How’s your pronunciation of Spanish vowels?
For a language so beautiful and evocative, Spanish is really stingy with its vowel sounds, trailing way behind English with a sum total of five. Of course, this makes it much easier for foreign learners to master, as there’s no equivalent of dreaded English quandaries such as ‘ship’/’sheep’, ‘Reading’/’reading’, ‘lives’/’lives’ – to say nothing of the ‘–ough’ conundrum! Here’s a quick Spanish pronunciation guide to keep your vowels on the right track.
Pronouncing the Spanish ‘a’
Some people find it helpful to imitate a Northern English ‘a’ when learning the Spanish ‘a’. The sound you need is the ‘a’ in the Northern English ‘cap’ – like what you hear when you say ‘pa-pa-pa-pa’ very quickly. One pitfall we can easily fall into is pronouncing the letter ‘a’ differently in different parts of a word: palabra (meaning ‘word’) should have each of its vowels given an identical sound, and we must avoid the ‘tailing-off’ we produce in, for instance, the English (OK, Italian) word ‘pasta’, where what we tend to say is ‘pass-ter’.
Pronouncing the Spanish ‘e’
The ‘e’ is a bit like the ‘e’ in the English ‘bed’: we can now combine our ‘a’ and our ‘e’ in pronouncing the Spanish elefante (no prizes for guessing its meaning).
Pronouncing the Spanish ‘i’
The trick with the ‘i’ vowel in Spanish is to base it on the English ‘sheep’, not ‘ship’: it’s longer than we might first guess. Have a stab at militante, focusing on keeping the two ‘i’ sounds equal to each other – maybe the English word ‘mealy’ could help. Did you remember to keep the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ nice and open, too?
Pronouncing the Spanish ‘o’
The ‘o’ is like what we hear at the start of the English ‘hospital’. One of the dangers with Spanish words ending in ‘–o’ is for English-speakers to pronounce this ‘–o’ like the English ‘owe’. It needs to be shorter: the word libro (‘book’) has to be ended sharply, as if the final syllable belonged to a speedy rendering of the English ‘broth’. Try it: li-bro.
Pronouncing the Spanish ‘u’
For the ‘u’ sound, we can put down our Spanish pronunciation guide and take a trip back to our school playgrounds when we used to pretend to be apes. Are you there? Touch your armpits with your fingertips and have a listen to what comes out of your mouth. It should be something like the vowel sound of the English word ‘youth’, but without the ‘y’. Keep practising it, but if you insist on doing the ape thing, make sure you do so in private.
There’s a peculiarity about the English word ‘abstemious’, which is that it contains all five vowels, once each and ‘in order’. I’ve yet to find a Spanish word fitting this pattern – maybe you’ll have more luck than me! Meanwhile, there are various Spanish words containing all five vowels which you can use to practise. One of the commonest is ayuntamiento (‘Town Hall’), possibly just along the street from where the farmacéutico is at work dispensing prescriptions.
If all else fails, just pronounce ‘Spanish pronunciation guide’ in Spanish and listen to the vowels: guía a la pronunciación española.