Tips and tricks to pronounce the Spanish vowels + Common pronunciation errors and how to avoid them
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 you.
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.
Table of contents
- 1 How to produce a vowel sound
- 2 Kinds of vowels
- 2.1 1. Depending on the lips
- 2.2 2. Depending on your jaw
- 2.3 3. Depending on the position of your tongue
- 2.4 Resume
- 3 Five differences between English and Spanish vowels
- 4 Tricks to pronounce the Spanish vowels
- 4.1 Letter A
- 4.2 Letter E
- 4.3 Letter I
- 4.4 Letter O
- 4.5 Letter U
- 5 Common mistakes when pronouncing the Spanish vowels
- 6 Resume
- 7 Exercise
How to produce a vowel sound
To say any vowel you need to use these 4 elements:
- 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, as well as the word “beach”.
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, our vowels are totally different from yours and the other way around!
Kinds of vowels
1. Depending on the lips
Unrounded (a, e i)
There isn’t much tension in your lips. Your lips are relaxed.
Rounded (o, u)
When a vowel requires you to round your lips to pronounce it, that’s exactly what you should do. Take it to the verbatim because you have to round your lips more than in English. If you don’t see wrinkles on your lips, they aren’t rounded enough.
2. Depending on your jaw
Open (a, e, o)
Wide space between your tongue and the palate. Your tongue is closer to the floor of your mouth.
Closed (i, u)
Narrow space between your tongue and the palate. Your tongue is closer to the palate.
This classification of open and close vowels is important to understand the Spanish diphthongs, triphthongs and hiatus which is something you must understand to pronounce the Spanish vowels like a native speaker.
3. Depending on the position of your tongue
How far -or close- is your tongue from the teeth and throat?
Front (e, i).
These two Spanish vowels are pronounced by placing your tongue close to the teeth.
Back (o, u).
To pronounce these vowels your tongue should be close to the throat.
This vowel is pronounced with your tongue in the middle of the mouth, between your teeth and throat.
Pronounce the different Spanish vowels and feel how your tongue moves from the back to the front and from the bottom to the roof of your mouth.
- Jaw: Open
- Lips: Unrounded
- Tongue: Center
- Jaw: Open
- Lips: Unrounded
- Tongue: Front
- Jaw: Closed
- Lips: Unrounded
- Tongue: Front
- Jaw: Open
- Lips: Rounded
- Tongue: Back
- Jaw: Closed
- Lips: Rounded
- Tongue: Back
Five 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 ad Spanish vowels:
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!
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.
On the image below, you can see the articulation point of English and Spanish vowels.
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).
Spanish vowels always sound the same way
The letter A sounds /a/ and the letter O sounds /o/. Always.
Spanish vowels are shorter
They are pronounced in, approximately, half the time compared to an English vowel (315 miliseconds vs 160 miliseconds in Spanish).
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 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.
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.
If you don’t know how to say it, 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 tryong to keep the sound of Spanish /a/!
The Spanish /a/ is somehow in between the English /ʌ/ (cut) and /æ/ (cat). The table below will help you understand the position of your mouth to get the /a/ sound.
Between /ʌ/ and /æ/.
|The corners of your mouth are separated (as if you were smiling)|
|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/.
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 has a touch of /a/ that Spanish E doesn’t.
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.
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)?
(Maybe because of the writing).
The Spanish I sounds like…
Have you noticed that Spanish and English share a sound: /i/?
Note: According to the International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA) chart, English double E in beet and Spanish I (vivir) sound the same. Please, take into account that 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.
The Spanish I has the sound of American /i:/ (need, eat) but the length of /ɪ/.
This is why many Spanish avoid saying words like “sheet” or “beach” because:
- We’re used to pronouncing short vowels.
- As I just told, 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.
|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||
Centre of the mouth
Try this: Say “happy” and “tea”, firt normally (in English) and then try to pronounce those words shortly and with a serious voice (like as 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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Spanish U is less rounded– your lips are a little more relaxed.
- The Spanish U doesn’t have that touch of /i/ sound -so your tongue should be further back.
- The sound of the Spanish U is shorter.
The Spanish U sounds like /ʊ/ (book) as well but when you pronounce the Spanish U:
- Your lips are more rounded -they form a small circle.
- Your tongue has more tension -it’s further back.
- You say it stronger and shorter -as if you were serious.
Gral English /u:/
Centre of your mouth
Further back than
Towards your throat
Common mistakes when pronouncing the Spanish vowels
- Putting the tongue close to the centre of the mouth. English speakers have difficulties in placing the tongue correctly, probably because of the schwa sound and because the pronunciation in English is more relaxed than in Spanish.
♣ How to fix it? Exaggerate. Exaggerate a lot when pronouncing Spanish vowels. Pretend you are making fun of a Spanish native, like Enrique Iglesias or Penélope Cruz, or simply imitate someone you like.
- Lengthening the vowel which is in the tonic syllable. In Spanish there aren’t long and short vowels, they’re all the same length.
♣ How to fix it? Try to pronounce the vowels in a millisecond. In a millisecond? Yes, I know it’s impossible, but you know that Spanish is a very fast language, so just try it.
- Pronouncing rounded vowels (o,u) as unrounded-open vowels.
♣ How to fix it? You should tense your tongue and lips more. Remember that your mouth is never relaxed. Rounded vowels -O and U- need very rounded lips.
- Pronouncing diphthongs where they don’t exist.
- 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.
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.