learn spanish pronunciation

Learn Perfect Spanish Pronunciation: 11 Problem Sounds That Make You Sound Like a Gringo

What’s the most flattering question a non-native Spanish speaker can receive?

“¿De dónde eres? ¿Argentina?

Wow. That’s just the ultimate compliment.

Seriously, it doesn’t get better than that.

When people think you’re from a Spanish-speaking country, you’ll know your Spanish has finally reached a new level of excellence.

But you can’t get there without perfect pronunciation, no matter how fluently you can string together Spanish sentences.

If you’ve interacted with native speakers and you haven’t fooled one yet, then you’ve got some work to do!

Even if you think you’re pronouncing Spanish words perfectly, you probably aren’t. Unfortunately, we hear our own voices far differently than others hear them. We have vibrating jawbones, muffling muscles and all kinds of other things getting in the way.

Quick experiment: Record yourself speaking Spanish for 1 minute. Play it back. If you’ve never done this before, you might be surprised by what you hear.

Yeah, sure, your voice sounds higher-pitched and that sucks too—but the big takeaway should be that some of your Spanish words, no matter how fluent you may be, still sound a little off, or perhaps way off.

If you still think you sound perfect, play a recording of a native Spanish speaker and then play your voice back again. Even the most near-native speakers of Spanish as a second language have trouble perfecting the sounds. Some sounds just come out sounding a wee bit different when you speak.

That’s totally normal. Luckily, it’s not a hopeless situation.

We’ve targeted all the major problem sounds here, and we know exactly how you can adjust your pronunciation until you sound like a native Spanish speaker.
 

 
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The Long and Short of Spanish Pronunciation

Anyone will tell you that Spanish isn’t a complicated language. They’ll tell you that the accent is so straightforward. You’ve probably heard someone tell you that “all the vowels always sound the same, like, the letter always makes the same sound in every word, so it’s much easier to pronounce Spanish than English!”

Okay, sure.

First, let’s start by addressing with some curveballs that Spanish has been throwing you. There’s an enormous diversity of accent, dialects, colloquial language and slang out there. While moving from town to town within the same darn country, you’ll find that language usage, pacing, rhythm and accent all change significantly thanks to a few meters of regional separation.

In Andean regions of Latin America, you’ll find sing-songy Spanish with beautiful lilts and a slower cadence. In coastal regions, you get mile-a-minute speakers who drop the last syllable in most longer words and don’t pronounce a handful of consonants. In more indigenous communities, Spanish is fused with the local native language’s words and accents, making things all the more challenging. Don’t even get me started on Caribbean regions—forget everything you know about Spanish pronunciation, because they arguably speak their own languages entirely.

While living in Ecuador, I often got smacked with choque cultural (culture shock) simply by traveling between the Amazon, the Andes and the coast. After living in rural, slow-paced jungle communities, a weekend jaunt to the coast resulted in me not understanding any fast-talkin’ costeños (coastal people) clearly for the first day and a half. When I traveled from Ecuador to the Dominican Republic, and on another occasion to Argentina, I definitely floundered for a bit before regaining my Spanish footing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the “Qué difícil es hablar el español” guys could not be more on the money. That video’s an internet sensation for a reason.

Nailing the Basics of Spanish Pronunciation

These are things you’ll learn on the fly while traveling and interacting with native Spanish speakers. However, the internet has ways to explore the diversity of Spanish accents out there. Check out this impressively thorough, interactive guide created by Ohio State University. This gives you a chance to hear all the different takes on Spanish pronunciation you’ll encounter in the Spanish-speaking world.

Now, to get a good grounding in straightforward, formal Spanish pronunciation—you know, what textbooks claim that native speakers sound like—you can explore some other educational resources. Try this awesome tool from the University of Iowa. It gives you a creepily thorough look at how to produce different Spanish sounds. Watch that nasal cavity go to work!

So, in this post, we’re going to introduce you to typical Spanish pronunciation. Our main focus is to help you start getting all the most problematic Spanish sounds pronounced correctly. Beyond that, we’re also going to help you sound far more casually cool—like a true blue native Spanish speaker—than your textbooks will.

It’s kind of like learning the “General American Accent,” which is characterized as a flat, generally unaccented English from the Midwestern or Northeastern United States. If you nailed this as an ESL student, you’d speak pretty great English.

Sure, you’ll be able to understand most American English speakers, but will you be prepared to understand some neighborhood guys from Queens? Salty old New England farmers? Rural Southern folks? Australians? The answer is “yes,” you’ll be able to understand and communicate by and large, but you’ll also need to adapt quickly as you move through different regions.

Learn Perfect Spanish Pronunciation: 11 Problem Sounds That Make You Sound Like a Gringo

1. General Consonant Issues

All Spanish consonants follow strict rules for the sounds they make, and there are few exceptions. The sound a consonant makes only changes when it’s combined with certain consonants and vowels—and even this is fairly straightforward. There aren’t nearly as many combinations and irregularities as there are with English sounds.

While many consonants are pronounced the same in Spanish as they are in English, one common mistake made by non-native speakers is over-enunciating the consonants in Spanish words. Consonants in Spanish are pronounced more softly, by and large, and we’ll take a look at many specifics throughout the rest of this list.

2. General Vowel Issues

Spanish vowels are pronounced the same every time. Every. Single. Time. Learn ah, eh, ee, oh, oo, and you’re golden. Watch this handy video, listen to it several times and practice those vowel sounds until you get them down pat. Like the lady says, “cinco vocales, cinco sonidos” (five vowels, five sounds).

But when you practice, be sure to pay attention to the length of the vowel sound. Spanish vowels are pronounced shorter, more abruptly. In English, we tend to let vowels drag on.

For example, many English speakers pronounce holawhich has two short and sweet vowels, as ooouulaaahThey let the o and a drag on for far too long. Instead, try giving each vowel in hola a half-second of sound. Short and sweet.

And just because the vowels are short doesn’t mean they’re not strongly pronounced. Oh, no. Open your mouth wide when you pronounce these vowels. To say the letter a you should have your jaw dropped, and i requires you to stretch your mouth wide and be almost grinning. For o and u your mouth should be open wide with rounded lips. Keeping your mouth open wide for pronouncing vowels is key to sounding natural.

Keep practicing this with every Spanish word you encounter.

3. Accent Marks

Accent marks are extremely helpful. Misplacing or forgetting an accent can make a big difference in the meaning of your Spanish sentences. For example, ésta, esta and está each have different meanings, and you’ll need to stress the right syllable when speaking.

If there’s a long word that you’re not sure about, check for an accent place on the word. Forvo is a great internet tool for checking Spanish pronunciation, because they’ll often give you different regional pronunciations. Also, Google Translate is pretty great for this purpose—but it occasionally doesn’t get the sounds quite right.

4. B/V

The difference between “b” and “v” in English is obvious. In spoken Spanish, b and v are indistinguishable, and they both sound exactly like the English letter “b” in most situations.

In fact, many native Spanish speakers confuse them, particularly speakers who haven’t received extensive education regarding reading and writing.

When the b or v comes at the beginning of a word, or when it follows the letter m or npronounce it like the letter “b” in the English word “ball.” This is a deep, rounded b sound. In any other word, you’ll step into the waters of truly foreign pronunciation—the letters b and v do something strange. Try to pronounce “b” as in “ball” without letting your lips come together. That’s your sound.

For example, try pronouncing the word escoba (broom) without letting your lips touch. Your Spanish b here should not sound like the “b” in “ball.” If you can master that, you’ve eliminated one distinctly gringo problem sound.

5. Cl

Cl makes us English speakers sound totally graceless. We spent far too much time attempting to enunciate both the c and the l. In Spanish, cl has a very graceful, elegant sound. That’s because it’s rather softly and swiftly pronounced.

To illustrate, try saying the English word “clomp.” You likely made a very hard “c” sound and lingered on the “l.” The tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth, hangs out there and produces a strong, muddy-sounding “l.” This is typical of English, but not of Spanish.

Now let’s swap “clomp” for aclarar (to clarify) or claro (clear). Try pronouncing these words by reducing the entire cl sound to a half a second. Just half a second. Your tongue should only gently tap the roof of your mouth, and then you quick and gracefully lilt on to the following a.

Got that one down? You’re one step closer to speaking with a clean, crisp Spanish accent.

6. C/S

The letter c will be pronounced like the Spanish letter s when followed by the vowels e and iWhen followed by the vowels a, o, u or a consonant, you’ll use a hard c

The trick is to get the hard c correct. We English speakers take our hard “c” very seriously. It’s a strong sound, and is accompanied by breath rushing out of your mouth. Pronounce the English word “accommodate” strongly. Did you feel the air leaving your mouth when you hit the hard “c” sound? If not, try again—it’s happening.

The different with the Spanish hard c is that no air should leave your mouth due to its pronunciation. Test this out with the Spanish acomodar (to accomodate). This should be crisply pronounced, and no time should be spent lingering on the hard c.

Got it? Good. On to the next one!

7. D

Oh, the letter dThis is a huge sticking point for any would-be Spanish speaker who’s a native English speaker. I’d say that this English letter is partially responsible for Americans having a crap-tastic accent in any language. Our strongly and deeply pronounced English “d”—which sounds just like Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!”—sounds so darn inelegant.

When we say a word like “donut,” we open our mouths wide and our tongues loll about. Try saying that word. Pay attention to your tongue. In Spanish, we always want to strive to pronounce the Spanish letter d just like the “d” in “didn’t.” Thanks to the letter “i,” perhaps, this letter “d” tends to stick to the tips of our tongues. Try saying this word compared to “donut” and feel the difference in your tongue’s positioning and movement. “Didn’t” hardly requires your tongue to move at all.

Try using this softer, lighter pronunciation of “d” for the Spanish word donar (to donate). Don’t let that tongue move around! Keep it towards your front teeth.

Another trick with the Spanish d is when it comes at the end of a word in the form of ado or adaFor example, pescado (fish) or enamorada (in love). In Carribbean and coastal regions (among a few others), you’ll likely never hear the ado or ada fully pronounced. Pescado sounds like pescao.

That’s the most extreme version, but anywhere you go in the Spanish-speaking world you’ll find that this final syllable is always pronounced softly—it’s virtally nonexistant, to the point where your tongue shouldn’t move at all or touch anything in your mouth to make this sound. The d should be very hard to hear. If you’re pronouncing the do in pescado like the “do” in “donut,” you’ve got yourself a problem.

8. G/J/Gua

Ah, a timeless office lunch room debate—do you pronounce the g in guacamole? Well, do you?

When the Spanish letter g precedes u, a or a consonant, it’s a bit like the hard English “g” found in “grape” or “gorilla.” The only difference from this English letter “g” sound is, as with any Spanish consonants, the Spanish g is pronounced a bit softer.

Before moving on with the letter g and its pronunciations, let’s take a look at the Spanish letter j. The letter j has a breathy “h” sound, like the “h” in “house.” You may already know this thanks to Spanish loan words in English—for example, how do you pronounce jalapeñoExactly: ha-la-payn-yoh. 

Okay, let’s get back to that tricky letter g

When g precedes i or eit’s a soft g and pronounced like the Spanish letter j. That means that the same breathy sound is used in the words Japón (Japan), girasol (sunflower) and germinar (germinate).

Now, does that mean we pronounce the g sound in guacamole? Nope. It turns out that the pair gu comes with its own set of rules. When gu is followed by an ie, or o, as in pingüino (penguin), guerra (war) and antiguo (old), respectively, the g is hard. Formal Spanish rules might dictate that gua follow suit, but the spoken pronunciation is typically whua.

That means aguacate (avocado), guacamole and Guayaquil (Ecuadorian city) are all pronounced with a whua sound.

9. H

So, I’m willing to bet that you already know about this letter being silent. It’s pretty basic stuff. However, this is commonly forgotten by learners when speaking Spanish. You hit certain words like almohada (pillow) or ahora (now) and it just doesn’t make sense not to pronounce it. But you still don’t pronounce it.

When you see h in a word, pretend it doesn’t exist unless it’s in a ch combo. Oh, or unless it’s in a funny loanword like hámster

10. R/RR

You know what I’m about to tell you, because rolling your rr‘s can be tricky business. You might even want to blame your genetics, since some people have tongues with more limited mobility. But if the majority of Spanish speakers out there can do it, so can you.

A single r should almost sound like the Spanish d or like the English “d” sound in “udder.” 

It’s on the tip of your tongue, not in the back of your throat like the English letter “r.” Let’s demonstrate this by saying the English word “urn.” Hold the r sound for 5 seconds. Where does that come from? You’ll probably notice that this is a rumbling sound that echos from deep within your mouth and throat. I don’t ever want to hear you use that in Spanish.

Now, once you finally master the rr tongue roll, don’t get overenthusiastic and use it where you shouldn’t. For example pero (but) and perro (dog) are distinguished by their very different r sounds.

I once had a friend who used rr everywhere, and went so far as to ask a restaurant server “¿Tiene morro?” (Do you have sass?) instead of “¿Tiene moro?” (Do you have the delicious rice-and-beans dish moro?). Oops!

11. L/LL

Welcome to the first—and only—Spanish consonant that I’ll tell you to pronounce more strongly. We have a dainty “l” sound in English that doesn’t exist in Spanish. This is the delicate “l” you see in “delicate” and “listen.” Feel where your tongue goes when you pronounce these two words out loud—it shouldn’t go far. This sound is made with the tippy-top of the tongue lightly pressed against your front teeth.

Instead, the Spanish l is lovingly pronounced and often lingered on. To start with, it’s always pronounced like the sticky English “l” seen in the words “English,” “glob” and “love.” Your tongue should be pressing against the roof of your mouth to make these sounds, created a rich, hollow tone.

While you still want to keep your vowels short, you can pause and linger on the letter l in words like hola and locoOr even, “¡hola, loco!”

That wacky ll letter is a whole different ball game. It’s also notorious for changing drastically across regions. Generally, it’s pronounced like the English letter “y” in “yell.” So, the Spanish word pollo (chicken) sounds like poy-yoh.

In areas with large indigenous populations and other particular regions, this may sound more like the “li” in “reptilian.” That makes pollo sound like poll-yo instead of the usual poy-yo. In much of Argentina and some other regions, ll sounds like a cross between ja and sh or ch—or like the “zsa” in Zsa Zsa Gabor. This is really just fun trivia unless you’re traveling to these regions—you should always stick with pronouncing ll as “y” unless the locals are peer pressuring you to change it up.

So, you’ve made it to the very end! If you can master all the above points, your Spanish will start to sound incredibly natural.

It won’t be long before someone asks you, “Eh, ¿De qué parte de España eres?” (What part of Spain are you from?).
 

 

And One More Thing…

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FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:

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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.

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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 store. The Android app is coming soon!

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If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.

Experience Spanish immersion online!

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