Learning a language such as Spanish is a decidedly difficult task, especially for the grammar rules of the language, its irregular verbs and its pronunciation.

In this article, we shed light on a key point in Spanish learning: the diphthong and triphthong.

Where can you study basic vocabulary?
Make sure to study the Spanish alphabet. (Source: pixabay.com)

Pronouncing the Spanish Alphabet

Before learning - and understanding - how Spanish grammar works, you have to learn the Spanish alphabet and its pronunciation.

The Hispanic idiom uses a Latin alphabet similar to our English mother tongue but with more letters.

While in English, we have 26 letters, there were until 2010, 29 in the Spanish language: 6 vowels and 23 consonants including three phonemes intrinsic to Spanish ("ch", "ll" and "ñ").

The Royal Spanish Academy changed the alphabet in 2010 to retain only 27 letters, getting rid of the letters "ch" (pronounced "tch") and "ll", now considered as a simple combination of letters.

There are 6 vowels: "a", "e", "i", "o", "u" and "y" in Spanish. The pronunciation is as follows:

  • A: pronounced like ah in English
  • E: pronounced like eh in English
  • I: pronounced like ee in English
  • O: pronounced like oh in English
  • U: pronounced like oo in English
  • Y: pronounced like e in English

To learn to speak Spanish like a native, it must be understood that Spanish vowels are relatively short, unlike those pronounced in English.

Words in Spanish contain particular combinations of vowels:

For example, all irregular verbs often associate a strong or open vowel ("a", "e", "o") with a weak or closed vowel ("i" and "u").

Find out about the different accents in Spanish.

Diphthong and Triphthong: What are We Talking About?

The Spanish language is relatively close to other Romance languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian): obeying a grammatical order "SVO" (subject-verb-object).

This means that the adjectives agree in gender and in number with the subject and that the verb is conjugated accordingly.

However, in Spanish, there are some irregularities to learn.

When a weak vowel is next to to a strong vowel ("pienso", the conjugation of the verb "pensar", "to think" in first person singular), or when two weak vowels unite (as in "ciudad", “city”), a sound of a syllable is created: this is what we call a diphthong.

The diphthong is a complex vowel (two vowels in succession) that modifies the sound of the word when pronouncing the syllable. It serves to soften the sound of a word in front of strong vowels.

To pronounce a diphthong, you must learn to say the sound of the first vowel, then the next. Here are some examples of recurrent diphthongs:

  • "ai" or "ay",
  • "ei" or "ey",
  • "ui" or "uy",
  • "ie", as in "empiezo", (I start),
  • "io", as in "cielo", (the sky),
  • "ue", as in "cuesta" or "puedo" ("I can" of the verb poder).

It is worth learning a list of irregular verbs and conjugations so you know which verbs contain diphthongs.

Now can you guess what a triphthong is?

A triphthong is a vowel sound composed of three vowel elements within the same syllable.

It is formed with an open vowel sandwiched between two closed vowels: weak-strong-weak vowels.

The triphthong serves in particular to conjugate the verb in the second person singular, for example:

  • Despreciar: vosotros despreciáis (present indicative),
  • Haber: vosotros habíais (imperfect indicative),
  • Estudiar: estudiáis (present indicative),
  • Apreciar: vosotros apreciáis (present indicative).

Got it?

Now you just need to practice this with grammar exercises to memorise it!

Mastering Diphthongs and Triphthongs

Grammar and spelling are perhaps the most difficult disciplines to master, but not impossible!

Letters are kind of the cement of sentences. To know the alphabet by heart makes it possible to build words, to expand your vocabulary and to master verb conjugation.

Spanish writing requires paying particular attention to spelling because a missing accent on a letter can change the meaning of the word.

There is no shortage of revision materials online, but see here where to find the best sites.
Revision materials can be found anywhere and everywhere but there are some websites that are particularly useful. Photo credit: Solent Creatives via Visual Hunt / CC BY

How to properly revise diphthongs and triphthongs then?

Of course, we recommend making a list of all Spanish vocabulary words containing these famous irregularities.

You can find these in a grammar book or on a website where you can take Spanish lessons online.

Try out the app Duolingo. This online learning portal lets you learn progressively through free courses. You can test your Spanish through translation, vocabulary-correcting exercises, speech recognition and spelling correction. You’ll master diphthongs and triphthongs in no time!

Another idea to improve your Spanish is to find a personal tutor onSuperprof. They will give you one on one help with spanish lessons in grammar and you can progress at your own pace.

And finally, immerse yourself in a Spanish-speaking environment. If you can’t make it to Spain or Latin America then you can try these tips at home:

• Listen to audiobooks or podcasts,
• Read the Spanish press,
• Highlight the words with diphthong and triphthong in newspapers/ literature,
• Read Spanish literature (you don’t necessarily have to understand everything but it will enrich your vocabulary).

Spanish Diphthong Verbs

As a reminder: diphthong verbs are those with two vowels that are pronounced as a single syllable.

Remember that in a diphthong verb the vowels ‘o’ and ‘u’ turn into ‘ue’ and ‘e’ and ‘i’ turn into ‘ie’.

Being able to identify diphthong verbs is essential if you want to be able to faultlessly speak Spanish.

Here is a list – far from exhaustive - of the verbs undergoing this linguistic change:

  • Absolute: To absolve,
  • Acertar: To succeed,
  • Acordar: To decide,
  • Acordarse: To remember,
  • Acostarse: To lie down,
  • Adquirir: To acquire,
  • Almorzar: To lunch,
  • Aprobar: To approve,
  • Cocer: To cook,
  • Comenzar: To start,
  • Comprobar: To check,
  • Contar: To count, tell,
  • Costar: To cost,
  • Defender: To defend,
  • Despertar: To wake up,
  • Llover: To rain,
  • Perder: To lose,
  • Pensar: To think,
  • Poder: To be able to,
  • Soñar: To dream,
  • Sonar: To ring,
  • Tener: To have,
  • Volver: To return.

It is already good to learn these, but you’ll find more complete lists online.

We recommend learning 5 verbs a day, no more. Your brain will be able to memorise more this way than trying to learn them all at once.  

See, the diphthong and triphthong are not so complicated, they just take some work!

In my Spanish lessons London, my Superprof tutor placed special emphasis on learning these, right off!

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