English Speaker Vowel Tendencies

English Speaker Vowel Tendencies

As an English speaker, you possess general English hearing and speaking patterns that clash with the Spanish sound system and will cause you to hear and mispronounce certain things incorrectly.  Fortunately, these tendencies are predictable and easily fixed as long as you are aware of them.  With enough practice, you will develop new, Spanish-specific hearing and speaking patterns separate from your English ones.Below, I categorize and explain all the major English-speaker vowel mispronunciation tendencies.  Study them carefully and keep them in mind as you progress through the song lessons.

The Tendency to CLOSE the Vowels A, O, and E

As you learned in the last section, the A, O, AND E sounds are all more OPEN than their English counterparts, meaning your tongue is lower and further away from the roof of your mouth.  As a result, you will have a tendency to speak Spanish with a more CLOSED pronunciation.  To reverse this tendency, exaggerate the physical openness of your mouth when speaking these three vowels.  Eventually, your mouth will get used to the sound.To tune your ear to these three sounds, listen to the three verses of the song “Efectos Vocales” (Vowel effects) by the Spaniard rapper “Nach.”  In each verse of this song, he focuses on just one of these vowels, with each syllable containing this single vowel.

The Tendency to REDUCE Vowels in unstressed syllables

Aside from pronouncing the “A”, “E” and “O” vowels more CLOSED,  English speakers also close vowels even further in unstressed syllables due to something called “Vowel Reduction”.  For example, the first syllable in the word “about” sounds more like an “uh”.  This is the same sound as in the unstressed syllables of “Abra kadabra” (actually pronounced “A – bruh – kuh – DA- bruh“). We do the same thing with sounds like “roses” (pronounced ro-zih-s) and “manatee” (pronounced ma-nih-tee”).In Spanish, this causes English speakers to CLOSE vowels up when they are not stressed.  This is incorrect because vowel reduction does not occur in Spanish.  As you should have noticed from the rap song above – all Spanish vowel sounds are pronounced the exact same whether stressed or unstressed.To illustrate these English tendencies, the audio below first plays the incorrect English pronunciation of the Spanish word “nada”, then the correct Spanish pronunciation.  Note that this error occurs most frequently with Spanish words with the “A” sound.

The Tendency to DIPHTHONGIZE “O” and “E”

In English, the “o” and “e” are generally realized as dipthongs, meaning we add another CLOSER vowel at the end as we close our mouths.  For “o” we diphthongize it to a “u” as in the word “Oh!” (Ou).  For “e” we diphthongize it to an “i”, as in the word “Hey!” (Hei).This does NOT happen in Spanish.  These sounds are short and sweet, with no additional vowels added on the end.  The audio below demonstrates.

The Tendency to ROUND “O” and “U”

When English speakers say the vowel “u,” they tend to curl their lips in at the end, which alters the sound.  Moreover, since they diphthongize the “O” as described above, they also tend to round the end of “o” sounds as in the word “No”.  Imitate the speaker in the video below and try to build an awareness of this lip motion.  In Spanish, there is no rounding, so your lips should never curl like this.

The Tendency to R-Color vowels

As you will review next section, there is a Spanish consonant sound known as The Alveolar Tap.  In, Spanish writing, this sound is represented by the letter “r”.  Very often in Spanish, this sound occurs at the end of a syllable, after the vowel (e.g. AR, IR, UR, ER, and OR).  Because these sounds are written with the “r”, however, English speakers have a STRONG inclination to pronounce these words according to English spelling.
This effect is called “R-coloring Vowels,” and it does NOT exist in Spanish.   R-coloring vastly alters the sound of a vowel, so the only reason an English speaker would pronounce it this way in the first place is because he starts with a visual concept of the word’s spelling.  To prevent you from developing this same habit, The Flow of Spanish uses the arbitrary ampersand symbol – & – to represent the alveolar tap sound.  You will be much less likely to r-color if you conceptualize these sounds as A&, I&, U&, E& and O&.

As far as vowels are concerned, these five tendencies will probably account for 80%of your pronunciation errors (the rest consisting of consonant errors).  Develop an awareness of them now, and you can eliminate them from your speech patterns very quickly.  When providing you feedback on your audio submissions for the song lessons, I will reference these tendencies a lot, so be sure to return this page regularly as you improve your pronunciation.

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