1. Vowel Systems in American English and Spanish

OVERVIEW OF THE VOWEL SYSTEMS IN AMERICAN ENGLISH AND SPANISH

Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter you will:

  • Understand the main features of the vowel system of American English.
  • Understand the main features of the vowel system of Spanish.
  • Be able to differentiate English glidy vowels from Spanish non-glidy vowels.

I. AMERICAN ENGLISH VOWELS

Correct pronunciation of vowels is a very important aspect of mastering a foreign language.  In Spanish, if you pronounce the vowels correctly, you will have taken an enormous step towards native pronunciation.  Broadly speaking, phonetics refer to the study of individual sounds, whereas phonology deals with the interaction between sounds.  First, let’s take a look at the American English vowels.

In English, there are five letters that represent vowel sounds.  However, there are up to 15 different vowel sounds.   Also, you cannot always know how to pronounce them.  Yes, English spelling is a delightfully messy matter!

For example:

Listen to these seven examples where the letter “o” has seven different sounds.  The speaker will say each word twice:


  • to
  • go
  • got
  • some
  • woman
  • women
  • work

English vowels are open and “lazy”, i.e., they require very little tension in the face and mouth to be pronounced.  For example: “bad,” “bit,” “let.”   They are also “glidy,” which means that a vowel will be pronounced starting with one sound and ending with a different sound, like in the case of “Bob,” “right,” “mate,” etc.


 

What is the most common sound in English?

 

 

 

The SCHWA =
The importance of understanding what the schwa is will become obvious when we do a contrastive analysis of  English and Spanish vowels.  For the time being,  watch this video and then take the quiz below.

Now take the quiz.

 

II. SPANISH VOWELS

In comparison to English, Spanish is a phonetic language, i.e. its orthography (spelling) has a one-to-one relationship with its pronunciation.  That means that words are spelled in exactly the same way as they are pronounced.  This is beautiful, isn’t it?  And Spanish vowels are also beautiful!  There are five letters and only five sounds.  That’s it!  Vowels sound the same no matter where in the word or the phrase they are located.  Furthermore, Spanish vowels, as opposed to their English counterparts, are tense, short, and abrupt.

Please watch this short video concerning the Spanish vowels and then take the quiz below.

Listen to the Spanish vowels and then repeat them after the speaker.

Remember, when saying the Spanish vowels you must feel the tension in your face and mouth.

 


 

Does SCHWA exist in Spanish?

 

 

 

No, no, no!!

Since schwa is such a common sound in the English language, it is a great challenge for English speakers not to produce it when speaking Spanish.  Please note that using it can create confusion.  For example, if a person says “buenəs,” their interlocutor would not be sure whether they are saying “buenos” or “buenas”.

III. CONTRASTING GLIDY AND NON-GLIDY VOWELS

As stated above, English vowels are often glidy, whereas Spanish vowels are not.  Therefore, correct pronunciation of Spanish vowels can be a challenge for speakers of English.  In this section, we will contrast pairs of words in English and Spanish.

Listen and repeat the words in the table below.  First, a speaker will say the English glidy version and then another speaker will say the Spanish non-glidy version.  For the time being, concentrate exclusively on the vowel sounds.

 

English /ey/ Spanish /e/
May Me
Say Se
Day De
Lay Le
Kay Que
Re Re
Santa Fe Santa Fe
Forte Fuerte
Megan Megan
Once again, listen and repeat the words in the table below.  First, a speaker will say the English glidy version and then another speaker will say the Spanish non-glidy version.  For the time being, concentrate exclusively on the vowel sounds.

 

English /ow/ Spanish /o/
no no
Jo yo
taco taco
so so
Mexico México
mode modo
do do
Chicago Chicago
obedient obediente

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I'm All Ears by Jorge González Casanova is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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