As a Spanish learner, your ear is not in tune with the proper Spanish accent at first. Thankfully, there are easy ways for beginners to improve. Spanish vowels are the starting point. With only five basic vowel sounds (and vowels in every word) this one area has a huge impact on pronunciation. Focus on these key sounds and your accent will sound more like a native Spanish speaker. Today we cover how to master the five vowel sounds in Spanish.
Why is Spanish vowel pronunciation difficult?
Native English speakers from the UK and US are notorious for having a thick accent in Spanish. Don’t feel bad. In English there are over 12 basic vowel sounds. We learn to pronounce vowels based on spelling. For example:
- The letter A in these words sounds different each time: apple, plate, hard
- The letter U in these words sounds different each time: cut, cute, put
We were taught how to read with English pronunciation. We have a lifetime of reinforcing English pronunciation just by listening to the people around us. That’s why we have national and regional accents in English. For Spanish, we need to learn to read all over again. It’s understandable to make mistakes.
In Spanish, just like English, you can guess what country a person is from based on how they talk. Every country and region has a different accent. The only thing they (we) have in common is the pronunciation of Spanish vowels. All Spanish-speakers say these five sounds the same.
Spanish A vowel sound: AH
The five basic Spanish vowels A, E, I, O, and U each have one (and only one) sound each. Every time you see an A in Spanish, it sounds the same. Here are some words in English that make the Spanish A vowel sound.
- car park
- The Shard
The Spanish A always says ah as in hard. It never sounds short as in apple or long as in plate. You know how British people say taco (TACK-o)? Wrong! It should be TAH-co as in tah-tah for now.
Spanish E vowel sound: EH
Here are some English words that make the Spanish E sound eh. Try saying eh out loud. Pretend you are Wallace from Wallace & Gromit. Smile wide and show your teeth.
With words in Spanish that are similar to English, it’s tempting to pronounce them in an English accent. Don’t be lazy. Say excelente: ehk-seh-LEHN-teh not ex-uh-LEN-tay.
Spanish I vowel sound: EE
The Spanish I sound is especially hard for native English speakers. We see the letter I and we want to say ih. The proper Spanish vowel sound ee is the name for our letter E. Our brains get thoroughly confused. Not to worry. Here are English words that make the ee noise of the Spanish I.
Just as Japanese miso is MEE-so, Spanish piso (floor) is pronounced PEE-so.
Spanish O vowel sound: OH
The Spanish O sound is different from the English O, which is drawn out as in Oooohhh. The Spanish O is short, ends quickly, and uses round lips as if you were blowing small bubbles. Here are some English words that make this sound, but remember to cut it short.
A good practise word in Spanish is totopo (corn chip). Don’t get lazy on the last syllable. Say to-TO-po not toe-TOE-powe.
Spanish U vowel sound: OO
Our last vowel sound is Spanish U. If you learn Spanish at home, imagine the sound of an excited child reaching for a new toy: OO! It’s also the sound we use to mimic monkey noises: oo oo oo! Here are some English words that make an approximate Spanish U sound.
The best way to learn Spanish U is to practise the word trutruca. Trutruca is an indigenous wind instrument from Chile made using an animal horn. Just like playing a horn, you must purse your lips to say it correctly.
Today we went over the basic Spanish vowel sounds. If you want to work more on pronunciation, check out our blog post on Spanish errors that native English speakers make. Soon you will never use the British pronunciation of taco ever again.
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