Pure Vowels

In this first module, we meet one of the fundamental parts to a Spanish accent: pure vowels.

What are pure vowels?

A vowel is a sound produced from the vocal tract, without any friction. Your air breathes freely through your mouth, and with pure vowels, you can sustain the sound as long as your breath (try doing this with a consonant!). A pure vowel is a vowel which does not change in sound quality – your mouth position does not change during the vowel. The “aaaaa” sound we are often asked to make at the dentist is an example of a pure vowel sound. The different vowel sounds that we produce all come from different placements of the tongue inside the mouth.

Spanish has 5 pure vowel sounds, which we will look at in more detail over the next few modules.

Why are pure vowels important?

Pure vowels form a large part of the Spanish language. Every word has a vowel, and these vowels are often pure vowels (other types of vowels include “diphthongs”, “glides”, and others – we’ll get to these in time). Spanish pure vowels are easy to pronounce once you have learnt them, but they are also very easy to get wrong. Why?

English has more vowel sounds than Spanish

English has anywhere between 16 and 20 vowel sounds, depending on the accent. We’re not talking about the letters “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, and “u” – these are written representations which can be pronounced in a wide variety of ways. We mean the actual spoken sounds: compare the pronunciation of “a” in “fast”, “famous”, and “fall”. Because English has a large number of vowel sounds, we often map those English vowel sounds onto Spanish words, which leads to an incorrect pronunciation. You might hear pronunciation like the following:


These are two different pronunciations of the Spanish word “como” (meaning “how”). They both use incorrect vowel sounds. The first instance uses a typical British English pronunciation, whereas the second uses more American English vowels.

Compare it to the correct pronunciation, where the vowel quality stays constant:


Listen to the following few recordings, and decide which recording uses the correct vowel sounds:




¿Dónde estás?

How do we describe vowels?

Describing a sound is hard. That’s why we’ll use recordings for you to listen to. However, you also need to know how to produce the sounds yourself. Luckily, linguists have already produced a “vowel diagram” – a map of your mouth, showing the “point of articulation” of each vowel (ie, where your tongue should be). We’ll take a look at that below, and we’ll also explore it in more detail as we continue through the rest of the course.

Exploring the Vowel Chart

Linguists use this vowel chart to illustrate the tongue position for various vowels:

Although it looks complex, the chart above is nothing more than a representation of your mouth:

The points marked on the chart represent approximately where the tongue is placed during the production of the vowel sound. Each of these points represents a phoneme. The tongue can be placed forward or back, or up and down. As you can see on the diagram, placing the tongue forward and up produces the vowel sound “i” (as in: “eeee”); placing it down and in a mid position produces the sound “a” (as in: “cat”). The five vowels marked on this vowel chart are the Spanish pure vowels, which are the ones we will be looking at in the following modules.


  • Pure vowels are easy to produce, and also easy to get wrong
  • They are a very important part of a clear Spanish pronunciation
  • Spanish has fewer pure vowels than English
  • Most mistakes involving pure vowels are either because of incorrect tongue position, or using an English equivalent vowel