Most Spanish pronunciation guides are really only about pronunciation rules for the language. They tend to fall short of teaching you how to actually hear and pronounce said sounds. Here at The Mimic Method, we think this latter part is even more important than just recognizing the location of a sound in word spelling.
In general, Spanish pronunciation is quite regular. You can tell how to pronounce a word from the way it’s written once you know what sound each letter (or group of letters) represents.
Luckily, the sounds almost always match the spelling. Many speak the consonant sounds in a similar way to English. The main differences are with c, g, h, j, ll, ñ, qu, r, v, z. Vowels are pronounced the same wherever they occur – unlike English, in which each vowel can be spoken in several distinct ways (i.e., through vs. tough vs. though).
By the end of this Spanish pronunciation guide, you should be familiar with most of the sounds associated with the Spanish alphabet. You may even discover a few tricks to overcome things like the dreaded R sound.
Spanish Alphabet vs. Sounds
There are 27 scripted letters in the modern Spanish alphabet. But there are at least 39 phonetic sounds in modern Spanish speech. It is important to understand that even though English and Spanish have almost identical alphabets, the same characters do not always represent the same sound in both languages.
The challenge will be to rewire the your brain so you can produce sounds for letters that sound different from what you’re used to. The reason why there are more sounds than letters is that these sounds are used for the same combination of letters – or syllables – when spelled at different places in words.
For instance, take the difference between the words “guardar” (gwar-dar) and “gente” (hen-teh). The pronunciation is different because of the vowel that comes after the letter G. The same idea applies in English with the word “going” /go..iŋ/. It is just a matter of hearing these patterns and incorporating them into your own speech.
The other reason has to do with regional dialects, which introduces new sounds to spoken speech. For instance, “gracias” (gra-syas) changes in Castilian dialect (gra-thyas). And this pattern continues for other similarly spelled words in the dialect.
Alphabet "Name" of Letter In Words A a casa, taza B be bien, bebé C ce casa, cine CH che chico, leche D de día, verdad E e mesa, cine F efe café, fruta G ge jugo, general H hache hola, hijo I i iba, cita J jota ojo, jugo K* ka kilo, kiosko L ele hola, leche LL elle calle, llama M eme mesa, mamá N ene noche, antes Ñ eñe señor, niño O o sopa, hola P pe papá, peso Q cu queso, quién R ere señor, fruta RR erre perro, carro S ese casa, señor T te taza, fruta U u jugo, mucho V ve vaso, vive W* doble ve whiski X equis México, excelente Y i griega ya, Yucatán Z zeta taza, azúcar
* These letters appear only in words of foreign origin.
As said earlier, most guides just teach you things like the alphabet and make you miss out on the nuances of sounds which really give you better pronunciation. This traditional approach is a “learn by eye” approach. At The Mimic Method, we like to use a “learn by ear” approach to language learning.
But to make things easier for you, we’re going to be talking about the alphabet as well as the sounds behind the patterns in the alphabet starting with the most important group – vowel sounds.
What is a vowel?
Vowels are created by completely opening the vocal tract and allowing air to flow out unobstructed. What determines the sound of a vowel is the position of your tongue within your mouth. To help in this process, you will first develop a physical awareness of your tongue’s location in your mouth.
In Spanish, vowel sounds account for only five letters but make up over 80% of the actual speed sound you will produce. So it’s very important to spend time getting these right, unless you want to keep your Gringo accent ;).
The chart here is a Vowel Chart. A vowel chart plots the location of a vowel sound in your mouth.
The three vowel sounds on this page are the extremes in Vowel Height and Backness. In other words, the other vowel sounds for a given language are going to occur at some point between these three extremes.
You will rely mostly on your ear to do this. But it can help you a great deal by starting on the nearest English vowel and going in the right direction from there.
Do as the speaker in the audio file and alternate back and forth out loud to yourself: EEEE! —> UUUU! —> AAAA! —> UUUU! —> EEEE! —> UUUU! etc. Look at at the chart and try to create a mental connection between the visual directions on the chart and your tongue movement in the mouth.
There are three unique features which make the vowel sounds distinctively Spanish.
- The tongue positions are more extreme
- Vowels sound crisper, shorter in length
- Vowels sound the same regardless of location in a word
Since we all speak our native languages without thinking about the movements in our mouth, you probably can’t feel what direction your tongue is moving when you speak. That’s why the first step is developing an awareness and control over your tongue’s movement. Let’s start by examining the vowels in more detail.
A – mala, nada, más
The A vowel is towards the bottom-back part of our mouth. For this, our tongue needs to come further down and further
forward than in English.
This sound is slightly more open (tongue lower in mouth) and frontal (tongue closer to teeth) than the vowel sound in the American English words jot, poppa, Ana.
It’s common for people to have the tendency to close this vowel (as explained in the next section). So be sure to always exaggerate its openness by lowering your jaw as much as possible when saying this sound.
This audio compares the English and Spanish Pronunciation of the name “Ana.” Mimic my pronunciation so that you can feel the difference.
Try to exaggerate and lower your jaw as much as possible when creating the A vowel.
E – come, eso, pena
This sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words hey, bay, say, lays. Typically, the
E vowel in the words hey, bay, say, lay glide up near the I vowel. This does NOT occur in Spanish (as explained in the next section).
The audio compares the English and Spanish pronunciation of the words “se” and “sed.” Notice the movement with the English “say” and “said.” Mimic my pronunciation so that you can feel the difference. Remember to keep your E vowel short and crisp.
I – mí, misa, hija
This sound has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words see, knee, he, she. Typically, it is shorter in length than in English. The audio example below reviews this vowel sound then compares the pronunciations of the English word “see” and the word “sí.” Remember to keep your I vowel short and crisp. It helps to smile wide when creating this I vowel.
O – oso, algo, tengo
This sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words no, so, go, toe. When this sound occurs in English, it glides towards the U vowel forming a diphthong. This does NOT happen in Spanish. The English version is also rounded, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does NOT occur in Spanish.
The audio compares the English and Spanish pronunciation of the word “no.” Mimic my pronunciation so that you can feel the difference. Remember to keep this O vowel short and relax your lips (do not round them).
U – un, sus, tus
The U vowel has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words who, shoe, two, Sue.
When native speakers make this sound, it is shorter in length than in English. This sound is usually rounded in English, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does NOT occur in Spanish.
Listen to the audio example between the words “two” and tú. Remember to keep this sound short and crisp and keep your lips relaxed to avoid rounding the vowel.
Note: The vowel u is silent in 4 cases. Don’t sound it in: que, qui, gue, gui
So to review, here are all five vowels of Spanish with the ways we tend to pronounce them in English.
Moving Vowel Pairs
For vowel pairs, the same rule applies for each letter in the alphabet. They do not change at all depending on where they are in a word and will always be the same.
When spoken at normal speeds, some movement vowel pairs will be spoken so that they will blend together to make a W sound. For instance, fuiste becomes “fwi-ste” and bueno becomes “bwe-no.” As a general rule of thumb, remember to keep these movement vowel pairs short and crisp.
Use the list below to identify the movement vowel pairs in the words for numbers one through ten.
As an English speaker you developed hearing and speaking patterns that clash with the Spanish sound system. Fortunately, these tendencies are predictable and fixable once you become aware of them. With vowels, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors so that’s why it is important to review them early on.
By understanding the things you’re inclined to do wrong, you can begin to make sense of these differences. Below, I categorize and explain all the major English vowel mispronunciation tendencies.
A, O and E are more open than in English. This means that your tongue is lower and further back to the extremes of your mouth. Because of this, you’ll tend to close these vowels. To reverse this tendency, exaggerate the physical openness of your mouth for these vowels. It will seem silly at first, but it will become more natural with practice.
In addition, we often close vowels even more in unstressed syllables. For example, the first vowel in the word “about” sounds more like “uh-bout.” We do the same thing with words like “roses” (ro-zihs) and “manatee” (ma-nih-tee). This is incorrect because vowel reduction does not occur in Spanish.
All Spanish vowels are pronounced the exact same whether stressed or unstressed. In all cases, and A is and A no matter which part of the word it occupies. Remember that and you will have a much easier time with your Spanish pronunciation. Listen to the audio below to hear my pronunciation of the word “nada” (nothing), first in the English way and then the correct way.
In English, diphthongizing is a fancy word meaning we add an additional vowel at the end of words as we close our mouths. For O we glide it near to U as in the word “hello!” (He-lo->u). For E we glide near to I as in the word “Hey!” (He->i). This does not happen in Spanish. These sounds are short and sweet with no additional vowels added on the end. The audio below demonstrates.
When English speakers say the vowels U and O, they tend to curl their lips in at the end which alters the sound. In Spanish, there is no rounding so your lips should never curl like this. To avoid doing this, you will want to keep these vowels short and crisp. Imitate the audio and try to build an awareness of this lip motion.
Again, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors. Develop an awareness of them now and you can drop them from your speech patterns quickly. Be sure to return this page regularly as you improve your pronunciation.
What is a consonant?
Unlike vowel sounds, you create consonant sounds by blocking air from coming out of your mouth. In this section, we’ll review some important differences between English and Spanish consonants.
Spanish Consonant Letters
Letter Short Description In words B less forceful than in English; often identical to sound in V bien, bebé C has two sounds: like English S before E or I; like English K before A, O, U, or consonant. Soft C turns into silent TH in Spain. casa, cine CH like CH in chair chico, mucho D articulated with blade of tongue (often like TH), especially between vowels and at end of word día, verdad F same value as in English café, fruta G Has three sounds: like English H before E or I; like English hard G at beginning of a word before A, O, U or consonant; can be pronounced weaker when in the middle of words gato, gente, agua H always silent (note that CH is a separate character) hola, hijo J like an English H, depending on the word. Sometimes pronounced as fricative (think Darth Vader) hijo, jugo, ojo K Only in words of foreign origin. whiski L pronounced two ways in English, pronounced only one way in Spanish hola, gol, alto LL in most places, pronounced as Y. In certain dialects, pronounced as S sound in English word "vision" llama, pollo M same value as in English mesa, mamá N Has three different sounds depending on location in the word (see below). noche, antes, tengo Ñ Like the "nio" sound in English word "Onion." señor, niño P similar to English, but not aspirated as much papá, peso Q Always followed by U; like an English K. In these cases the U is silent. queso, quien R pronounced with single flap except as initial sound, when it is trilled. In English words "butter," "gotta," "lotta" señor, fruta RR Trilled R sound. Trills can also occur at beginning of words that start with R. perro, carro, ratón, señor S Generally similar to English casa, sé T articulated with blade of tongue (often like TH), especially between vowels and at end of word taza, fruta V Often identical to sound in B vaso, vive W Only in words of foreign origin. whiski X varies, but often like KS sound in English excelente, exacto Y almost always like English Y sound y, ya, Yucatán Z almost always pronounced as English S. Turns into silent TH in Spain. taza, feliz, zumo
B (be) and V (ve) – boca, vengo, hablar, uva
Both the B and V are not the same as they are in English. They are usually softened. Native speakers do this by touching their lips together for a moment and holding the sound for less time.
As a result, many native speakers will often replace V with B and vice versa. For instance, they may pronounce the word “vaca” (cow) as “baca.” You will notice that this difference is much slighter than it would be in English. If you want to perfect this, try biting your lower lip to while practicing these words.
C (ce) – casa, cine
For this letter, there is a soft and a strong sound. It sounds like a K (hard) next to the vowels A, O and U (banco, capital). It sounds like an S (soft) when next to the letter E and I (circa, Marcello, gracias).
In many parts of Spain, the soft C sounds like TH in the English word “thick.” So “gracias” (thank you) becomes “gra-theas.”
CH (che) – chico, mucho
Similar to the CH sounds in the English words “cheese” and “chocolate.”
D (de) and T (te) – día, taza
In English we create the T and D sounds by touching the tip of the tongue against the upper gumline. In contrast, you make these sounds in Spanish 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. You can locate this by putting your tongue where you make the TH sound, like in the word “Think.” This also happens with the letter N in certain cases.
This may seem like minor detail, but it is important because certain fast sound combinations are impossible to make without doing this. You will need to know how to do this when you get to speaking at faster and faster speeds.
F (efe) – café, fruta
Exact same as the sound in the English words “fence” and “effect.”
G (ge) – gato, gente
There is a soft sound and strong sound G. In general, soft (like English H) sound when before E or I (i.e. gente, general). In other cases, hard G sound is identical to the English sound (i.e., gato).
H (hache) – hola, hijo
Always silent except for when you see the letter c next to it like in the word “chocolate.”
J (jota) – hijo, jugo, mujer
This letter sounds close to the English H sound, but it varies in softness or hardness depending on the country (a hard version of this would be the sound of Darth Vader breathing or the hissing of a cat) like in words “mujer” and “ojo.” Listen below and try to imitate my speech.
L (ele) – gol, hola, luego
Most people say this character is pronounced the same as it usually would be in English. But English actually has two “L” sounds: the “dark L” and the “true L.” In Spanish, there is only the “True L.” A common tendency for English speakers is to use both as if they were speaking English.
Some tips for this consonant:
- Keep the same speed when going up and down (la/al, li/il)
- Exaggerate by having your jaw as low as possible
- Give more love to the consonant, dwell on the L sound
LL (doble ele) – pollo, allí
In general, this “double-l” is associated with the Y sound in the English word “yes.” Certain dialects in Latin-America will make this sound more like the letter S in the English word “vision.” A well-known example is the Antioquian Colombian accent. This consonant is important to pay attention to in order to sound more authentic.
M (eme) – mala, mamá
Pronounced similar to the English words “map” and “melt.”
N (ene) – noche, antes, banco, tengo
In the beginning of words, make this sound exactly the same as in English (noche, nada). Before the letters C and G, N becomes like NG as exists in English words “walking” or “ink.” In the middle of words and when next to a vowel, it is pronounced with the blade of the tongue like T or D in Spanish (see above).
Note that in the third case, native speakers are actually using the blade of their tongue rather than the tip to create this sound. This is because combining certain sounds together (i.e., an-tes) is impossible to do with any kind of real speed unless you do it with the blade of your tongue. The acoustic differences between these sounds is small, but the physiological effects are huge.
Letter Ñ (eñe) – piña, mañana, año
The diacritical mark over this letter is called a tilde. It is not used with any other letters in Spanish. It sounds like the “ni” in “onion. This creates the “n-y-ah” “n-y-oh” “n-y-eh” sound which is common in all words with the letter ñ.
P (pe) – piña, papá
Pronounced the same as if it were spoken as the English words “please” and “poor.”
Q (ku) – qué, quizas
This letter is silent if is next to the letter U and sounds like a K next to the letter E and I.
S (ese) – casa, señor
The letter S is more or less the same as you would pronounce in English. However, in some dialects the S sound is often dropped or replaced by an H sound, allowing people to talk more quickly.
People sometimes find it difficult to understand Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, etc.) varieties. It is not that difficult to process, once you tune your ear to it.
W (doble ve) – whiski, fuiste
This letter only appears in words of foreign origin. However, native speakers will sometimes say moving pairs of vowels quickly, resulting in a blended sound of W rather than an isolated two sounds (i.e., “fui” -> fwee).
X (equis) – México, excelente
X is usually pronounced like the English KS sound when between vowels.
Y (i griega) – ya, Yucatán
You say the letter Y just like you would say the word “yes” in English.
Z (zeta) – plaza, cazar, voz
Technically there is no Z sound in Spanish, so this letter is always replaced with an S sound like in the English word “salt.” In parts of Spain, Z is replaced with a sound similar to TH in English (i.e., zapato becomes “tha-pa-to”).
The most difficult movements to master are the Rhotic (Spanish R) consonants. This sound does indeed exist in some dialects of English, but with limited usage.
As a Spanish learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the Spanish /ɾ/ with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, they are also one of the most common speech sounds in the language. As you saw in the vowel section, English speakers already have a tendency to “R-Color” in between vowel sounds as well.
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 /ɾ/. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make. Persist in saying the English ‘r’ in your Spanish, and you will NEVER achieve Spanish fluency.
How do I roll my R’s?
There are actually TWO distinct sounds in Spanish that people refer to as “The Spanish r.” Referring to it as an ‘r’ may make people think that it has some relationship to the ‘r’ sounds of other languages like English and French, but these sounds are completely different.
This is actually a very common sound in English. We actually replace the T and D sounds with this sound when we talk fast, like in the words “butter” and “better.”
In the recording below, I say the phrase “Got to eat a matador” two times. The first time I say it slowly and enunciated, the second time I say it quickly and naturally. If you can’t the alveolar tap sound yet, replace it with a fast D. In other words, the Spanish R is just a really fast D sound.
If you can’t yet make the sound yet, replace it with your fastest /d/. In the recording below, I demonstrate how to do this by saying some Spanish words with a fast /d/.
- quiero (quiedo)
- eres (edes)
- estar (estad)
- arte (adte)
- ahora (ahoda)
If you replace your alveolar taps with fast D sounds, your mouth and ear will eventually fall into place and start creating the alveolar tap naturally. In the recording below, I demonstrate this by repeating the syllable “da” several times slowly, then gradually building speed. By the end of the recording, my tongue is moving too fast to make the D sound, so I am effectively saying “&a”.
Most of the time, you can replace the trill (rr) with a tap (r) and you’ll be fine. Of course, I strongly encourage you to strengthen that sound since it can be tricky to use in Spanish at normal speed.
This covers all of the consonant letters in the Spanish alphabet. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we need to ultimately look behind the letters on paper and figure out the actual sound they represent. Use the chart below to see how these sounds appear in both English and Spanish speech.
English and Spanish Phonemic Comparison
English Phoneme Examples Spanish Phoneme Examples /b/ bat, book /b/ bueno, vino /ch/ church /ch/ chico, mucho /d/ (tip) did, dew /d̪/ (blade) día, cada /f/ foot, fire /f/ fuerte, gafas /g/ go, give /g/ gato, tengo /h/ he, hat /h/ gente, Juan /d͡ʒ/ jam, gym /k/ kid, cool /k/ poco, que, cola /ks/ explain, ax /ks/ exacto, excellente /l/ lie, lick, ladder /l/ lado, hablar, gol, portal /ɫ/ all, eel, cool /m/ me, mat /m/ mano, mamá /n/ no, never /n/ noche, no /n̪/ (blade) antes, banana /ŋ/ parking, going /ŋ/ tengo, blanco /ɲ/ onion /ɲ/ niño, señor /p/ pillow, paper /p/ peso, sopa /ɹ/ roll, armor /ɾ/ butter, lotta /ɾ/ pero, fruta /ɾɾ/ perro, rico, amor /s/ sat, rice /s/ cena, zapato, sol /ʃ/ she, machine /t/ ten, two /t̪/ (blade) tomar, datos /θ/ thin, thick /θ/ (dialectical) plaza, zapato, gracias /v/ very /w/ will, water /w/ hueso, fui /x/ (dialectical) mujer, ojo /j/ yes /j/ llamar, yo, hielo /ʝ/ (dialectical) llamar, pollo, allí /z/ zoo, his
How Intonation Works
Intonation has to do with the emphasis or stress of some syllables or words over others. If we keep the rhythm and phonemes the same for a phrase, a change in intonation will result in a change in meaning.
In the English phrase, “Great, we’re having steak for dinner again” I seem to be expressing a genuine feeling of excitement, but with a different tone it seems sarcastic and perhaps suggestive of the exact opposite meaning.
Most language programs focus exclusively on vocabulary and grammar and completely overlook the question of intonation. As a result, most language-learners maintain their native intonation patterns when speaking a foreign language.
Intonation is the most characteristic element of an accent. That’s why when people make fun of accents, they tend to exaggerate the intonation more than anything else.
I know many adults are embarrassed about speaking with a foreign intonation. Our personalities are closely linked to the intonation patterns of our voice, so completely changing them requires stepping out of our comfort zone. You might feel “silly” stepping our of your comfort zone and sounding like someone else, but trust that you will look even sillier if you don’t.
Spanish Intonation Patterns
The basic unit of Spanish rhythm is by syllable. In general, stress is usually placed in the second-to-last syllable in a word: Ten–go, gu–stan, E-spa–ña, e-xcur-sio–nes. There are two exceptions:
- If a word ends in a consonant other than n or s, the stress is on the last syllable: Madrid, acampar, español, hospital
- If there is a written accent, the stress is where the accent is: estación, Málaga, café.
Spanish Pronunciation: The Conclusion
Like we said earlier, becoming aware of these nuances is the first step towards fluency. And that prompts the question: Why do you want to learn Spanish in the first place?
At The Mimic Method, we teach that the goal of learning a language is to connect with people and cultures. So that’s why we make the first step to learning a language about learning what the people actually sound like so you can sound like them, too.