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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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2 Spanish vowels one-by-one

  • The high front vowel /i/ is higher, more closed, than English /ɪ/ (bit), but shorter than English /iː/ (beat) and non-diphthongal. While English /iː/ starts a bit lower and then glides up, Spanish /i/ is invariant. 
  • The high back vowel /u/ is also short and non-diphthongal just like /i/ and is more back, i.e. articulated with a more retracted tongue than its English counterparts, the lower short /ʊ/ (foot) and the long, slightly diphthongal /uː/ (food).
  • The mid front vowel /e/ is a bit higher and longer than the English vowel /e/ as in bet. Spanish /e/ can occur in open syllables (syllables with no coda consonant) in-te-re-san-teas well as in closed syllables ver (see) and cen-tro (centre), while the phonotactic rules of English only allow the diphthong /eɪ̯/ in open syllables as in May. /e/ is banned in this position, it can occur in closed syllables only (/eɪ̯/ can occur in closed syllables as well, e.g. made).

This is a common source of pronunciation mistakes for English learners of Spanish.  The well-known English phrase No way, José will definitely not rhyme if the word José is pronounced correctly in Spanish. In fact, if a learner pronounces a glide in open syllables, it becomes the Spanish diphthong /ei̯/, so pena (pain) might sound like peina (s/he combs), while le (to him/her) might sound like ley (law), although the Spanish diphthong has a slightly longer glide element.

For higher levels: /e/ in contact with the trill rand /x/ as in perro (dog) and lejos (far) is more open than in other contexts. 

  • The contrast between English and Spanish mid back vowels is similar. Spanish /o/ is higher than the vowel in dog and it can occur in both closed and open syllables, while in English only the diphthong /əʊ̯/ as in go, is allowed in open syllables.
  • The Spanish vowel /a/ is at about the same distance from three RP vowels; the front low /æ/ as in cat, the mid-low /ʌ/ as in cutand the low back /ɑː/ as in cart. It´s not surprising that Spanish learners of English find it difficult to distinguish these vowels and that English learners of Spanish find it hard to achieve the correct pronunciation.

A characteristic feature of all five Spanish vowels is that they are more or less stable all the way through their production and across their position within the word. We have seen in Week 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  that Spanish vowels are not reduced in unstressed position either. 

Some problems might relate to the visual interference in case of cognate words (see Week 2). In these cases the pronunciation of the English vowels can be carried over into Spanish. For example, mission [ˈmɪʃ(ə)n] vs. mission [mi 'sion]. Note that all the vowels are pronounced differently. 

For higher levels: In some varieties of south-eastern Spain (mostly spoken in and close to the province of Granada), most vowels have a more open allophone as well. The difference between the two allophones is significant in the case of the mid vowels /e/ and /o/. The phenomenon is called desdoblamiento vocálico and was first described by Navarro Tomás (1939). In these varieties, word-final /s/ is generally deleted, however, before these silent s’s the open allophones appear and thus the morphological meaning of /s/ (e.g. plural, or verb ending) is not lost; coche ['kot∫e] (car) vs. coches ['kot∫ɛ] (cars).

Ideas for exercises

You might find the recordings on The mimic methodwebpage useful for practising the pronunciation of vowels. spanish-pronunciation-ultimate-guide/


Hualde, José Ignacio. The Sounds of Spanish, 2005, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ladefoged, Peter and Johnson, Keith. A Course in Phonetics. (6th ed.), 2010, Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth Publishing.
Maddieson, Ian. Patterns of Sounds,1984, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Paperback reprint 2009.
Navarro Tomás, Tomás. “Desdoblamiento de fonemas vocálicos”, 1939, Revista de Filología HispánicaVol. 1: 165-7. 
Roach, Peter, "British English: Received Pronunciation”, 2004, Journal of the International Phonetic AssociationVol. 34(2): 239-245.