You probably want to talk Spanish even more than to read it at this point, but right from the beginning you can take advantage of the Spanish alphabet to cue pronunciation. The Spanish alphabet is one of the world’s best representations of a spoken language. Once you get used to the sound values for the letters you can forget about most of those distracting and strange-looking pronunciation guides you may have seen in other materials:
gracias, say “grah-see-ahs” (this is not only distracting, it’s inaccurate)
Also, you will want to practice some of those similarities and differences between English and Spanish sounds that will tend to carry over from your English speech habits when you are trying to form new Spanish speech habits. At first you will have to pay close attention to the models, trying to mimic them, and practice, practice, practice.
Pronunciation, after all, is the result of habitual physical articulation (voice and mouth movements). Habits that are repeated daily usually become well entrenched after about a month of practice.
Spanish Vowel Sound Formation
Spanish is a musical, sonorant language. It sounds that way to us partly because of its system of five cardinal vowels, almost like operatic singing vowels.
- The lowest vowel–most open in the mouth, with the tongue in the lowest position–is ‘a’. It is written with the letter “a” (yes, say “ah” — but short and crisp).
- Raise the tongue to mid-position, close the jaw a bit, and sing ‘e’ (like the vowel in the English “bait”, but don’t trail off into the y-sounding off-glide).
- Raise the jaw a bit more and also the tongue, spread the lips a bit more, and sing ‘i’ (yes, like the vowel in English “bee”, but keep it steady and short).
- ‘e’ and ‘i’ are the two front vowels. Now go back again to the open, low vowel ‘a’. Next, we’ll work on the two rounded back vowels.
- From ‘a’, round the lips, raise the tongue a bit, and sound ‘o’ (as in English “boat”, but don’t trail off into a “w” off-glide).
- For ‘u’, again round the lips, raise the tongue more, and close the jaw a bit more (like English “boo”, but again guard against the wuh-ish off-glide).
That’s it. You may be helped to remember the five-vowel system by keeping in mind a triangle that represents vowel tongue height, jaw openness and spreading or rounding of the lips:
Spanish Vowels: Articulation Chart
|Sound||Front 1||Central 3||Back 2|
1 The front vowels are accompanied by lip spreading.
2 The back vowels are accompanied by lip rounding.
3 The central vowel [a] is neutral, similar to the mouth formation of “o” in English “pot”.
If you’d like to see and hear the Spanish vowels, watch this video: Learn Spanish Vowels Video.
Here is an amusing chant that has been used in some Spanish speaking countries by children learning the vowel letters and sounds. Try it, concentrating on the vowel and the word at the end of each line.
A. El burro se va. — A. The burro is leaving.
E. El burro se fue. — E. The burro has gone.
I. El burro está aquí. — I. The burro is right here.
O. El burro soy yo. — O. I'm the burro.
U. El burro eres tú. — U. You're the burro.
‘Burro’ is a good-natured reference to thick-headedness. Say this ditty over and over until you have banished all Englishy sound attachments to these letters.
The next lesson will deal with consonants, and putting together syllables, words and phrases.