Spanish Difficult Consonants: A Closer Look
On this page we will review some Spanish tricky consonants in more detail.
In English we create /t/, /d/ and /n/ sounds by touching the tip of the tongue against the upper gumline (alveolar ridge).
In contrast, you make the Spanish /t̪/, /d̪/ and /n̪/ sounds by touching the blade of your tongue (just behind the tip) to this same spot. To do this, you have to stick your tongue out a bit further. This causes your tongue to actually rest between your two rows of front teeth.
Notice the little “tooth” symbol underneath the symbols. We use this to remind you of the difference between these sounds in Spanish.
This may seem like a minor detail, but it is important because certain Spanish sound combinations are IMPOSSIBLE to produce with the English tip-of-the-tongue versions of these consonants. You will need to know how to do this when you get to speaking at faster and faster speeds.
Some tips for these consonants:
- Stick your tongue out a bit further, causing the tip of your tongue to actually rest beneath your upper teeth (1:26)
- Exaggerate and have your tongue all the way out (3:10)
- Practice with the “th” sound from English (7:30)
- Do not let the tongue retreat back into the mouth between consonants
In Spanish, the /b/, /v/, /g/ and /d/ sounds are softened. Spanish speakers do this by touching the parts of their mouth they would normally use for a brief moment and holding the sound for much less time. For instance, with /g/ sometimes the lips do not touch each other at all, resulting in a sound like /w/. You will notice that this difference is much slighter than it would be in English. Listen to the audio below to hear an example.
Rhotic Consonants (R-Sounds)
The most difficult movements to master in Spanish are the Alveolar Tap and Trill (aka Spanish R sounds).
As a Spanish learner, you may have a STRONG tendency as an English speaker to replace the Spanish ‘R’ /&/ with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, they are also the MOST common speech sounds in the language.
Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. Acoustically, the English /ɹ/ sound is completely different from the Spanish R /&/. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make.
Alveolar Tap /&/
- Create this sound by lightly flicking the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge.
- If you go fast enough with /d/, you will be creating the alveolar tap. Eventually your tongue will be moving so fast that the consonant will evolve into an alveolar tap /&/.
- Try to replace the Spanish /&/ with a hard /d/ but make sure that you use the blade of your tongue for the Spanish /d̪/
- We actually use /&/ in English often. For instance, Americans will say the word “butter” with a tap in place of the /t/: “bu-&r.”
Alveolar Trill /+/
- Create this sound by directing air over the tongue in a way that causes it to vibrate rapidly on its own.
- If you cannot pronounce this sound, it suffices to replace it with the alveolar tap /&/.
- Some will find it easier to produce the trill /+/ than the tap /&/. As a result, they might replace the tap with the trill sound. This is not a good habit to develop.
Alveolar Tap Combos
The real difficulty in this sound is pronouncing it in combination with other consonants. To bring your alveolar tap strength up to the levels needed to keep up with the normal speeds of Spanish, I have created a series of drills to develop your speed and strength in producing this sound in every combination possible in Spanish.
You will find all of these drills in the Drills section under /&/ and /+/. As you progress through the Spanish sections, you should refer to these drills regularly to build up your tap strength and speed. To get the full benefits out of these drills, the key is to practice often (i.e. daily). In general, your goal should be to workout until you feel “fatigue” in your mouth. Any soreness you feel today will translate to newfound strength tomorrow.