The phoneme /w/ is the one we find in words such as wax, word, would or window. It’s the same sound we make in Spanish when we say hueso or huevo, so in theory it shouldn’t be problematic for Spanish speakers. However, the /w/ causes trouble in certain contexts, especially when it’s followed by /ʊ/ or /uː/, so it is advisable to check that we pronounce it correctly.
Let’s start by listening to some native speakers saying the /w/:
Very fulfilled as a woman (Ben Kingsley, BBC4).
I wasn’t really aware of what The Apprentice was (Rupert Everett, BBC4).
It’s a lovely moment when women become water, and that always feels like a release (A.S. Byatt, BBC4).
The most mysterious thing about acting to non-actors is whether you become someone else (Mark Lawson, BBC4).
Making it a woman made it less easy to dismiss, if you like, as a macho-man’s movie about war (Helen Mirren, BBC4).
w (Labio-velar, approximant, voiced)
Spelling: w (wait, word), wh (what, white), u (penguin, quite, persuade). Exceptional spelling (non-written w): one /wʌn/, once /wʌns/, choir /kwaɪə/.
When you say a /w/ your tongue and lips adopt the same position as for an [u], that is, the tongue is raised high at the back of the mouth and the lips are rounded. The degree of rounding greatly depends on the following vowel. If you say the word wax (/wæks/), your lips will have very little rounding because the /æ/ vowel is pronounced with spread lips. On the other hand, if you say warm /wɔːm/, your lips will need much more rounding because the /ɔː/ is a rounded vowel.
Listen to the following words and repeat them. You’ll see that the degree of rounding they require is different:
wax way weed one word want warm
Whenever you have difficulty pronouncing the /w/, a good tactic is try rounding your lips a little bit more. This will help you find a way of saying the /w/ in which you’ll feel more comfortable. However, I left the most difficult combinations out on purpose. Now, they’ll be treated in the next point.
Let’s tackle the problem head-on. The key to solving it is in the rounding of the lips, that must be clearly marked because both /ʊ/ and/uː/ are rounded vowels. So, try following these steps:
- Before saying the /w/, round your lips as though you were going to whistle. You must feel the tension in them.
- When you utter the sound, make sure you give the /ʊ/ or /uː/ its proper length. (/ʊ/, short; /uː/, long).
Now it’s time to practice. First, do this line, with /wʊ/:
And now this one, with /wuː/:
Some of these words are rather difficult to pronounce, but they aren’t very many and with a little bit of practice you’ll do them perfectly well. Since they are generally very common words, I think it’s worth your while.