It’s the ugliest lemon of a car you’ve ever seen.
You’ve just got to point it out to your friend.
“Qué caro!” you exclaim, pointing across the street.
“…What are you talking about?” your friend replies.
Ah, language barrier misunderstandings. They’re inevitable, sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassing and very often caused by pronunciation problems.
In this case, you meant to say “What a car,” or “Qué carro.”
But instead, you shouted, “how expensive!”
There are two big milestones in foreign language pronunciation: the first one, focused on here, is being effortlessly understood, and the second—much, much harder—is sounding like a native speaker.
When aiming to be understood, we want to grasp the foundations of pronunciation—the key sounds and the rhythm and syllable stressing—to then later smooth out the details when we aim for perfection.
In this article, we’re going to focus on that first milestone and on correcting those words and aspects of Spanish pronunciation that English speakers struggle with the most.
We’ll point you to the 10 most difficult Spanish words to pronounce, each with a tip to master them and other words like them.
The Biggest English-speaker Difficulties in Spanish
There was an interesting Reddit discussion where someone asked what English speakers sound like to native Spanish speakers.
Commenters stressed things like the pronunciation of “b” (covered below), using English intonation (for example, that rising tone at the end of sentences to ask a question) and without a doubt, mispronunciation of “e” (pronouncing the name José as “hoe-ZAY” instead of “ho-SEH”).
The funniest clue that someone is an English speaker is that they’ll pronounce perro (dog) like pedo (fart).
The Spanish “r” is definitely at the top of the list of uphill battles for English speakers—both the rolled version and the single R—and it can be make or break being understood. Especially for telling the difference between words like caro (expensive) and carro (car)!
Vowels in Spanish are another one on the list. They’re choppy and short and all the same length, except when one vowel follows another. English speakers tend to vary the length of vowels, and they’ll often distort the sounds, as with the pronunciation of “e,” above.
When it comes to the letters “b” and “v,” English speakers struggle to let go of the “v” sound they’re used to, rather than pronounce the letter exactly like a “b.”
There are also a few sounds in Spanish that English speakers pronounce too harshly. These include the Spanish “d” and “t,” which are softer, with almost no air blown out. When pronouncing the “t” in Spanish, the tip of your tongue should just touch the back of your teeth.
How to Handle Spanish Pronunciation Difficulties
In Spanish, almost all consonants, vowels and syllables are fully pronounced, with vigor, dedication and an open mouth. English speakers muffle a lot of the sounds in words and we join words together and close our mouths more.
So if it feels like you’re exaggerating in Spanish, that’s what you should do, and make it a habit.
Don’t Rely on English Vowel Sounds
While in English most vowels in everyday speech are pronounced as a schwa—a short “uh” sound—that isn’t the case in Spanish.
Making this switch, and pronouncing each vowel properly, makes all the difference.
Here are some more tips for nailing Spanish vowels:
- The “a” in Spanish is always pronounced like a short version of the vowel in “art.”
- The “e” is always pronounced “eh,” as in “bed” (but shorter).
- The “i” is always pronounced like the “i” in “lick.”
- The “o” is pronounced like the vowel in “long,” but shorter.
- The “u” is pronounced like the vowel sounds in “could” or “put.”
In all cases, a wide open mouth is important to making these vowels sound natural.
Listen and Mimic
Really paying attention to how native speakers talk, and then trying to mimic that, will help with your overall pronunciation.
One scary but useful trick you can try is to record yourself (you’ll hear your flaws much more clearly that way) and then compare that to recordings made by native Spanish speakers. You’ll hear the discrepancies quite clearly and can practice listening and repeating those trouble areas.
For this learning method, make sure to use resources that provide authentic, native Spanish audio, like FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used. If you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store for iOS and Android devices.
Try Some Popular Tongue twisters
And if you really want to exercise your mouth and tongue, you can try out these popular Spanish tongue twisters for size:
Cuando cuentes cuentos, cuenta cuantos cuentos cuentas, porque si no cuentas cuantos cuentos cuentas nunca sabrás cuantos cuentos contaste. (When you tell stories, count how many stories you tell, because if you don’t count how many stories you tell, you’ll never know how many stories you told.)
Tres tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal, en tres tristes trastos, tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres. (Three tigers swallowed wheat in a wheat field, in three sad containers, three sad tigers swallowed wheat.)
Pepe peina pocos pelos pero peina peluqueros, peina Pepe peluqueros con el peine de los pelos. (Pepe combs few hairs, but he combs hairdressers, Pepe combs hairdressers with the hair comb.)
Join Some Words
In Spanish, we join words that start and end with the same letter.
For example, Qué es eso (What is that) is often pronounced “quee-so” (yes, like the word for cheese, but with a longer “e” sound) and Voy a hacer (I’m going to do…) is pronounced “boi a-ser.”
Be Comfortable with Speaking in a Very Different Way
When you switch from, say, Windows to Linux, or from eating dinner to eating desert, you don’t expect the same feelings and experiences to translate to that new thing.
To the extent that you can, you need to completely switch off English and your preconceived notions about how things should be said, and log yourself into a different system.
How to Handle the Top 10 Hardest Words to Pronounce in Spanish
Listed below are some of the hardest words to pronounce in Spanish. I’ve focused on more common words that people need to use. Master these and the rest is easy!
1. Impermeabilizante (Waterproof)
In rainy Latin American countries, you’ll use this word often. It can pour a lot in the rainy seasons. And to be honest, I’ve even seen a few Spanish speakers struggle with it.
The number of syllables and the vowel diphthong in the middle make it a hard one.
TIP: Break this down into separate syllables and say it slowly until you’re comfortable. There’s no rush!
2. Ferrocarril (Railroad)
Two double “r’s” here in one word!
TIP: The “r” in Spanish is rolled both at the start of any word, and when they’re doubled, while a standalone “r” is also pronounced differently from English.
For many English speakers, these sounds are very hard, but they’re possible. When making any “r” sound in Spanish, the tip of your tongue should lightly touch the top of your mouth. Alternatively, to find the right position, say “t” in English. That’s where your tongue goes.
To roll the “r” then, the issue is getting your tongue, in that position, to vibrate. Breathe out of your mouth and let your tongue vibrate up and down. You can do it!
3. Desarrolladores (Developers)
This word is great fun. You have the double-whammy of “rr,” as well as “ll,” with lots of syllables to boot.
TIP: Correct pronunciation of “ll” depends on the country. But for much of Latin America, it’s the same as an English “y,” but a bit harder.
In Spain and in Argentina, “ll” is pronounced like the “j” in jump, and in Venezuela and Colombia, it’s pronounced somewhere between an English “y” and “j.”
4. Difícil, Fácil (Difficult, Easy)
The accents aren’t where you’d expect with these words, and many English speakers pronounce them “DI-fi-cil” and “fa-CIL,” instead of their correct pronunciations: “di-FI-cil” and “FA-cil.”
TIP: Note where the accents are and stress that syllable. Say the word ten times until your tongue can’t conceive of pronouncing it any other way.
5. Actualmente, Desafortunadamente, Probablemente (Currently, Unfortunately, Probably)
The temptation here would be to say the similar sounding English word, then add a “men-TAY” to the end.
TIP: Remember to pronounce the final “e” as “eh,” not “ay,” then break these words down into syllables and give each the same weight.
Turn your English off and say “des-a-for-tu-na-da-MEN-te” slowly at first, then accelerate to normal speaking speed.
6. Verde, Tarde (Green, Afternoon)
The “r-d” combination in Spanish is a really difficult move for the tongue—almost like quick tongue acrobatics.
TIP: Put your effort into the first syllable and that difficult “r,” then let the “d” be softer, and the “de” half of the word like an afterthought.
7. Estadística (Statistics)
People often get tongue-tied with this word, perhaps because it’s similar to English but with an extra syllable at the start. The number of “t’s” and “d’s” can also add to your troubles.
TIP: Note the stressed syllable in the middle and don’t stress yourself about the difference between “t” and “d” in this word. Pronounce that first syllable well, so that your mouth is aware you’re going into a Spanish word rather than English.
8. Huevos revueltos (Scrambled eggs)
The obstacle here would be that “v” is pronounced as a soft “b,” plus the double set of diphthongs (“ue”).
TIP: There’s no compromising. The “v” in Spanish is always pronounced as “b,” and in the middle of a word it’s a gentler version of a “b” with the lips barely touching.
To pronounce the diphthong, just say both vowel sounds, then blur them together. So “oo-eh” becomes “weh.”
9. Idea (Idea)
This is another one of those trick words that you’ll be tempted to pronounce just like you would in English. Resist this urge!
TIP: Practice pronouncing this: “ee-DEH-ah,” until it becomes natural to you!
10. Aeropuerto (Airport)
What a lot of vowels and diphthongs to boot, followed by those meddlesome “r’s!”
TIP: For the first diphthongs, just like the “ue” explained above, pronounce the two vowels until they merge together. So, “ah-eh” becomes “ay.”
Next, practice that “ue” followed by the “r.” Once you’ve mastered these two parts, you can build on the rest.
For even more troubling and tricky Spanish words, see here.
Mastering pronunciation can be a tough journey, though rewarding, and the bonus is that the better your pronunciation, the more you’ll understand as well—even in the worst situations, like over a crackly phone line!
Tamara Pearson is a journalist, teacher and language lover who has lived in Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and now Mexico. She is also the author of The Butterfly Prison.
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