Spanish Language Blog

Spanish Orthography 101: 5 Tricky Spanish Letters and How to Pronounce Them Posted by on Mar 21, 2016 in Videos

On a recent post about the things that are making you sound super gringo in Spanish, someone asked in the comments about the letter x in Spanish. This is just one of the many tricky little symbol with a few different pronunciations, and using the wrong one in the wrong place can sound a bit ridiculous at times.

spanish orthography pronunciation

Image via Pixabay under CC0 (creative commons).

Of course your small mistakes like these aren’t always a bad thing, but if you’re tired of just guessing how to pronounce letters like the x, there’s hope.

Thankfully, language is a pretty well-organized thing most of the time, and Spanish orthography, or the letters used to write the language, is no exception. There are countless local, national, and regional dialects of Spanish, all of which have their own preferences for pronunciation, which can often confuse learners, but letters’ pronunciations also differ depending on what kinds of other sounds occur in their environment. In short, Spanish orthography isn’t as straightforward as you might expect.

These six letters are all known to confuse Spanish learners, but their pronunciation for the most part follows hard and fast rules that you can follow to determine the correct pronunciation.

Weird Spanish Letter #1: X

The x is a bit of an unusual letter in Spanish. It somehow almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the same alphabet, and when you come across it now and then, it always seems to stick out conspicuously among the crowd of more normal-seeming letters.

In general, when you encounter an x, your safest bet is to pronounce it like the English -ks- sound: examen, exito, conexión, etc. But other times, especially in Mexican words of Nahuatl origin, the letter is pronounced like an English h, like in the word México itself and other forms of it (Mexicano, Mexicanas).

Weird Spanish Letter #2: 11 and y

The pronunciation of ll can tell natives a lot about where other natives come from or where non-natives learned Spanish, as there are a few different ways to pronounce it that vary by region. Thankfully, they’re all equally acceptable, but some tend to be seen as more standard in different parts of the Spanish-speaking world than others.

In Mexico the ll — pronounced something like ay-yay in Spanish — is a glide like an English y. In Colombia it’s palatalized to sound more like an English j, and in Argentina it’s a different story altogether. The one thing you can count on is that the Spanish double-l will never be pronounced like an English single or double l sound.

Weird Spanish Letter #3: c, s, and z

These three letters are pronounced similarly in many dialects of Spanish, but they’re always playing a game of musical chairs in how they distribute their shared responsibility for the same one to two speech sounds.

Your pronunciation of the Spanish c certainly marks which side of the Atlantic you learned the language on. In Spain, this letter often slips between the teeth in the distinctive ceceo that is often described as a ‘lisp’, whereas in Latin America it makes the sound of an English in the same position. The c generally has two pronunciations: a ‘soft’ c that sounds like an English s in Latin America or English th in Spain, and a ‘hard’ c that sounds more or less like English k everywhere.

The and in most Latin American Spanish dialects converge into one s-like sound, and nowhere in the Spanish-speaking world will you be understood for mixing the two. In most of Spain, the will normally sound like the Spanish c, both pronounced with tongue between the teeth like English th.

Weird Spanish Letter #4: b and v

The Spanish and seem as confusing to learners as their English equivalents can be for native Spanish speakers learning English. Sometimes it sounds like they’re the exact same sound, others you think you’re hearing a more teeth-on-lips English-style v, and still others it’s reduced to some vague lip-moving sound between vowels.

Linguists consider the sound written with and to be allophones or variants of the same sound in Spanish: basically this means that, while their pronunciation sometimes changes somewhat depending on the other kinds of sounds they’re surrounded by, the difference isn’t strong enough to differentiate two words.

Native speakers argue endlessly over whether words like vaca and baca are pronounced identically, with some insisting that ‘proper’ pronunciation makes a distinction, while others (and linguists) insist that that distinction died out of the language some time ago. Regardless of what’s ‘right’, here’s one native’s detailed take on it:

Weird Spanish Letter #5: g

The words agua and ganar are pronounced differently, and the distinction is a subtle one to do with the pronunciation of the g. Sometimes, like in ganar, we get a ‘hard g’, more like its English equivalent, but other times, in words like agua or guayaba, it becomes what’s called an ‘approximant’ and the characteristically g-sound of the takes a bit of a back seat.

And then sometimes it wants to act like a Spanish or an English h? Watch this video to clear it up a bit.


It’s no English, but Spanish can have some pretty ambiguous and frustrating orthography sometimes. Take a look at the rules and tips shared in each of the videos above and make some mental notes on how to pronounce these different sounds the next time you encounter them while practicing your Spanish.

And if you want some more help with your Spanish pronunciation, check out some of the video tutorials on common pronunciation challenges we shared a few weeks ago!

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About the Author: Jakob Gibbons

I write about language and travel on my blog . I often share my experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is my specialty.


  1. Diane:

    I think ths is the response to my request a while back….so thank you very much! I love this blog. Speaking Spanish is my favorite thing! Diane

  2. Jakob Gibbons:

    Yes it was Diane! Awesome to hear that you’re getting so much out of our blog, we love speaking Spanish too! 😛