LearnSpanishwith Us!Start Learning!
Speaking Spanish is kind of hard.
Not just because every word has about 34 different meanings, but also because of its many nuanced sounds. For speakers of other languages, the sounds of Spanish — especially the consonants — can be counterintuitive. V‘s that sound more like B‘s and diphthongs that sound like not much of anything are just a few of the reasons you probably sound muy gringo when you speak Spanish.
Sometimes you’re absolutely positive that you’ve pronounced something the right way, even perfectly, only to have that certainty dashed by the laughter and teasing of the native speakers. Qué pena. It’s disheartening, but it happens to every learner.
That’s because the finest details of Spanish pronunciation are the ones that scream your native tongue loudest.
If trying to pronounce the following five sounds is resulting in confused faces and mumbles of ¿qué? every time you talk, or if you just want to blend in better with the locals in your expat home, here are five of the top suspects behind your foreign accent crimes, and how you can bring them to justice.
This letter can make a few different sounds in Spanish, and the way it’s distributed in the language is totally counterintuitive to native English speakers (and those of most other languages). The one thing the Spanish /v/ is least likely to say is the airy, fricative English vvvv.
The v in Spanish is generally a bilabial approximant. This means that your top and bottom lips should come very close to one another without actually touching (only approximately touching). The air that comes out should be gentle, gradual, not the rapid scratching air of an English /v/ or the abrupt pop of an English /b/; it’s somewhere between.
As a general rule, any time you see a letter v in a Spanish word, aim to pronounce it between an English /v/ and /b/, but closer to a /b/.
The Spanish /d/ is subtle and a bit unreliable. Sometimes it shows up loud and clear, but other times it’s lying asleep somewhere in your mouth. But, like the /v/, when you use it, you shouldn’t be connecting it to that same-shaped letter in your mother tongue.
The /d/ in Spanish usually comes between the teeth, just like the th sound in English (represented by the symbol /θ/), but without all the breathy release of air. In a phrase like todo el día, the two /d/ sounds slip between the teeth, but in a word like nada it might hardly make a sound at all, the tongue instead moving vaguely towards the front of the mouth between the two /a/ sounds. The phonetic rules governing the Spanish /d/ have to do with its position relative to certain kinds of vowels and whether it occurs in an open or closed syllable, as well as region and dialect.
In general, the between-the-teeth /d/ should be your go-to option. Like its distant English cousin represented by th, but if you hold your hand in front of your mouth while making it, you shouldn’t feel any air.
A simple enough letter, right? We’ve seen it in most languages: just float your tongue somewhere in the middle of your mouth and make some noise from your vocal cords, and there it is. But not really in Spanish.
Compared to the Spanish /l/, the English sound is very lazy. In Spanish, the /l/ is sharp, attentive, focused. The tip of your tongue presses against the bottom wrinkles of your alveolar ridge, just above the smooth part behind your upper teeth, and the body of the tongue behind it stands at rigid attention.
If the tip of your tongue is touching (but not smashed against) the ridge behind your top teeth and you can feel your tongue muscle flexing, you’re on the right track.
Vowels as a general category can also be responsible for the bald eagle that comes flying out of your mouth as soon as you start speaking.
Here’s why: most Spanish vowels are pure vowels, made up of one sound and not moving in your mouth, whereas many English vowels are diphthongs, longer sounds that combine two different vowels into one. Feel how your tongue moves around when you say ‘I’ or ‘you’ (as compared to the unmoving vowels in words like ‘pop’ and ‘eat’). When you see a, e, i, o, or u by itself in Spanish, you want to avoid that motion.
Your /o/ should be a simple, one-part sound from rounded lips, not fading into the English ‘oh’ that slides down toward a /u/ sound at the end. /e/ sounds like in de or edad should stay at that Canadian-sounding ‘eh’ sound without your tongue ever rising up to stretch it out. The focus here is on keeping your tongue still when you pronounce Spanish simple vowels, so fight the urge to let your English-speaking reflexes take over and slide forward or up in your mouth on those sounds.
Ah yes, the /r/. Some can do it and some can’t. But, let’s face it: when hispanohablantes want to make fun of the gringo accent, this is their staple material.
The /r/ you use in English will never ever appear in Spanish (although Costa Rica comes pretty close), so please erase that contorted tongue from your Spanish memory. The /r/ is actually incredibly diverse throughout the Spanish speaking world (and generally across world languages), but the standard setup includes 1) your trilled /r/ at the beginning of a word and between vowel sounds, and 2) a tap /r/ most other places.
The trilled /r/ is notoriously difficult (but not impossible), so if you want to start with more reasonable goals, just focus on swapping out your English /r/ for the tap one. This is an easy switch, since the tap /r/ is nearly the same as the English /d/. When you see that letter, your tongue should flick quickly from high in the mouth downwards against the alveolar ridge. Using this pronunciation everywhere could create some confusion — distinctions between words like perro and pero will have to be gained from context — but it’s 100 times better than sounding like this guy:
But if you watched the whole video, hopefully you noticed: he can actually speak really well. He makes a few grammatical mistakes and has a couple odd pronunciations, but for the most part, he’s got these things down. The /v/ sounds more like an English /b/, the /d/ flicks between his teeth, the /l/ is tense and sharp, his vowels are pure and static, and the /r/ alternates between taps and rolls.
Pronunciation is my favorite part of learning a new language. That first time you speak a short sentence with flawless pronunciation, almost as if by accident, that pleasant shock becomes one of your most treasured language learning memories. It’s addictively fun, and who doesn’t love being asked, “de qué parte de México/Colombia/España/etc. eres?”
But don’t get caught up fishing for accent compliments and lose sight of your larger language learning goals. Remember, it’s about communication. Work on the luxury problem of your accent when you have time, and for the rest, just keep speaking and learning!