Author: Ela Britchkow, Speech Therapist, Certified American English Pronunciation, Accent Reduction Specialist
True, a little learning is a dangerous thing, but it still beats total ignorance.
-Abigail Van Buren
Spanish and English each have five vowel letters, but the similarity stops there. Sometimes people assume that there are five vowel sounds in English: A, E, I, O and U. However, this is a misconception. These are vowel letters, not vowel sounds. Each vowel letter can represent more than one sound. For example,
the letter 'a' can represent /æ/ as in hat, /ey/ as in hate, /ɑ/ as in car, or /ɛ/ as in care. Also, each vowel sound can be represented in more than one way in spelling: The sound /iy/ can be written as ee in seem, as ea in seal, as ie in piece, as ei in receipt, as ey in key, as i...e in machine, and perhaps more.
There’s certainly not a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds, and English has many more vowel sounds than vowel letters. For most speakers of American English, there are 14 vowel sounds, or 15 if we include the vowel-like sound in words like bird and her.
Spanish, however, has only five vowel sounds, one per vowel letter, as heard in para “for,” pera “pear,” pira “pyre,” pora “leek,” and pura “pure.” (These roughly correspond to the five vowels of bot, bait, beet, boat, and boot.)
Let’s look at these American vowels that cause Spanish speakers difficulty more closely.
Let’s take the letter “o”. When a Spanish speaker sees it, he/she wants to pronounce it as “o”. Unfortunately in English, it is usually pronounced as “ah”. Frequently the name John will be pronounced as Joan. The /a/ sound exists in Spanish, but it is represented with the letter a.
The reverse of this sound is also a problem. Spanish speakers tend to pronounce the letter o in some words as an “uh” when it really should be an o, for example in words like: most, only, both.
The /ae/ sound doesn’t exist in Spanish, so it is usually pronounced as “ah”, so “hat” sounds like “haht” or “hot”.
The “u” sound as in book, is usually over pronounced to “ooh”. The culprit here is spelling. Words such as moon and school are spelled with two o’s and are pronounces with a long /u/ sound. Other words such as ‘good” and “look” are also spelled with two o’s and are pronounced halfway between ih and uh.
Spanish speakers over pronounce the vowel /i/ so it sounds like “eee”, So that the word “sit” sounds like “seat”.
The shwa or “uh’ or /ə/ sound does not exist in Spanish. When you encounter the schwa sound it will be disguised by all 6 of American English vowels. You will find it masquerading as the “a” in “about”; the “e” as in the second syllable of “elephant”; the “i” as in pencil; the /o/ in “condition”; “u” as in “support” and the “y” as in “ vinyl”.
In order to let people know that the vowel spelled in a word is actually a schwa sound, it is symbolized by an upside down e in the International Phonetic Alphabet and also in the dictionary. It looks like this: ə.
The pronunciation of American vowel sounds are important and can be learned very easily and then with practice can be integrated into your everyday life. Practice for the best English speaking learning.
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By Ela Britchkow, Speech and Language Pathologist
©2017 Ela Britchkow