How to Read Spanish: Everything You Need to Know About the Letters and Symbols
Reading Spanish can be daunting.
You have strange new words, accents and symbols that you’ve never seen in English.
They can seem like monsters growling at you.
Well, have no fear: I’m here to help you and encourage you as you start improving your Spanish reading skills.
- How to Read Spanish Letters
- How to Read Spanish Accents (Tilde)
- How to Read Stress in Spanish Words
- How to Improve Your Spanish Reading Skills
How to Read Spanish Letters
We’re going to start with the basics—the ABCs.
You probably learned your English ABCs with a song, and that’s what we’re going to do here with Spanish. Go ahead and watch this YouTube clip of the Spanish ABCs first.
The first thing you want to know about reading Spanish is that it’s a phonetic language, unlike English. In other words, every letter makes the same sound in the alphabet as it does in a word.
Let’s take the Spanish letter a as an example. A will always make the “ah” sound, as in “father.” This is different from English, where “k” can have a hard sound like in “kitty” or no sound like in “knowledge.”
But that’s the good news. If Spanish is phonetic, that means once you’ve mastered the sound for each Spanish letter, you’ll be able to sound out words very easily in Spanish.
Let’s start with the vowels.
You’ll be hard pressed to correctly spell or read Spanish words if you don’t know the basic vowel sounds.
The great thing about Spanish is that the vowels, in my opinion, are easier to understand than in English. You don’t have rules like “when two vowels go a walking” or “i before e except after c…” What you see is what you get. Vowels in Spanish always make the same sound.
|Spanish Vowel||What It Sounds Like|
|A||“ah” as in “ah ha!” or “father”|
|E||“eh” as in “excuse” or “bed”|
|I||“ee” as in “beet” or “seek”|
|O||“oh” as in “know” or “open”|
|U||“oo” as in “sue” or “do.”|
The u is the only vowel that’s a little tricky. In some words, it doesn’t make a sound, but more on that later.
Now that we have the vowel sounds, let’s move on to the consonants. There are a few consonants in Spanish that never make a sound. (Why they’re in the alphabet at all is a mystery to me. But they’re there and we need to learn them.)
|Spanish Silent Letter||Pronunciation Rule||Example|
|H||H is always silent in Spanish.||Hijo is pronounced “ee-ho.”|
|U||When coupled with q and g, the letter u is silent.||Guitarra is pronounced “gee-tar-ah.”|
|Ps||If you see these two letters together, the p is silent.||Psicología is pronounced “see-koh-loh-hee-ah.”|
More Complicated Consonants
The Letter C
This can either be pronounced like the letter s ( serpiente or “snake”), as in the word acelga (chard or a type of beet), or with a hard sound as seen in casa (house). How can you know which way to read it?
|Spanish C||What It Sounds Like||Example|
|CA||hard c||casa (KA-sa) or "house"|
|CE||soft c||celeste (se-LES-te) or "heavenly"|
|CI||soft c||cinco (SEEN-co) or "five"|
|CO||hard c||cosa (KO-sa) or "thing"|
|CU||hard c||cuerpo (KU-ER-po) or "body"|
The Letters B and V
In Spanish, the sound of these two letters is identical—so much so that they’re often referred to as be larga (long B) and be corta (short B or the English “V”). When reading these two letters, they make the same sound as the English B in “ball.”
|The Spanish B and V||Example|
|B||bailar (ba-ee-lar) or "to dance"|
|V||Valencia (bah-len-see-a) or "Valencia"|
While the sound is the same in standard Spanish, that might not be the case in some regions. If you want to know more, check out this article, which goes more in-depth on the b vs. v issue.
The Letter LL
You may be thinking, “that’s two letter L’s.” Nope. It’s one letter called the doble ele (literally “double l”). When two Ls are put next to each other in Spanish, they make a different sound than just one L. When you see them together as LL, they make a sound like the English letter J.
|Spanish Words That Use LL||Pronunciation||English Translation|
If you want to study the LL in more detail, here’s an article you can check out. And if you want to see more words that use “ll” and how they sound, read this article.
The Letter Ñ
Ñ may be the most intimidating letter in Spanish because it doesn’t exist in English. It’s used very often and has a unique sound. This letter is called the enyay.
It’s pronounced like the “ni” seen in onion. You probably recognize and already know how to say piñata (peen-ya-ta)
|Spanish Words That Use Ñ||Pronunciation||English Translation|
The best way to become familiar with this letter is to hear a native say it. That way, you’ll be able to really hear how the letter sounds. Here’s a YouTube link that can help you with that, and an article where all the words start with this letter.
The Rest of the Letters
Let’s move on to the other letters. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory if you listen to the ABC song.
There are a few letters that are harder to read because they either sound like other letters or they make multiple sounds. Take a look at the rest of the Spanish letters we haven’t discussed yet:
|Other Spanish Letters||What It Sounds Like|
|W||doble beh (not found in Spanish origin words)|
How to Read Spanish Accents (Tilde)
When I started learning Spanish, the accents were what confused me most. However, they’re incredibly important when writing and reading Spanish. Accents give words clarity. How so?
Well, perhaps you’ve noticed that there are some words in Spanish that are exactly the same—except that one has an accent.
|Word Without Accent Mark||Word With Accent Mark|
|Si (If)||Sí (Yes)|
|Tu (Your)||Tú (You)|
|El (The)||Él (He)|
|Mi (My)||Mí (Me)|
There are several other words like this. As you’re reading, the best tool you have in your belt is context clues. If you’re unsure, read sentences with both options.
How to Read Stress in Spanish Words
Now, let’s put together everything we’ve learned so far and figure out exactly how to pronounce some Spanish words. Where do we put the stress?
There are four main rules when it comes to stress in Spanish.
Words ending in N, S or a vowel without written accent
If a word ends in a vowel, the stress goes on the second to last syllable.
|Words Ending In N, S or a Vowel Without Accent Marks||Pronunciation||English Translation|
|nada||na-da||nothing / none|
Words ending in a consonant (except N and S) with no written accent
If a word ends in a consonant, the stress is on the last syllable of the word.
|Words Ending in a Consonant (Except N and S) With No Accent Marks||Pronunciation||English Translation|
Words with tildes
If a word has a tilde (written accent), the stress goes on that syllable.
|Words With Tildes||Pronunciation||English Translation|
|así||a-sí||so, thus, as well|
|devuélvemelo||de-vuél-ve-me-lo||give it back (to me)|
Words that end with mente
If a word ends with –mente (i.e., Spanish adverbs), then you’re going to have two stresses. In this case, one stress will be on the strong syllable of the adjective (tris-te, rá-pi-da, etc.) and another will be on the men of –mente.
|Words That End With -mente||Pronunciation||English Translation|
How to Improve Your Spanish Reading Skills
Now that you’re an expert on the rules of reading Spanish, you can test your skills! Here are a few tips you can use.
Start Reading Easy Spanish Texts
You’ve only just mastered reading the Spanish letters, so you don’t want to jump into reading Cervantes right away. Take it easy for now with Spanish short stories. Once you’re done with those, you can progress to Spanish novels for beginners.
Be aware that you’re probably going to encounter words you haven’t studied yet, so have your handy notebook (or note-taking app) with you as you settle in and let Spanish authors take you into other worlds with their words.
Read Along With a Video
For example, here’s a link to a man reading a short story in Spanish. The best thing you can do is pause the video before he starts reading (which is roughly around the 2:09 mark). Read the passage aloud to yourself and record your voice reading it. Then listen to how he reads it and compare it to your own recording.
It may seem like a tedious task, but if you do that, you’ll hear the difference in your reading and his reading.
You can do this activity with pretty much any subtitled Spanish video—ideally one that features authentic dialogue, like the short video clips on FluentU. These include movie clips, news segments, inspirational talks and even animated short stories. The videos on FluentU can be paused by hovering your cursor over the interactive subtitles.
Click on any word to see its meaning and pronunciation, as well as clips from other videos where the word is used for more context and accents. Read the word out loud and try to match your pronunciation to that of the video. You can save words as flashcards to practice them some more.
And on the iOS and Android app versions of FluentU, you’ll get a chance to speak the words out loud.
Make It Fun With Games
Who says reading in Spanish has to be a dry and boring exercise? There are a good number of games you can play to learn various aspects of Spanish. For example, Influent allows you to acquire new vocabulary and practice your pronunciation in a fun way. The game is available to download for iOS, Android and Steam.
Pick up on those differences in the Spanish letras and start working on them daily.
Next thing you know, you’ll be able to read most things in Spanish.