Understanding the difference between Spanish and English vowels is vital to know how to produce the Spanish vowel sounds correctly and reduce your accent since Spanish is a vocalic language.
These are the main differences between English and Spanish vowels:
1. Vowels are the most important part of the word
In Spanish, the most important part of a word are the vowels (vocalic language), while in English, consonants are more important (consonantal language).
This means that we tend to vocalize, even when we speak in another language. Have you noticed how strong is the Spanish accent when we speak English?
We don’t have the schwa sound, that you probably use when you speak Spanish. This is a very common mistake when pronouncing Spanish vowels.
2. Spanish has only 5 vowels sounds
Hit the play button and you’ll see the biggest difference between English and Spanish vowels (note that Ricky’s accent isn’t a typical Spaniard accent at all).
English has at least 11 vowel sounds -and even more, depending on the dialect- while Spanish has only 5.
(In some regions, like in Murcia, they have more than 5 vowel sounds, but these 5 are common to all the Spanish dialects).
You only need to learn these 5 vowel sounds (a, e, i, o, u).
They always sound the same way. There’s only one sound for each vowel: the letter A sounds /a/ and the letter O sounds /o/. Always.
3. Spanish vowels sound different from English vowels
You may think that some of the Spanish vowels sound the same as in English but actually, they aren’t.
Here you can see 4 common pronunciation errors and how to avoid them.
In the image below, you can see the articulation point of Spanish vowels (blue) and English vowels (very light orange).
None of the Spanish vowels sounds the same as in English. Even /i/ and /u/ sounds are different, although sometimes they may sound similar.
That’s why we normally have such a terrible accent when we speak in each other’s language.
4. Spanish vowels are always short
The English language has long and short vowels.
In Spanish, the vowels are always short, as in pop.
So the fourth difference between Spanish and English vowels is that Spanish vowels are pronounced faster. In approximately, half the time compared to an English vowel (180 to 260 milliseconds in English vs 160 milliseconds in Spanish).
5. Your mouth is tenser when pronouncing Spanish vowels
Above all when pronouncing rounded vowels (o, u).
Pronouncing Spanish requires lots of tension and lots of training.
When pronouncing English vowels your mouth is generally more relaxed because its articulation point is usually closer to the centre of your mouth.
A Vietnamese friend used to have muscle pain in her mouth after speaking Spanish for a while. She used to say that attending her Spanish course was like going to a gym for mouths.
¡So warm up your mouth muscles before you start practicing your Spanish!
6. Spanish vowels are pure
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. In 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 ashamed of exaggerating your pronunciation! 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.