“What the heck is that funny little squiggle?”
It’s a question most novice Spanish speakers ask the first time they see the letter “ñ.”
But that squiggle isn’t just some stray notation. It represents one of the signature sounds of Spanish—and you’ll need to know its pronunciation if you want to be taken seriously when speaking the language.
Fortunately, it’s fairly simple to master.
We’ll show you how to pronounce “ñ” the right way, plus three simple, practical steps to practice it until you sound like a native.
What’s the Point of the “Ñ?”
That funny little squiggle is called a tilde, and it tells us to place more emphasis on the letter “n” in a word. The tilde’s purpose is similar to an accent mark above Spanish vowels. (FYI, in Spanish the word tilde also means “accent.”)
The tilde “n” actually developed as shorthand for two “n” letters side-by-side. The history is quite interesting (being a language geek is fun, trust me!). According to Spanish expert Gerald Erichsen, it all comes from 12th century Spanish scribes who had the tedious but significant job of copying documents by hand. As you can imagine, writing thousands of pages in longhand required lengthy amounts of time. Ink, paper, leather and other tools necessary to transcribe documents were also expensive.
In order to save time and resources, scribes developed their own shorthand. They used the tilde above any letters that were doubled. A double “n” was written as ñ—same goes for ã and õ. Using the tilde on other letters eventually fell out of favor and by the 14th century, the tilde was only used on “n.”
As the Spanish language progressed, the “ñ” was also used to represent specific sounds. One example is the English sound made by the letter combination “gn” and is represented by Spanish words like señal (signal) and campaña (campaign).
Okay, enough language geek stuff. Let’s move on to more practical things, like how to actually make that “ñ” sound.
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How to Pronounce the “Ñ” Sound
The “ñ” sound can be written phonetically in English as “n-yah.” It’s an odd sound for English speakers, but it’s easy to learn and fun to practice. Once you master it, your Spanish accent will sound much more authentic.
To make the “ñ” sound, follow these steps:
- Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your upper, front teeth.
- Now say the letter “n.”
- Bring your tongue down and say “yah.”
- Repeat until perfected.
How to Practice “Ñ” to Perfection in 3 Steps
After you’ve learned how to pronounce “ñ” and you’ve heard a few examples, it’s time to perfect your pronunciation. The only way to become a master of this sound is práctica, práctica y más práctica (practice, practice and more practice)!
1. Start with These YouTube Pronunciation Lessons
The YouTube channel Pronuncia en español (Pronounce in Spanish) solely focuses on making videos that demonstrate how to pronounce Spanish sounds, words and phrases, so it’s a great place to start. The video “How to pronounce in Spanish: N vs. Ñ” breaks down the differences between the regular “n” and “ñ” sound.
The speaker talks slowly and clearly, making it easy for you to repeat the sounds and compare your pronunciation.
Here’s another video from that channel, which pronounces a range of sounds using “ñ,” aptly titled “How to pronounce syllables with the letter ‘Ñ’ in Spanish: Ña, Ñe, Ñi, Ño, Ñu.” Repeating these syllables aloud is important for being able to pronounce “ñ” in the context of real Spanish communication.
One of my favorite YouTube channels for learning Spanish is Luna Creciente (Growing Moon). It’s actually intended for native Spanish speaking kids, making it a great entry point for Spanish learners who want to hear authentic pronunciations. The fun thing about Luna Creciente is they teach about syllables with the character El Mono Sílabo (The Syllable Monkey). Monkeys always make learning more fun.
Here’s Luna Creciente’s video on “ñ” syllables. The monkey is a good teacher, isn’t he?
2. Make Lists of “Ñ” Words to Practice from Spanish Dictionaries
Making lists of words that contain the letter “ñ” is a simple but effective way of practicing it.
But where should you start collecting these words? I suggest browsing a Spanish dictionary first. This is helpful because dictionaries include a word’s correct pronunciation alongside its meaning, which helps with memorization.
One of my favorite online Spanish dictionaries is Palabras que, because it allows you to limit your search based on specific letters. For example, I asked Palabras que to return words that contain “ñ” and it found 13,590 words. The only problem is that it doesn’t offer any audio to hear the words’ proper pronunciation, so you might want to head over to pronunciation sites like Forvo to check specific ones that interest you.
My other favorite online dictionary is SpanishDict. One of the many tools it has is an audio feature that correctly pronounces the word of your choosing. The great thing about SpanishDict’s audio feature is that it has a natural speaking voice instead of a robot-sounding one.
Combine these tools and you’ll be well on your way to creating the ultimate “ñ” practice list.
3. Practice “Ñ” with Trabalenguas
While making lists of Spanish “ñ” words is fun, it’s even more entertaining to give your tongue a workout with trabalenguas (tongue twisters). Trabalenguas force you to concentrate on saying the syllables right so you don’t mess up the pronunciation, but it’s also hilarious to hear yourself as you fumble.
Here are a few popular trabalenguas from a great multilingual show, Pocoyo.
- En este año el niño Nuñez engañó al ñoño Noreña con la piñata de antaño. Cuando el ñañigo Coruña encañonando el rebaño, en la cañada, con saña, lo enseñaba a cortar caña.
(This year, the child Nuñez cheated Grandpa Noreen with the old teeth. When the Corûna ñañigo [secret society] pointed their guns at the herd in the gully, viciously he taught him to cut sugarcane.)
- Hubo gran riña en España, entre el que ciñe el armiño por su rapiña y su hazaña, y Peñuñuri, el buen niño, que con su leño y su caña, al bañarse en el río Miño, en la mañana, sin maña, ñoñamente ciñó un guiño.
(There was a great fight in Spain between the ermine, encircled by its robbery and its feat, and Peñuñuri, the good child, with his log and cane, when they bathed in the Miño River in the morning, without skill, he gave a naughty wink.)
- Pepe Piña pica papa. Pica papa Pepe Piña.
(Pepe Pineapple chops potatoes. He chops potatoes, Pepe Pineapple.
You can also make your own trabalenguas using the words from Palabras que!
The Spanish “ñ” is a unique sound and it’s fun to practice. Once you wrap your tongue around the letter’s intricacies, your Spanish will definitely sound more authentic. It’s one more step towards not only mastering a Spanish accent, but also becoming an expert Spanish speaker. Plus, you’ll have a new party trick to impress your friends with: perfectly reciting Spanish trabalenguas!