How To Pronounce Vowels in Spanish

Sounds are purer than in English

Yellow dump truck with block letters

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English speakers generally find the pronunciation of Spanish vowels to be easy. Close approximations of all their sounds exist in English, and, with the exception of the e and the sometimes silent u, each of the vowels has basically one sound.

The main thing to keep in mind is that in Spanish the vowels' sounds are more distinct than they are in English. In English, any vowel can be represented by what's known as the schwa, an unstressed vowel sound such as the "a" in "about," the "ai" in "mountain," and the "u" in "pablum." But in Spanish, such an indistinct sound isn't used. In general, the sound remains the same regardless of the word it's in or whether it's in a stressed syllable.

Pronouncing the 5 Vowels

First, the more or less invariable sounds:

  • A is pronounced similarly to the "a" in "father" or the "o" in "loft." Examples: madre, ambos, mapa. There are some speakers who sometimes pronounce the a something halfway between the "a" in "father" and the "a" in "mat," but in most areas the first sound given is standard.
  • I is pronounced similarly to the "ee" in "feet" and the "e" in "me," although usually a little briefer. Examples: finca, timbre, mi.
  • O is pronounced like the "oa" in "boat" or the "o" in "bone," although usually a little briefer. Example: teléfono, amo, foco.

Now, the two vowels whose sound can change:

  • E is generally pronounced like the "e" in "met" when it is at the beginning or within a word. It is pronounced similarly to the Canadian "eh," kind of a shortened version of the "é" in the English "café," when it is at the end of the word. Sometimes it can be somewhere between those two sounds. It's not quite the sound of the English letter "A," which if pronounced slowly often has an "ee" sound at the end, but closer to the "e" of "met." Keep in mind that even when it's at the end of the word, in a sentence it may sound more like the "e" of met. For example, in a phrase such as de vez en cuando, each e has approximately the same sound. Examples: café, compadre, embarcar, enero.
  • U is generally pronounced like the "oo" in "boot" or the "u" in "tune." Examples: universo, reunión, unidos. In the combinations gui and gue, as well as after q, the u is silent. Examples: guía, guerra, quizás. If the u should be pronounced between a g and i or e, a dieresis (also called an umlaut) is placed over it. Examples: vergüenza, lingüista.

Diphthongs and Triphthongs

As in English, two or three vowels in Spanish can blend together to form a sound. The sound is basically the sound of the two or three vowels rapidly pronounced. For example, the u when followed by an a, e, i, or o ends up sounding something like the "w" in "water." Examples: cuaderno, cuerpo, cuota. The ai combination sounds something like the sound of "eye." Examples: hay, airear. The i when followed by an a, e, or u sounds kind of like the "y" in "yellow": hierba, bien, siete. And other combinations are possible as well: miau, Uruguay, caudillo.

What To Avoid in Pronouncing Vowels

English speakers hoping to be precise in their Spanish pronunciation should be aware that some English vowel sounds aren't as pure as they seem. Most notably, if you listen carefully, you might notice that the vowel sound in "foe," especially in slower speech, has a "oo" sound at the end, making the word sound something like "foh-oo." The Spanish o, however, has only the initial "oh" sound.

Also, the u of Spanish should never be pronounced like the "u" in "fuse" and "united."

Pronouncing ‘Y’ and ‘W’

Generally, the y is pronounced the same as it would be if it were an i, as part of a diphthong. Examples: rey, soy, yacer. Some words that are derived from English and have a y at the end often retain the English pronunciation. For example, in popular songs, you may hear words such as sexy and phrases such as oh baby.

The w, used only in words of foreign origin, is pronounced the same as the u when it precedes a vowel. However, many speakers also add a soft "g" sound at the beginning of words beginning with a w, such as whisky, sometimes spelled güiski.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish vowel sounds are purer than the vowels of English. Except for the e and the sometimes-silent u, the vowel sounds in Spanish don't depend on whether the vowel is stressed.
  • Partly because they are purer, vowel sounds in Spanish tend to be briefer than they are in English.
  • Two or three consecutive Spanish vowels form diphthongs or triphthongs, respectively.