Spanish Vowels – All you need to pronounce them correctly + Mouth positioning

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».

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, among other things, because Spanish and English vowels are totally different. Here you can read the 6 differences between English and Spanish vowels.

In this post I’m going to explain:

  • The position of your lips, tongue, and jaw (very important for correct pronunciation)
  • The overall position of your mouth when pronouncing each Spanish vowel
  • The International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA) chart for the Spanish vowels (to know exactly where on the mouth you should place your tongue)

Position of your jaw

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

Open vowels (a, e, o)

Wide space between your tongue and the palate. 

When pronouncing open vowels, your tongue should be placed in the lower -or mid- part of your mouth. Closer to the floor of your mouth.

Open vowels are called strong vowels as well because, in diphthongs and triphthongs, open vowels are pronounced stronger.

Closed vowels (i, u)

Narrow space between your tongue and the palate. You don’t need much room in your mouth to produce its sound so your tongue is placed close to the palate.

Closed vowels are known as weak vowels too because, when there’s a diphthong or a triphthong, they are pronounced softer. 

This classification of open and closed vowels is important to understand the Spanish diphthongs, triphthongs, and hiatus which is something you must know if you want to pronounce the Spanish vowels like a native speaker.

Position of your tongue

How far -or close- is your tongue from the teeth and throat?

Front Center centre and Back vowels mouth positioning depending on your tongue position  a e i o u

Front vowels (e, i)

These two Spanish vowels are pronounced by placing your tongue close to the teeth.

Some people call them bright vowels because they are perceived as sounding brighter than the back vowels.

Central vowels (a)

This vowel is pronounced with the tongue positioned halfway between your teeth and throat, in the middle of the mouth.

The most common central vowel in the languages of the world is the schwa [ə]. In English, it’s very common to neutralize vowels in unstressed syllables. However, it doesn’t exist in Spanish so avoid neutralizing any Spanish vowel. That will make you have a strong accent, and give you away as a foreigner.

Back vowels (o, u)

To pronounce these vowels your tongue should be close to the 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.

Position of your lips

According to the position of your lips, the vowels can be rounded or unrounded.

Rounded and unrounded vowels a e i o u Spanish mo

In most languages, the front vowels tend to be unrounded, while the back vowels tend to be rounded.

This is the case of the Spanish vowels.

Unrounded vowels (a, e i)

There isn’t much tension in your lips. Your lips are relaxed.

Rounded vowels (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.

In short

Below, the International Pronunciation Alphabet (IPA) chart:

  • The horizontal axis indicates if the tongue should be closer to the teeth (left) or closer to the throat (right).
  • The vertical axis represents the opening of the mouth, and how close is your tongue from the palate. The more closed your mouth is, the closer your tongue is from the palate.
Spanish vowels front centre back pronunciation position of the tongue teeth palate
On the chart above:
In blue the Spanish vowels; in light orange, you can intuit the English vowel sounds.

Mouth position for the vowel A

  • Jaw: Open
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Central, low

More info and tips to pronounce Spanish A.

Mouth position for the vowel E

  • Jaw: Mid-open
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Front

More info and tips to pronounce Spanish E.

Mouth position for the vowel I

  • Jaw: Closed
  • Lips: Unrounded
  • Tongue: Front, close to the palate

More info and tips to pronounce Spanish I.

Mouth position for the vowel O

  • Jaw: Mid-open
  • Lips: Rounded
  • Tongue: Back

More info and tips to pronounce Spanish O.

Mouth position for the vowel U

  • Jaw: Closed
  • Lips: Rounded
  • Tongue: Back, close to the palate

More info and tips to pronounce Spanish U.