An Upbeat Way to Teach the Pronunciation of Spanish Vowels

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How to Practice Spanish Vowel Sounds

This pronunciation exercise isolates the vowels and may help them avoid the _uh-_sound that often characterizes English pronunciation where vowels are concerned.

The biggest problem English-speaking students of Spanish have with pronouncing Spanish vowels is that there are only five in Spanish, whereas most dialects of English have upwards of fourteen. The problem consists in restricting oneself to only five pure vowel sounds. This difficulty is further complicated by the fact that when an English-speaker sees vowels in certain contexts – surrounded, introduced or followed by consonants or consonant clusters, they are conditioned to pronounce them as they would in English.

Just as with all the letters, English speakers must be constantly reminded at first that each of the five written symbols for vowels in Spanish stand uniquely for one sound only.

One mistake that too many Spanish teachers make is to rush through the early chapters or introductory material in their textbooks where the sounds of Spanish are given attention. From what I’ve gathered over the years, one reason that some teachers rush is that there aren’t enough pronunciation exercises provided in many texts. Other teachers have said that the exercises that are in their textbooks seem so simple that teachers fear boring their students or talking down to them. Another reason is that some academic calendars have bent the natural learning curve to a breaking point where foreign language learning is concerned.

Have no fear of boring pronunciation exercises! This lesson plan will save the day – and bears repeating for other purposes. In a separate lesson plan, you will find instructions on how to conduct useful dictation exercises by doubling up on a sentence used for pronunciation practice, often with cultural value too. (Dictation is another sorely neglected activity in most Spanish classrooms, unlike our French counterparts!)

Getting Started:

Draw a bowl-shaped line on the board, like a smile. For younger students, you could start with a smile on the board (just keep it to one line). Since the alphabetical order of the vowels is another reason that teaching the vowels can be less effective, from left to right, just under the line, write the vowels in this order: i, e, a, o, u. Be sure the a is in the middle, at the bottom-most part of the curve. Next, label the end with the i as the front of the mouth and the end with the u as the back of the mouth at the entrance to the throat. If you draw badly, it can still be humorous. If you have a drawing of a sagittal view of the mouth, it is good to have handy for the next step. A sagittal view is a cut-away view half-way through the mouth from nose to the back of the head, such as you’d see in an ear-nose-throat doctor’s office.

Get the students to focus and listen silently as you pronounce theses five pure vowels, from i-u, as a continuum – no breaks or coming up for air! It will sound like a mantra and might get a few giggles, even from college students, but next comes the lesson they can feel, not just hear.

Looking Funny Part:

Next, tell your students that before they do this themselves, they need to watch your lips as you slowly pronounce i-u again. As you begin, exaggerate the movement of the facial muscles a bit: the i sound should be pronounced with the lips spread wide like a toothy smile, but as you move to the u sound, the lips should tighten into a smoochy pucker. After you’ve modeled that a couple of times, tell them that as the lips are coming together, the tongue is also involved, but in a sort of opposite fashion. It begins at the i sound in a forward position, somewhat raised, goes to a relaxed “say-ah” position in the middle and then backs up toward the throat at the u sound. I like to use my hands to show their opposite motion, with one hand representing the lips, starting with fingers spread and closing them together, and the other representing the tongue’s curved path.

Now For The Laugh:

Now it’s their turn. Let them have at it. Pick out a few brave students to model it for the rest of the class, or, if time permits (often as a wind-down at the end of a class period), have them all do it, or just a few. It is also good to have them do this exercise whenever they come to see you for office hours. And it’s a good ice-breaker!