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.

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

How to produce any vowel sound

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

  • Lips
  • Jaw
  • Tongue
  • Your voice

Differences between English and Spanish vowels

Watch this video (to avoid confusion, I must warn you that Ricky’s accent isn’t a typical Spanish accent at all). Just hit the play button.

    1. Spanish is a vocalic language

      One of the main differences between English and Spanish language is that Spanish is vocalic and English is consonantal. Wait, what does it mean?

      Vocalic means 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.

      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 second difference between English and Spanish vowels).

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

      English vowels are quite different:

      • You have much more vowel sounds -at least 11 damn vowels, and even more, depending on the dialect.
      • Your mouth is more relaxed when pronouncing them because its articulation point is usually closer to the centre of your mouth.
      • Your mouth is more open too.
      • English speakers tend not to pronounce unstressed vowels or to pronounce them with a neutral sound -the schwa or hesitation sound-, like in brotherIn Spanish, this sound doesn’t exist.
    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. 

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

      Vowels pronunciation chart English and Spanish vowels how to pronounce pronunciacion vocales español

      Yes, 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).

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

      The Spanish vowels are as far as possible from each other:

      • In the middle of the bases (e, i).
      • On the corners (i, u, a).

      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).

      Spanish vowels base position of the mouth to pronounce Spanish pronounciation español pronunciacion espanol como pronunciar vocales

    3.  Spanish vowels are shorter.

      They are pronounced in, approximately, half the time compared to an English vowel.

If you want to nail Spanish pronunciation, you should practice with a native speaker. Non-native instructors 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.

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.

rounded and unrounded lips and mouth when pronouncing Spanish vowels pronunciation for English speakers vocalic language mouth pronunciacion espanol

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.
  • Close (i, u). Narrow space between your tongue and the palate. Your tongue is closer to the palate.

Spanish vowels position of the mouth to pronounce them open closed a e i o u for english speaker tongue

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 placing your tongue close to the teeth.
  • Back (o, u).  To pronounce these vowels your tongue should be close to the throat.
  • Center (a). 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.

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

 

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.

Letter A

Most of the teachers say it sounds like the letter A in father, but that’s not true -it may sound similar but not the same. The letter A is a very open vowel and it sounds very like American /ɒ/ (sock).

It may be comparable to /ɑ:/ (car) too but there ‘re some differences when you pronounce Spanish A:

  • the mouth and lips are more open
  • the sound doesn’t come from the throat -it isn’t so deep
  • the sound is shorter.

Letter  E

English and Spanish E are alike (went) but, again, not the same. When you pronounce Spanish E your jaw is closer than when you pronounce it in English. The English E has a touch of /a/ that Spanish E doesn’t.

Letter  I

The letter I sounds similar to /i:/ (need) but with a deeper tone and shorter.

Say “need” or “tea” but with acute voice. Can you notice the difference?

Letter  O

This vowel sounds close to American /ʌ/ (money) but:

  • your lips should be more rounded
  • your mouth should be more closed.

It’s very like /ɔ:/ (law) too.

Letter  U

The sound is comparable to /ʊ/ (look) but the Spanish U is:

  • more rounded (lips)
  • pronounced stronger
  • shorter.

It’s similar to /u:/ as well, but your tongue should be further back so that it doesn’t sound like /i/ at all.

Common mistakes when pronouncing the Spanish vowels

Spanish vowels pronunciation mistakes and how to fix them

  • 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.

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 and it’s closer than when you pronounce the English vowels.

 

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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