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 How to pronounce Spanish

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PostSubject: How to pronounce Spanish   Sat 4 Dec - 10:53

This section gives a guide to Spanish pronunciation. Pronunciation can be quitea complex issue, and learners at different levels will be interested in different levelsof complexity. So the approach we'll take here will be as follows:

  • we'll firstly pretend that words can be viewed as made up of "distinct sounds",each represented by a letter or group of letters (in reality, as anyone who hasstudied phonetics will know, this is a massive oversimplification, but it's alsoa practical way of "getting started");
  • for each letter or group of letters of Spanish, we'll compare the sound itrepresents to a nearby sound of English (or occasionally, another language);
  • for tricky sounds, we give an audio recording (or in somecases several recordings) to illustrate the sound;
  • we'll also give, in a separate column, a few more details about thepronunciation of the "sounds" in question.
Students at a more advanced stage will want todelve in a little deeper and look at some of the phoneticprocesses that happen in fluent speech, and abandon theidea of speech being made up of discrete "sounds" or "segments".But for many learners, the simple "letter by letter" approach to pronunciationwe take here will be enough to pronounce Spanish understandably.


Basic guide to Spanish pronunciation

Vowels

On a simple level, we can say that Spanish has five basic vowels, generllyrepresented in writing by the letters a, e,i, o and u.The table below gives a "typical target pronunciation" foreach of the five vowels, trying to relate them to the closest vowel of English.Of course, how close a Spanish vowel is to an English vowel really depends on the particular accentof both English and Spanish!Vowel (letter)Approximate pronunciationComments
iSimilar to English ee, see, keeping your lips spread throughout the vowel. pipí


  • Try to aim to hold your mouth and tongue as still as possible while pronouncing Spanish vowels (in practice, they actually have to move to "go from one sound to the next").
  • Try to give vowels more or less the same "quality" whether or not they're stressed: try to avoidthe neutral uh sound (often called a schwa)that often occurs with non-stressed vowels in English.For example, about is generally pronounced uh-bout;but in the Spanish word agua, each a has the quality ofan "a" sound (but the first stressed vowel has a higher pitch). The quality ofvowels in Spanish does vary a little depending on stress position, butthere's no central vowel as a target as in English.
  • Some varieties of English give the vowel an "r colouring" in words like car(or in simple terms, the "r is pronounced").This doesn't happen in Spanish. Try to give the a vowel a similar qualityto the vowel of ah! or car, but without giving it the "r colouring".
  • With the o and u sounds, try and keep the lips well rounded andthe tongue held towards the back of the mouth.
  • Note that in the sequence gu, the u doesn't actually representa sound in this case: it just signals the "value" of the g (see below).
eSimilar to English eh, bed, butwith the tongue slightly higher in the mouth. Pepe
aSimilar to English ah or car (British pronunciation). papa
oSimilar to English o as in hot, but with the lips well rounded; similar to typical Southern British pronunciation, but with the back of the tongue slightly higher in the mouth. poco
uSimilar to English oo as in boo, keeping your lips rounded throughout the vowel. Lulu
Spanish vowels can actually combine into diphthongs in many cases.See the next section on the syllable in Spanishfor more details.Consonants

Consonant (letter)Approximate pronunciationComments
pLike the p in English spot. papa


  • If you're a native English speaker,put your hand in front of your mouth and say the words pace and space.In pace, you'll probably feel a stronger "current of air" as you say the psound than in space. An all cases, the Spanishp is much more like it is in English space. Try to practisesaying the English word pace in such a way that you don't feel the strong "current of air"when you hold your hand in front of your mouth (imagine "chopping off the s" in space).Spanish t and k sounds are similar. To practise these sounds,imaging saying words like stick, skate, but "chopping off the s".
  • Most Spanish speakers, when they pronounce the t sound,let the very tip of their tongue touch their teeth. Practice saying words with tsounds pronounced in this way.
  • If you're a US speaker, try to avoid "flapping" the t when it occursbetween to vowels (as in US English better)— in the Spanish t,the tongue still makes "full contact" (though as mentioned, at a point a little further forwardin the mouth than in English, so that the very tip of the tongue also touches the teeth).
Note that in Spanish, the letter k is essentially only used in loanwords,such as kilo, or in SMS messaging as a shorter replacement to qu(e.g. kiero = quiero; ke = que/qué).
tLike the t in English stop.
c before a, o, u
k
qu
Like the c/k in English scoot, skip.
b, vLike the b in English humble.

  • Like the Spanish t, the d is pronounced with thevery tip of the tongue touching the back of the upper teeth. The tongue also makescontact with the alveolar ridge, the ridge just behind the upper teeth.
  • Unlike English, Spanish speakers generally pronounce b, dand g so that the vocal cords vibrate all the way through these sounds.Unless you've been trained in phonetics, you may find it difficult to control this voicing at first.A technique that may work is to imagine saying a word like humble, butthen imagine "chopping off" the first syllable hum-.
  • In various positions, these stops are frequently approximated: that is,the speech organs involved don't quite come into contact enough to completely stopthe sound (or even cause much friction).
dLike the d in English sanding.dado
g before a, o, uLike the g in English finger.
chLike English ch.Note that in words such as chofer, chef(where English would generally have a "sh" sound at the beginningof the word), Spanish speakers tend to still pronounce these words with ach— similar to the ch in English church.
mLike English m.If m occurs at the end of a word (which is rare in Spanish),some speakers pronounce it as n.
nLike English n. For many British speakers, likethe n in tenth.Spanish speakers generally pronounce n with the very tip of the tongue touchingthe back of the upper teeth (as with t and d).As with t and d, the tongue also makescontact with the alveolar ridge.However, note that,as in English, the n is very susceptible to changing how it is pronounceddepending on the surrounding sounds. So in tengo, the n ispronounced with the tongue in the position for a g, as would usually happen in theEnglish word tango or in the phrase ten girls.
ñA bit like English ny in canyon.For details of how this sound actually differs from English ny, and from theni in a Spanish word such as genio,see the separate page on pronunciation of Spanish n tilde.
fLike English f.
z
c, sc (before e or i)
In most dialects of Spain: similar to US English th in think.
In most other dialects (notably in Latin America): pronounced as s.


  • This means that pairs such as ves/vez are generally pronouncedidentically in Latin America, but are pronounced distinctly in Spain.
  • Spaniards generally appear to pronounce z with the tongue between theteeth. This is generally similar to how US speakers pronounce the English th sound,but different to most British speakers (who pronounce it with the tongue behind theteeth).
  • In the sequence sce-, sci- (as in escena,piscina), Latin American speakers generally pronounce scas a simple s. In Spain, the pronunciation varies: sc ispronounced either as though written z, or sometimes as though writtensz.
sEssentially like English ss, with dialectal variation.

  • In Spanish, the s generally keeps its "hissing" sound even at the endsof words. So be careful not to pronounce it like a z at the end of plurals, for example.
  • The s sound is pronounced so that part of the front of the tonguemakes a narrow constriction around the ridge at the front of the mouth.In Spain, that constriction is usually with the very tip of the tongue,whereas in English (and in certain varieties of Latin American Spanish, notably in Mexico),it is often with the part of the tongue just behind the tip.
  • The pronunciation of s in Spanish is actually quite a complex issue.Depending on the region, and depending on where s occurs in the word/syllable,various pronunciations are possible.
j
g (before e and i or at the end of a word)
Before or after a "front" vowel (i, e), often similar to theh sound in hue, or the fricative k sound thatyou can get in English kick it when said very rapidly.
gira
lejos
In the presence of other vowels, often similar to the Scottish/Welsh chsound (as in loch), or German Aachen.
jabón
joven

There is some variation in how this sound is pronounced. The "common factor" isgenerally that the back of the tongue comes into contact with the roof or back ofthe mouth and causes friction, and that it is voiceless (speakers aim to stoptheir vocal cords vibrating during this sound).Some speakers essentially have a pronunciation similar to English kick it saidrapidly (i.e. the friction occurs around the tongue position for k), whateverthe following vowel. For others, it tends to always be towards theback of the mouth, similar to Scottish loch (or a a voiceless French r sound).And in other dialects it can be similar to a h sound.
xIn Spanish words: like the English x of boxer.taxi

In Mexican loanwords: either like ks, j or English sh (see comments).


  • See the comments above about the pronunciation of Spanish s: thepronunciation of x is generally similar to k plus s.
  • In the word México and related words (mexicano, mexicanismo etc),the x is pronounced as though written j.
  • The letter x has various pronunciations in Mexican place names and otherloan words from indigenous languages spoken in the country. Depending on theword, x may be pronounced as though written j (Oaxaca),like the English sh (Xola) or as s(Tlaxcala).
xcIn many dialects, pronounced ks.In Spain, some speakers pronounce this combination as sz(a bit like English miss things).
lLike English l as in "with Lee".

  • When pronouncing Spanish l,avoid raising the back of your tongue, as often happens when l occursat the ends of words and syllables in English (e.g. lull, little).
llUsually the same as Spanish y (see below). llamarte


  • For most speakers, there is no difference between the pronunciation ofy and ll. Hence, the words vayaand valla generally sound identical.
  • In some parts of Spain and South America (but increasingly fewer), a distinctionis made between y and ll, and the latter is pronouncedin a similar way to some English speakers' pronunciation of million.
y
hi- (at start of word)
Similar to English y, but pronounced with frication.
ya martes


  • In Spanish, unlike English, the y is often fricated:that is, the tongue body is moved close enough to the palate to cause friction.
hNot pronounced as such.Normally, the letter h does not represent a sound in Spanish.When deciding how to pronounce a word, you can usually disregard it. (In some cases,it is simply written to distinguish words that would look similar in certaintypefaces: when a word begins with ue-, it is usuallywritten hue- to distinguish it from ve-.)A notable exception are words beginning with hi-, where hi-is essentially an alternative to y- (yierba/hierba),and where the initial y-/hi- may be fricated (see previous comment).
rIf between two vowels inside a word or if not at the beginning of a syllable, a tap,similar to US English "flapped t" (better,butter). verano
If at the beginning of a syllable (and not after a vowel inside a word), a trill with the tongueotherwise in a similar position.
enrollo
(In practice, this usually means at the beginning of a word, or after n,s or l)


  • Spanish has two "r sounds": a tap and a trill.
  • In the tap, the tip of the tongue briefly touches the ridge behind theteeth, under "full control" of the muscles that control the tongue.
  • In the trill, the tongue is held so that it "naturally" vibrates(usually twice or three times) against the ridge; the muscles don't control each individualvibration.
  • Between two vowels inside a word, which r sound youuse can distinguish between two words (e.g. pero means "but",but perro means "dog".
  • In other cases, speakers tend to use one or other r sounddepending on context, but they do not distinguish different words. In general,the trill occurs at the beginning of a syllable (unless it comes aftera vowel inside a word, in which case it just depends on the word, as mentioned).So in Enrique, the r is trilled because it is at thestart of a new syllable (En-ri-que). Similarly, in Is-ra-el,or generally at the start of a word (la ro-ja).
  • Sometimes for emphasis, r can be rolled before a pause. In suchcases, it is often devoiced (i.e. the vocal cords stop vibrating before the end of the r).
  • In certain dialects of Spanish, other pronunciations of r are possible.
rrAs a trill, similar to r at the beginning of a syllable.
perro

wLike English w or v.This letter only occurs in occasional loanwords such as wáter,and its pronunciation varies.
Next...

On the next page, we look at:
The syllable in Spanish



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How to pronounce Spanish

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