Perfect Your Spanish Pronunciation: 12 Problem Sounds and How to Fix Them
While Spanish pronunciation is relatively straightforward, there’s a huge amount of diversity in accent, dialect, colloquial language and slang that can make things difficult.
But when strangers think you’re from a Spanish-speaking country, you’ll know your Spanish has reached a new level of excellence.
You can’t get to that point though without perfect pronunciation, no matter how fluently you can string together Spanish sentences.
Luckily, it’s not a hopeless situation. This post points out 12 major problem sounds for native English speakers and how to adjust your pronunciation to sound more fluent.
- Common Problem Sounds in Spanish for English Speakers
Common Problem Sounds in Spanish for English Speakers
1. Over-enunciating Consonants
All Spanish consonants follow strict rules for the sounds they make, and there are few exceptions.
While many consonants are pronounced the same in Spanish as they are in English, consonants in Spanish are pronounced more softly, so try not to put too much emphasis on them when speaking.
2. Vowel Pronunciation
Spanish vowels are always pronounced the same. Watch this video, listen to it several times and practice those vowel sounds until you get them down perfectly.
Once you know what those vowels sound like, you’re set. Just keep in mind that Spanish vowels are pronounced shorter and more clearly than in English.
3. Accent Marks
Accent marks are extremely important to Spanish pronunciation. 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 the emphasis is on a different letter in each word.
Pay attention to accent marks and be sure that you place emphasis where it’s needed when you speak, not just when you write.
The difference between b and v in English is obvious, but in spoken Spanish, b and v both sound like b.
Most of the time when you say v, it should sound more like b. The only times that you will pronounce it as you would in English is when it comes at the beginning of a word or it follows m or n.
Cl in Spanish is a very graceful, elegant sound that is pronounced softly and swiftly. English speakers spend far too much time attempting to enunciate both the c and the l.
Try saying the English word “clomp.” You likely made a very hard “c” sound and lingered on the “l.” This sound is way rougher in English than in Spanish.
Now let’s try to say claro (clear). Try to reduce the entire cl sound to just half a second. Your tongue should only gently tap the roof of your mouth, and then you quickly and gracefully lilt on to the following a.
The letter c will be pronounced like the Spanish letter s when followed by the vowels e and i.
When followed by the vowels a, o, u or a consonant, you’ll use a hard c. The hard thing is to not say the c as we would in English—strongly with air rushing out of our mouth.
With the Spanish hard c, no air should leave your mouth. 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.
The English d is pronounced extremely deeply (and inelegantly).
When we say a word like “donut,” we open our mouths wide and our tongues loll about. Try saying “donut” and 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.” This letter “d” tends to stick to the tips of our tongues.
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.
When d comes at the end of a word in the form of –ado or –ada, you’ll probably not even hear the d pronounced fully. For example, pescado sounds more like pescao.
The Spanish 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 jalapeño? Exactly: ha-la-payn-yoh.
When the Spanish letter g precedes u, a or a consonant, it’s a bit like the hard English “g” found in “grape,” but a bit softer.
When g precedes i or e, it’s pronounced like the Spanish letter j. That means that the same breathy g sound is used in the words Japón (Japan), girasol (sunflower) and germinar (germinate).
So, 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 i, e, or o, like in guerra (war), the g is hard, but if it’s followed by an a, then it makes a whua sound.
That means aguacate (avocado), guacamole and Guayaquil (Ecuadorian city) are all pronounced with a whua sound.
You likely already know that h is not pronounced in Spanish, but it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder.
In certain words like almohada (pillow) or ahora (now), 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.
Rolling your rr‘s is an almost universal struggle for English speakers. 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.”
Now, learning the rr tongue roll is going to take a lot of practice. You will essentially vibrate your tongue against the back of your top teeth, much like you do for the tt sound in “butter.”
Just remember that you only do the tongue roll for the rr.
Welcome to the 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. This sound is made with the tippy-top of the tongue lightly pressed against your front teeth.
The Spanish l is much more pronounced as you linger on it a bit longer than you would in English. Your tongue should be pressing against the roof of your mouth to make these sounds, creating 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 loco.
The double ll is a whole different ball game. Generally, it’s pronounced like the English letter “y” in “yell.” So, the Spanish word pollo (chicken) sounds like poy-yoh.
Note that this is a sound that is pretty well known for changing from region to region.
This post has introduced you to some of the most common Spanish problem sounds and how to fix them.
The best way to pick up correct pronunciation is to expose yourself to different accents and dialects. Of course, this is easier with travel, but there are some resources on the internet that can help too!
Check out FluentU which has hundreds of native videos that allow you to listen to many different accents and pronunciations. There are even subtitles, flashcards and quizzes to help you learn!
Now that you know which sounds to focus on, you’re on your way to sounding more and more like a native Spanish speaker!