How to Master the Vowels of Spanish

How to Master the Vowels of Spanish

This post is contributed by Marc Belley. He is a linguist who graduated from the Université de Montréal in Canada. He speaks 4 languages and strives to speak them like a native. He is also the founder of LearnLanguagesOnYourOwn where he teaches a language learning method, which includes a page on how to learn Spanish on your own.

In this guide, I’ll teach you how to articulate the Spanish vowels correctly. Of course, these vowels may vary from one dialect of Spanish to the other, but the ones I’ll teach you about are pretty standard and they’ll make you sound more Spanish. Also, there are just 5 of them, but they might be more difficult to master than you’d think.

Here they are:

  • a as in amar ‘to love’
  • i as in si ‘yes’
  • o as in ocho ‘eight’
  • u as in uva ‘raisin’
  • e as in siempre ‘always’

The Vowel i

Let’s start with the easiest one: i.

Why is it the easiest?

Because it is present, almost as is, in many dialects of English.

The Spanish i is found in a word like sea in English.

There is one crucial difference, however, and that is the length of the vowel.

Vowel Length

Yes, you may or may not have noticed it, but English has a lot of long vowels.

To make things worse, learners of Spanish whose native language is English tend to maintain that length when speaking Spanish.

Let me be clear:

Spanish does NOT have true long vowels.

Just take the word sea in English, and let’s compare with the word si in Spanish.

The vowel sound in sea and the one in si are essentially the same, except for the fact that this sound is longer in English.

So, when saying the word si or any other word in Spanish, make sure you keep all the vowels short, such as in the English words put and met.

The next one up is the vowel a.

The Vowel a

English generally does not have this vowel on its own. It is normally found coupled with another, such as in the word night.

If you’re unable to see how there are two vowel sounds in night, then let me introduce a simple concept: the diphthong.

The Diphthong

It is important to be mindful of diphthongs when learning Spanish because this language has a lot of vowels which are not diphthongs, but which may be “mistakenly” realized as such by native English speakers.

In simple terms, a diphthong is a combination of two vowel sounds. Just say the words, outnight and toy, really slowly, and you should be able to distinguish two different vowel sounds in each word.

Now, take the word night and attempt to isolate the first vowel only. This first vowel is almost equivalent to the Spanish vowel sound a.

In case you’d like more accuracy, the Spanish a is articulated slightly more to the back of the mouth and should sound like that. It lies between the a sound from night, which is more to the front and the o from the word hot, which is more to the back.

The Vowels e and o

These two sounds are not present in a lot of varieties of English, so you might have to make an effort to articulate them. Have a listen and try to mimic them:

e and o

If you’re not sure if you’re able to mimic them accurately, then I have an alternative for you.

I’m going to teach you a technique that I used myself in order to learn how to do them.

First, let me tell a bit about how vowels are articulated in general. Vowels have basically two main features: a degree of openness and a depth. In order for me to teach you how to articulate the e sound in Spanish, we only need to familiarize ourselves with openness.

Vowel Openness

Read these two words out loud and notice how your mouth opens as you go from the first word to the second: beet and bat.

For this reason, we say that the ee in beet is closed while the a in bat is open.

Now, with this in mind, there’s a trick you can use to articulate the Spanish e correctly. English does have a sound that’s slightly more closed than the Spanish e and it also has a sound that is slightly more open than the Spanish e.

What if we articulated these two sounds without interruption and try to stop in between?

Well, if we did that correctly, we’d land on the Spanish e.

So, let’s give it a try.

Here are the two sounds you need:

The first sound is found in the diphthong present in the word mail. As we saw earlier, a diphthong is a sequence of two vowel sounds. Say the word mail slowly and try to isolate only the first sound of the diphthong. This will be your first sound needed for the technique. This is what it should sound like.

The second sound is the vowel in the word met. Just read the vowel out loud and it should sound like this.

Now, for the actual technique. I would like you to start saying the sound you isolated in mail and immediately follow it with the vowel sound in met. Go back and forth between the two sounds and notice how your mouth opens and closes each time.

What you must be able to do now is to stop in between the two vowels, or in other words, open your mouth half as much when you’re about to go from mail to met or close it half as much when doing the opposite. If you do it right, you’ll land right on the Spanish e sound.

The same technique can be used to articulate the o sound in Spanish. The two sounds you should use for the technique are the first sound of the diphthong in boat (which should sound like that) and the o in oil (which should sound like that).

If you do it right, the Spanish o sound should be coming out of your mouth.

The Vowel u

Last but not least, I’ll tell how to do the Spanish u. This one is a little trickier for native English speakers because it is not exactly the same as the oo from boot in most English dialects.

In fact, it is articulated farther to the back of the mouth.

Maybe you can already do that u, but in case you can’t, here’s a tip:

Start by doing an o like in the word oil like I invited you to do a short moment ago.

Remember how it felt like your mouth closed when going from bat to beet?

Well, I would like you to close your mouth the same way after doing the o sound in oil.

The result should be the Spanish u.

So there you have it. You should now be able to master the 5 Vowels of Spanish.

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