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Tips and tricks to pronounce the Spanish vowels

Did you know that almost half of the sounds we pronounce when speaking Spanish are vowels?

In Spanish, vowels are the most important part of a word. If you pronounce them wrong, it’ll be difficult to understand.

In this post, you’ll learn all you need to know in order to pronounce the Spanish vowels correctly and I’ll give you some tips for avoiding common error English natives make.

Click to read the previous post on how to pronounce the Spanish consonants.

How to produce a vowel sound

To say any vowel you need to use these 4 elements:

  • Lips
  • Jaw
  • Tongue
  • Your voice

A little change in the position of your mouth can make you produce a different vowel sound and, consequently, change the meaning of what you wanted to say.

Have you ever heard a Spaniard pronouncing the word «sheet»? -This is definitely a word that many Spanish natives avoid when they speak in English.

Why?

Picture a Spanish native saying his boss: «I’ll bring you the shit in a minute». (It wouldn’t be rare at all). We have a very strong accent because, among other things, Spanish vowels are totally different from English vowels.

I’ll tell you more about this later.

In short

mouth positioning for Spanish vowel A

Vowel A

  • Jaw: Open
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Center
mouth positioning for Spanish vowel E

Vowel E

  • Jaw: Open
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Front
mouth positioning for Spanish vowel I

Vowel I

  • Jaw: Closed
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Front
mouth positioning for Spanish vowel O

Vowel O

  • Jaw: Open
  • Lips: Rounded
  • Tongue: Back
mouth positioning for Spanish vowel U

Vowel U

  • Jaw: Closed
  • Lips: Rounded
  • Tongue: Back

5 differences between English and Spanish vowels

Watch this video (Ricky’s accent isn’t a typical Spanish accent at all). Just hit the play button and you’ll see the biggest difference between Spanish and English vowels.

Spanish is a vocalic language. This means that we tend to vocalize, even when we speak in another language. Probably you’ve already noticed how strong is the Spanish accent when we speak English.

In Spanish, the most important part of a word are the vowels (vocalic language), while in English, consonants are more important (consonantal language).

A Vietnamese friend used to have muscle pain in her mouth after speaking Spanish for a while. (You will see why when you read the 5th difference between English and Spanish vowels).

(People warming up their mouth muscles before they speak Spanish)

So these are the main differences between English and Spanish vowels:

    1. Spanish has only 5 vowels sounds

      One sound for each vowel.

      English has at least 11 damn vowels -and even more, depending on the dialect!

    2. Spanish vowels sound different from English vowels

      You may think that some of the vowel sounds in Spanish seem the same as in English but actually, they aren’t. 

      Here you can see 4 common pronunciation errors and how to avoid them.

      On the image below, you can see the articulation point of English and Spanish vowels.

      Spanish vowels fornt centre back pronunciation position od the tongue teeth palate

      Exactly, none of the Spanish vowels sounds the same as in English. That’s why we -Spanish natives- often have such a terrible accent when we speak in English (and vice versa).

    3.  Spanish vowels always sound the same way

      The letter A sounds /a/ and the letter O sounds /o/. Always.

      No headache.

    4. Spanish vowels are shorter

      They are pronounced in, approximately, half the time compared to an English vowel (315 milliseconds vs 160 milliseconds in Spanish).

    5. Your mouth is tenser

      Above all when pronouncing rounded vowels (o, u).

      Pronouncing Spanish requires lots of tension and lots of training. This is why my Vietnamese friend had muscle pain in her mouth. She used to say that attending her Spanish course was like going to a gym for mouths.

      When pronouncing English vowels your mouth is generally more relaxed because its articulation point is usually closer to the centre of your mouth.

      English speakers tend not to pronounce unstressed vowels or to pronounce them with a neutral sound –schwa or hesitation sound-, like in brother

      In Spanish, this sound doesn’t exist.

      The Spanish vowels are as different as possible from each other. On the image below the distance between them represents how different they are.
      Spanish vowels base position of the mouth to pronounce Spanish pronounciation español pronunciacion espanol como pronunciar vocales
      Spanish vowels aren’t a mix of different vowels -like French Ö, which sounds something between /e/ and /o/. Spanish vowels sound pure and extremely exaggerated so don’t be ashame of exaggerating your pronunciation!

If you want to nail Spanish pronunciation, you should practice with a native speaker. Non-natives might be great teachers, but many of them have quite a strong accent and, if you learn from them, you’ll pronounce Spanish just like they do and, consequently, you’ll keep that «guiri» accent you have right now.

Tricks to pronounce the Spanish vowels

Remember that, even if some English and Spanish vowel sounds seem similar, they’re always pronounced in a different way.

For a clearer explanation, I’ll write English sounds or letters in orange and Spanish sounds or letters in blue.

Letter A

The Spanish A sounds like…

Most of the books/teachers/blogs say it sounds the same as the letter A in «father». However, this affirmation isn’t very accurate since there are a lot of English accents and dialects.

Let’s make it clearer.

The letter A, in Spanish, sounds like:

  • The letter A (Australian English) in «car».
  • The letter I (South of the USA) in «like» -only the first vowel of the diphthong.

How to produce the sound of Spanish A

The letter A, in Spanish, is a very open vowel.

The most similar sounds, which exist in all the English dialects, are:

  • /ɑ:/ (father)
  • /ɒ/ (lot) -but your lips are not rounded.

These vowel sounds –/ɑ:/ and /ɒ/ – and the  Spanish /a/ look very much alike, although they don’t sound exactly the same. The differences with the Spanish /a/ are:

  • The corners of your mouth are more separated -your lips are not rounded at all, like in /ɒ/.
  • Your jaw is more open.
  • Your tongue is further forward.
  • The sound comes from your mouth, not from the throat -it isn’t so deep.
  • The sound is shorter.

Try this: Say «father» and «lot», first normally (in English) and then pronounce those words while you open your mouth a lot and smile at the same time -as if you were screaming (this way you’ll get the Spanish /a/).

After you get the sound /a/, say those words again with your mouth a little closer but trying to keep the sound of Spanish /a/!

Tips to pronounce the Spanish A letter vowel tricks to sounds more native like

The Spanish /a/ is somehow in between the English /ʌ/ (cut) and /æ/ (cat) but your mouth should be more open.

The table below will help you understand the position of your mouth to get the /a/ sound.

 

English /ʌ/

(cut, cup)

Spanish /a/

(cata, capa)

English /æ/

(cat, cap)

Jaw Mid-open Very open Open
Lips
  • The corners of your mouth are relaxed.
  • The lips are quite separated.

Your mouth moves:

|

Between /ʌ/ and /æ/.

  • The corners of your mouth are separated.
  • The upper and lower lip are very separated.

Your mouth moves:

←                →

The corners of your mouth are separated (as if you were smiling).

Your mouth moves:

 

←      →

Tongue (closer to the…) Throat Centre of the mouth Teeth
The sound comes from the… Throat Mouth Mouth
The mouth (lips + jaw) moves…

 

 

 

Try to say «cup», «cap» and «cop» following the indications on the previous table to produce the Spanish /a/.

The sound you get should be different to the vowel sounds you normally use to pronounce those words in English –/ʌ//æ/ and /ɑ/.

Letter  E

The Spanish E sounds like…

Many sites say that Spanish E sounds like the E in «pet» or «bet», but there are lots of English accents so this affirmation isn’t accurate, unless you’re from Yorkshire because the sound of Spanish E only exists in Yorkshire English.

How to produce the sound of Spanish E

British English doesn’t have the sound of Spanish E. The most similar sound in British English is /ɛ/ like the letter E in «dress» or «pet».

The main difference with this sound and the Spanish E, is that the British (and American) English E is more open so it has a touch of /a/ that Spanish E doesn’t.

Pronounce the Spanish E like a native with these simple tips tricks for English natives

When you pronounce Spanish E:

  • Your jaw is closer
  • Your tongue is a little upper, further back and spread toward your side teeth.
  • The sound is produced in your mouth -not in your throat, the sound isn’t so deep.

Try saying words with /ɛ/ sound like bed, bet, or pet following the previous intructions.

Letter  I

Did you know that…

  • a Spaniard will perceive the English /i:/ (need) as a Spanish I, while
  • an English native perceives the Spanish I as /ɪ/ (it)?

It may be because of the writing.

The Spanish I sounds like…

Note: According to the International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA) chart, English double E in beet and Spanish I (vivir) sound the same. But they don’t. (The letters and symbols of the IPA represent very similar sounds -sometimes the exact ones, sometimes not, like happens with the Spanish T or Spanish D).

Tricks and tips pronunciation of Spanish I letter vowel soundThe Spanish I has a very similar sound to Australian and American /i:/ (need, eat) but it has the length of /ɪ/.

As I told at the beginning of the page, many Spanish avoid saying words like «sheet» or «beach».

If we fancy diving into the water you might be asked «hey, do you know whether there’s a bitch nearby?» :D.

Why?

  • We’re used to pronouncing short vowels.
  • We think we’re pronouncing your long E -while English natives perceive the Spanish I as /ɪ/.

How to produce the sound of Spanish I

The Spanish I sounds more similar to /i:/ (need)  than to /ɪ/ (it) in all the English dialects but in Spanish:

  • The sound is shorter.
  • The sound is deeper -English /i:/ sounds a little more acute.
 

English /i:/

(need, eat)

Spanish /i/

(sí, fin)

English /ɪ/

(it, big)

Jaw Closed Closed Mid-closed
Lips A lot of tension on the corners of your mouth -which are very separated. Tension on the corners of your mouth -they’re separated (as if you were gently smiling).

Little tension on the corners of your mouth.

(British /ɪ/ has a stronger touch of /e/).

Tongue (closer to the…) Teeth Teeth

Semi-relaxed

Centre of the mouth

Try this: Say «happy tea», firt normally (in English) and then try to pronounce those words shortly and with a serious voice (the Spanish I).

Now pronounce the words «sheet» and «shit» with the Spanish I. You should hear a new word which isn’t any of the 2 previuous ones. If you don’t, then you aren’t getting the Spanish /i/ sound.

Letter  O

This is one of the most difficult vowels, not because of the pronunciation itself but because in English, the letter O sounds mostly like a diphthong. Click here to see common errors when pronouncing Spanish O.

My teachers used to say that the letter O in «photo» sounds like the Spanish O.

Lie.

Tips for pronouncing the Spanish O letter vowel tricks for English native speakers

The Spanish O sounds like…

The letter O in Spanish sounds like «oa» in Yorkshire English (goat, coat).

How to produce the sound of Spanish O

The sound /o/ in Spanish, it’s close to American /ʌ/ (money) but:

  • Your lips should be more rounded.
  • Your mouth (jaw) should be more closed.

The Spanish O is very like /ɔ:/ (law) too but the Spanish O:

  • Doesn’t have that touch of /u/.
  • Is less rounded -your lips are a little more relaxed.
  • Isn’t so deep –the sound is produced in the mouth, not in the throat and
  • Your jaw is more closed.
 

English /ɔ:/

(law, fork)

Spanish /o/

(lo, mono)

English /ʌ/

(money, cut)

Jaw Mid-closed Mid-open Mid-closed
Lips Very rounded

Rounded

Little rounded

Letter  U

The problem with this vowel is similar to what happens with the Spanish I:

  • Spanish natives hear /ʊ/ (book) like a Spanish /u/.
  • English natives perceive the Spanish /u/ as an English /u:/ (boot).

The Spanish U sounds like…

Again, teachers/books/blogs say it sounds the same as double O (boot) but, in what dialect? There are tons of English accents and dialects so we need to be more precise.

The Spanish U sounds similar to American /u:/ (goose).

How to produce the sound of Spanish U

To be fair, although English long U and Spanish U don’t sound exactly the same in the majority of the dialects, they’re similar.

Differences:

  • Your tongue should be further back.
  • The sound of the Spanish is shorter.

The Spanish U sounds like /ʊ/ (book) as well but when you pronounce the Spanish U:

  • Your lips are more rounded.
  • Your tongue has more tension -it’s further back.
  • You say it stronger and shorter -as if you were serious.

 

English /ʊ/

(book, do)

Gral English /u:/

(foot, goose)

Spanish /u/

(tú, su)

Tongue

Lower

Towards your throat

Upper

Further back than

/ʊ/

Upper

Further back than 

/u:/

Lips Little rounded Very rounded

Very rounded

Resume

  • There are only 5 vocalic sounds in Spanish and none of them sounds the same as in English.
  • Each vowel is pronounced the same way, both in a stressed and unstressed syllable.
  • Spanish vowels are always short, as in pop.
  • Your mouth is never relaxed when pronouncing them.

Exercise

The vowel A sounds like:

Possible answers:
a) The A in father.
b) The A in cap.
c) The U in up.
d) None of them is correct.

(Click to see the answer)

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