They Don't Talk too Fast: You Listen Too Slow! Eliding Vowels Between Words

By Eric W. Vogt

The technical term is synaloepha. Begin using written texts to teach students to pronounce Spanish with a more natural, native rhythm and their listening comprehension will improve by leaps and bounds. This article gives examples and presents a plan for teaching pronunciation deliberately.

Spanish Speakers Don't Speak Too Fast: You Listen Too Slowly

One reason that it seems that Spanish is spoken so quickly is because when one word ends in a vowel and the next word begins with one, the two vowels frequently elide -- or become one syllable. This phenomenon is known as synaloepha (see-nah-LEH-fah).They still retain their individual sound values but are pronounced as one syllable.

A syllable is defined simply as what comes out in one breath, unbroken by a consonant. The simplest syllables are the vowels by themselves: i, e, a, o, u. Syllables can also consist of a consonant-vowel combination: bi, ga, lo, or vowel-consonant: un, el, es. Syllables can also be formed by consonant-vowel-consonant: las, les, dos. Stil another combination is consonant cluster plus vowel and even cluster-vowel-consonant. The consonant cluster is usually an oclusive consonant followed by a liquid (L or R): tres.

The combination of vowel-consonant-vowel results in two syllables: ese -- pronounced EH-seh, or esa -- pronounced EH-sah.

To see synaloepha in action, let's add a word after esa (which means that, feminine singular): esa escuela (that school). This is pronounced eliding the final -a of esa and the initial e- of escuela, creating a four-, not a five-syllable utterance: EH/saes/KWEH-lah.

When one is aware of this phenomenon and applies it to his or her own practice of Spanish, the result will be a smoother delivery, eliminating the choppy pronunciation of English with its many glottal stops. It also helps the student of Spanish begin to eliminate the sing-songy quality of English that many English speakers transfer unconsciously to their Spanish.

The best way to deal with pronunciation is by getting students to read aloud, slowing down so they can be conscious of what they are doing and how they are articulating words and grouping them in terms of syllables. Poetry is the best. The teacher should mark the texts to show where synaloepha occurs. Too much marking is confusing, so use a simple rocker-shaped line connecting the elided vowels at their bases.