, it is better to say 'rounded' referring to the vowels, but let us omit this fact here), then why cannot we use our lips in the same way like while pronouncing [u]?

Well, what is the difference between the state of the lips while pronouncing [u] and [w]? Why have both sounds got the part 'labialised/rounded' in their names, but do not really resemble one another (as for the lips)? Maybe, there is a more useful recommendation on how to hear/see the contrast between [w] and [u]?

  • I think the concept you are looking for is not labialization, but roundedness – b a Jan 28 '19 at 19:02
  • @ba maybe, but, as I said, roundedness is likely to be used only while talking about the vowels. – Aer Jan 28 '19 at 19:04
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    Since you are asking about vowels and semivowels rather than labialization of consonants, I think the latter is more relevant. Particularly "types of rounding" seems very relevant to your question – b a Jan 28 '19 at 19:12

The sounds [u] and [w] really do resemble each other, just as [u] and [o] resemble each other: resemblance is weaker than identity. I don't know what the actual problem is that Russian language teachers are addressing, but given that Russian does not have [w], I assume it's sometimes challenging for speakers to produce appropriate English outputs; perhaps [wi] is produced more like [ŭi]. Both [w] and [u] involve protruded lips (rounding, a form of labialization), and [v] is labial, but is not labialized and not rounded.

The lip difference between [u] and [w] is primarily one of timing and secondarily one of degree. That is, [w] involves a more ballistic (rapid) gesture that gives a greater construction, and [u] is slower and less constricted (depending on dialect it is also fronted and/or diphthongized).

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