English-Speaker Vowel Mistakes

As an English speaker you developed hearing and speaking patterns that clash with the Spanish sound system. Fortunately, these tendencies are predictable and fixable once you become aware of them. With vowels, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors so that's why it gets its own page.

By understanding the things you're inclined to do wrong, you can begin to make sense of these differences. Below, I categorize and explain all the major English vowel mispronunciation tendencies.

Tendency #1: "Closing/Reducing" Vowels

As you learned before, /a/ /o/ and /e/ are more OPEN than in English. This means that your tongue is lower and further back to the extremes of your mouth. Because of this, you'll tend to CLOSE these vowels.

To reverse this tendency, exaggerate the physical openness of your mouth for these vowels. To help tune your ear to these sounds, listen to three verses of the song "Efectos Vocales" by the Spaniard rapper "Nach." In each verse, he focuses on just one vowel sound.

Tendency #2: Closing even more in unstressed syllables

Aside from /a/ /e/ and /o/, we often close vowels even more in unstressed syllables. For example, the first vowel in the word "about" sounds more like "uh-bout." We do the same thing with words like "roses" (ro-zihs) and "manatee" (ma-nih-tee). This is incorrect because vowel reduction does not occur in Spanish.

All Spanish vowels are pronounced the exact same whether stressed or unstressed. In all cases, and /a/ is and /a/ no matter which part of the word it occupies.

Tendency #3: "Diphthongizing" Vowels

In English, diphthongizing is a fancy word meaning we add an additional vowel at the end of words as we close our mouths. For "o" we diphthongize it to a "u" as in the word "hello!" (He-lo->u). For "e" we diphthongize it to an "i", as in the word "Hey!" (He->i).

This does NOT happen in Spanish. These sounds are short and sweet, with no additional vowels added on the end. The audio below demonstrates.

Tendency #4: "Rounding" Vowels

When English speakers say the vowels /u/ and /o/, they tend to curl their lips in at the end which alters the sound.

In Spanish, there is no rounding so your lips should never curl like this. To avoid doing this, you will want to keep these vowels short and crisp.

​Imitate the audio and try to build an awareness of this lip motion.

Tendency #5: "R-Coloring" Vowels

Next we review the Alveolar Tap, a.k.a. the notorious Spanish 'R' sound.

As a Spanish learner, you may have a STRONG tendency as an English speaker to replace the Spanish 'R' with the English /ɹ/ sound.​ Even more important, it is also the MOST common consonant speech sound in the language.

​Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. To prevent you from developing this habit, we use an arbitrary symbol - /&/ - to represent the alveolar tap.

You will be much less likely to make this mistake if you conceptualize these sounds as a&, i&, u&, e& and o&.
Like I said, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors. Develop an awareness of them now and you can drop them from your speech patterns quickly. Be sure to return this page regularly as you improve your pronunciation.