Spanish Pronunciation: The Complete Guide

Complete guide to Spanish Pronunciation with Audio
One of the big mistakes made by many Spanish students is spending all of their time and effort learning vocabulary and grammar while neglecting Spanish pronunciation.  This is big mistake for those who aspire to do more than read and write in Spanish, since your ability to use effective pronunciation will have a much greater impact on your ability to be understood by native Spanish speakers than occasional grammar mistakes.

Whenever I [spoke to someone], they kept asking me ‘What? What?’ I would repeat my sentence again and again. Finally they would say Ah-ha! and then repeat my sentence, using exactly my words! It was very humiliating. I knew my words and grammar were good, but nobody would understand me, just because of my pronunciation.

The other mistake that Spanish students often make is to delay the study of pronunciation until after they have already acquired a large vocabulary. This is also a big mistake  — learning vocabulary without correct pronunciation from the beginning means that you end up building a large vocabulary of words that you can recognize one paper, but cannot faithfully reproduce orally.  These words must later be re-learned a second time with proper pronunciation — an increasingly difficult task when you have been pronouncing words incorrectly for a long time.  For this reason, proper pronunciation should be stressed from the very beginning of your language study in order to provide a solid foundation for future learning.

How to use this Guide

The primary goal of this guide is to teach you how to first hear, and eventually replicate, proper Spanish pronunciation. Each section below contains audio exercises designed to help you to practice specific aspects of Spanish pronunciation. Simply reading through this guide without taking the time to complete the audio exercises will likely do little to improve your pronunciation in Spanish.  Listen to the audio exercises carefully and try to emulate their pronunciation as closely as possible. Practice the audio exercises over and over until you are confident you are pronouncing the words correctly.  (You can use the link below to download the audio files to your computer for additional practice.)

Download Complete Guide and Audio Files: Click here to download a PDF copy of this guide along with all of the audio files to your computer.

Table of Contents

The phonetic system in Spanish

The good news for learning Spanish pronunciation is that the Spanish language is almost perfectly “phonetic”, meaning there is a consistent relationship between the way a word is spelled and the way it sounds: You can look at almost any written word in Spanish and automatically know how to pronounce it. This makes mastering Spanish pronunciation considerably easier than English, where the pronunciation of words must be learned independently from their written form. Consider, for example, the different pronunciations of the “ough” suffix in the following English words:

  1. though (like o in go)
  2. through (like oo in too)
  3. cough (like off in offer)
  4. rough (like uff in suffer)
  5. plough (like ow in flower)
  6. ought (like aw in saw)

In English it is almost impossible to determine the correct pronunciation of a word based on spelling alone.  However, Spanish letters and letter combinations are almost always pronounced the same way.  This makes Spanish pronunciation relatively simple to replicate once you master some the basic rules and a few the unique sounds.

Typical errors from English vowel influence in similar-sounding words

As an initial exercise, it is useful to examine the difference in pronunciation of certain Spanish words that are similar in form to words in English.  Consider the list below. Although these words may seem familiar, their Spanish pronunciation is quite different, and you are liable to make serious mistakes if you attempt to pronounce them in the English-sounding way. Note that in the list below we have placed an accent mark (´) to indicate a stressed vowel, even though this does not occur in normal Spanish spelling of these words. Also note that the English words given are not always translations of the Spanish; they are simply used to represent the English word the Spanish word might remind you of.

Audio Exercise: English-sounding words

oficína office doctór doctor
oportunidád opportunity congréso congress
conferéncia conference tropicál tropical
atómica atomic Hondúras Honduras
conversación conversation hospitál hospital
contráto contract posíble possible
bombardéo bombardment prónto pronto
próxima approximate fósforo phosphorus
cósto cost blánca blank
Kánsas Kansas páse pass
cláse class grácias grass
lástima last espáñol spaniel
absolúto absolute

Pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet

The Spanish alphabet, or abecedario,  is similar to the English alphabet, with the addition of a few letters that are unique to Spanish.  In later sections, we’ll take a full examination of the range of sounds that each letter makes as part of word.  In this section we simply review the name of and pronunciation of each of the letters themselves.

Video Exercise:  The letters of the Spanish alphabet

Watch the following video and repeat the name of each letter as prompted.

Note:  This video presents the traditional Spanish alphabet.  You should be aware that in 2010, the official Spanish alphabet was changed by the Royal Spanish Academy. The letters Ch and Ll were removed, and the names of some other letters were clarified or changed:

• becomes uve instead of ve, to avoid confusion with B (be)
• becomes uve doble instead of doble ve.
• becomes ye instead of i griega Although these differences are relatively minor, you should be aware of both versions.

Pronunciation Key for Spanish Letters

The last exercise introduced you to the names of each of the letters in Spanish. The Pronunciation Key below describes the sounds that each individual letter makes as part of a word. We will cover the sounds of that each letter makes in greater detail in the individual sections on Spanish vowels and Spanish consonants. For now, you should review the Pronunciation Key only to familiarize yourself with the basic pronunciation of each letter.

Note: This chart is only partially reproduced here. We recommend reviewing the complete Spanish Pronunciation Key with audio here. 

Letter How to pronounce Sounds like
a ah Sounds like the a in “father.”
b,v  beh The letters and sound the same in Spanish. When found at the beginning of a word or following a consonant, they both make a sound like the English b in “ball”: and When found in the middle or end of word, they make a softer sound that falls somewhere in between the English b and v sounds.
c seh Usually sounds like c in cartwheel.  Before e or i, it makes an s sound.
ch cheh Sounds like the ch in “church.”
d deh Sounds like the English d except between vowels and following l or n where pronounced almost like the th in “this.”
e eh For a syllable ending in a vowel, like the e in “they”; for a syllable ending in a consonant, like the e in “get.”
f effe Sounds like the f in “flute.”
g ge Usually like the ‘g’ in except before e or i, where it sounds like the English “h.”
h hache In general, the h is silent.
i i Sounds like the i in machine. Before vowels a, e, and o, it forms a “y” sound.
j jota Sounds like an English h sound but a bit stronger.
k kah Like the k in English.
l ele Like the l in English
ll elle Like the y in “you.”
m eme Sounds like the English m, as in “mom.”
n ene Sounds like an English n.
ñ eñe Makes a “nyah” sound like the  in “onion”or “canyon.”
o oh For a syllable ending in a vowel, sounds like the o in “vote.”
p peh Sounds like an English p, but slightly softer.
q koo Sounds like a k; always followed by a silent u.
r ere Pronounced with a strong trill when at the beginning of a word or and following an l, n, or s; medium trill in other positions, and very little trill when at the end of a word.
rr ere Strongly rolled r sound.
s ese Just like the English s.
t te Very close to the English t but softer, the tongue touches the teeth and there is no explosion of breath after moving the tongue away.
u u Sounds like the u in rule. When paired with a vowel it makes a sound like the w in “well.”
v veh see b, v
w doble veh The letter w is somewhat rare in Spanish and mostly used for foreign words. When it appears, it usually makes the same sound as the English w.
x equis Usually sounds like the x in “box”
y y griega Usually sounds like the y in “yes” In many countries, y is pronounced with a soft j sound.
z zeta Mostly pronounced like the English z as in (but can sound like the th in “thin” in parts of Spain)

Pronunciation of Spanish vowels

Although English and Spanish share the same set of vowels (a-e-i-o-u) the pronunciation of vowels in Spanish differs somewhat from  their English counterparts.  The first difference is that Spanish vowels do not have the same variation in sounds as is found in English (consider the difference between the i “give” vs. “alive”, or the e in “be” vs. “get”). In Spanish vowels are always pronounced the same way. The other major difference is that Spanish vowels tend to be much shorter in length than their English counterparts.  English speakers frequently import the elongated English vowels into Spanish, resulting in a tell-tale gringo accent that sounds something like a “southern drawl.”  The exercises below illustrate the differences between English vowel sounds and the shorter Spanish vowels.

English vowels vs. Spanish vowels

The following lists present similar sounding words pronounced by a Spanish speaker and an English speaker respectively, to illustrate important differences in the pronunciation of what might be considered the same vowels. Note especially that the English vowels seem to be more drawn out, and especially note that they seem to change quality from the beginning to the end of the vowel, whereas the Spanish vowels do not.  Learning these differences should help reduce your “gringo accent.”

Audio Exercise on Spanish-English vowel differences

English ay and Spanish e

day de Kay que
say se bay be
Fay fe May me
lay le

English o and Spanish o

no no low lo
yoe yo so so

English e, ee and Spanish i

me mi tea ti
see si bee bi
Dee di knee ni

English oo and Spanish u

too tu sue su
pooh pu coo cu
boo bu moo mu

Contrasting Spanish vowel sounds under weak stress

One of the biggest differences between Spanish and English is the pronunciation of vowels under weak stress – that is, vowels that do not have the principal stress of the word. In English, only the stressed vowel is usually fully pronounced, while the rest become indistinguishable vowel sounds which all sound alike. Consider for instance, the underlined vowels in the following pairs English words, which have the same vowel sound in spite of differences in spelling:

president precedent
mormon mermen
warden pardon

These vowels would not be pronounced the same way in Spanish. In Spanish, all the vowels retain their pronunciation, even those that do not have the principal stress in the word. While it is normal to make mistakes with Spanish vowels at first, this is a very serious error which must be corrected early in your efforts to form Spanish habits of pronunciation. The following ten sets of exercises are intended to help you master the pronunciation of Spanish vowels under weak stress. They are arranged in pairs of words, so that the only difference between the members of each pair is the pronunciation of one weak- stressed vowel. Listen carefully and repeat each pair of words after the native speakers presented on the audio. By observing closely the point of difference between each pair, you will begin to hear and appreciate these differences. Practice with the audio until you feel confident that you are distinguishing the vowel sounds in pronunciation. (Please Note: These word lists are for pronunciation only, they’re not for building vocabulary. Some are very rare and uncommonly used words, and a few aren’t words at all. )

Contrasting /a/ and /e/ sounds

seda cede palón pelón
sapa sape fatal fetal
lota lote tañir teñir
mesas meses papito pepito
bocha boche dadito dedito
tinta tinte escupa escupe
chincha chinche soqueta soquete
corta corte alumbra alumbre
sobras sobres francesas franceses
basar besar cantoras cantores
manar menar barreta berreta
machón mechón señoras señores
tachar techar pastoras pastores
tachón techón marcado mercado
panal penal apagar apegar
tajón tejón portuguesas portugueses

Contrasting /a/ and /i/ sounds 

labar libar pañal piñal
patón pitón masita misita
nadar nidar latera litera
matad mitad salero silero
charlar chirlar paquete piquete
panzón pinzón fajarón fijaron
pasando pisando mallador mallidor

Contrasting /a/ and /o/ sounds 

ara aro Cuba cubo
tía tío coca coco
sera zero cara caro
pesa peso para paro
pasa paso China chino
mala malo canta canto
mesa meso manta manto
malla mallo zorra zorro
bola bolo
santa santo derecha derecho
suegra suegro cigarra cigarro
negra negro María moría
palma palmo zapata zapato
pasta pasto hermana hermano
trompa trompo mimosa mimoso
rema remo pareja parejo
cobra cobro marea mareo
nieta nieto ternera ternero
india indio cereza cerezo
calor color llamada llamado
esposa esposo lacónica lacónico

Contrasting /a/ and /u/ sounds 

pajar pujar lanero lunero
tarón turón Caracas curacas
sabido subido barrita burrita
papita pupita parguita purguita
malaso mulaso cañado cuñado
canita cunita marciano murciano
lanita lunita palidez pulidez
malita mulita matador mutador

Contrasting /e/ and /i/ sounds 

penar pinar pesado pisado
petón pitón perita pirita
pelón pilón pesada pisada
telón tilón pesaron pisaron
remar rimar mellar millar
mesera misera peñita piñita

Contrasting /e/ and /o/ sounds 

pase paso pepe pepo
tome tomo tire tiro
fume fumo cabe cabo
vine vino vive vivo
leche lecho leción loción
traje trajo mesita mosita
deje dejo belita bolita
teje tejo betado botado
quiere quiero pesada posada
peine peino hermita hormita
cobre cobro guerrita gorrita
cante canto conteste contesto
lleve llevo ternero tornero
mande mando cerrito zorrito
cambie cambio conforme conformo
compre compro eclipse eclipso
pelar polar trabaje trabajo
mentón montón preposición proposición

Contrasting /e/ and /u/ sounds

temor tumor cerrar surrar
legar lugar lechón luchón
lechar luchar festín fustín
sección succión pensado punsado
pensión punsión tendero tundero
mesita musita pechero puchero
lelito lulito perita purita
cercado surcado retina rutina
terquito turquito anhelar anular

Contrasting /i/ and /o/ sounds 

timo tomo mirada morada
figón fogón piquito poquito
lisar losar pisada posada
mirar morar tirito torito
misión moción hijito ojito
trincar troncar imito omito
millar mollar tintísimo tontísimo

Contrasting /i/ and /u/ sounds 

ligar lugar mirar murar
mirón murón piñón puñón
billar bullar minita munita
pinzón punzón chinchero chunchero
pintar puntar nidoso nudoso
fisión fusión pidiendo pudiendo
fingir fungir rimita rumita
misita musita mirajes murajes
imito humito pintada puntada
milita mulita riquita ruquita
linoso lunoso birlador burlador
tinero tunero pirita purita
filera fulera linares lunares
cirquito surquito

Contrasting /o/ and /u/ sounds

tope tupe omito humito
vocal vucal monita munita
olate ulate plomero plumero
troncar truncar mosita musita
lonita lunita roquita ruquita
sotana sutana motilar mutilar
porito purito acosar acusar

Stress Placement in Spanish

In Spanish, just like English, we do not pronounce every syllable of a word with the same force or strength. Rather we emphasize or stress one syllable strongly and pronounce all the other syllables quietly. Take for example the words: photographphotographer and photographic.  Although these words all share a common root, each word places stress on a different syllable:

  • PHO-to-graph
  • pho-TOG-ra-pher
  • pho-to-GRAPH-ic

This happens in ALL words with 2 or more syllables: one syllable is stressed strongly and all the other syllables are not.  The syllables that are not stressed referred to are weak stressed or quiet. Placing proper stress may seem like a minor matter, but correct stress placement is a critical part of Spanish pronunciation.  Often, changing the stress will change the meaning of a word entirely.  This is sometimes true in English as well (consider the difference in stress between desert and dessert). The following exercise demonstrates the difference in stress placement and the corresponding change in meaning.  (Note the use of the accent mark in the second column to indicate accentuated syllables.)

Stress pattern illustrations

Repeat each pair of words, paying particular attention to the differences in stress

esta this está is
ingles groins inglés English
peso monetary unit pesó he weighed
perno bolt pernó a kind of wine
pico peak picó he stung
balde bucket baldé I crippled
libro book libró he freed
ara altar hará he will do
abra open habrá there will be

Basic Rules of Accentuation

Spanish also provides standard rules for the placement of stress, making it relatively easy to determine the proper stress placement for any word in Spanish:

  1. For words ending in a vowel, or n or s, the second to last syllable is stressed.
    • todo
    • persona
    • cantan
    • computadoras
  2. For words ending in a consonant other than n or s, the stress falls on the last syllable.
    • azul
    • matador
    • bailar
  3. If the word has an accent mark, then that syllable is stressed, ignoring the rules above.
    • sánwiche
    • sica
    • alegría

The following exercises are arranged according to the number of syllables and placement of stress. You should attempt to carefully emulate the pronunciation of words in the audio files, paying close attention to the stress patterns used by native speakers.  Until you can complete these exercises with proper stress, you cannot expect to progress and pronounce complex sentences successfully. To assist you with these exercises, we have placed an accent mark over the stressed vowel–please note that this is not always the case in the proper Spanish spelling of each word.

Audio Exercise:  Stress placement – words with 2 syllables

Repeat each word, paying particular attention to the placement of stress

rója cómo fúmo ábra
múcho gústo báño vísa
tánto buéno ténga táxi
hásta luégo áño hiélo
dónde fráses tárde cérca
está colór pasár favór
calór ustéd abrír perdón
estóy adiós decír visté
señór cortés ciudád también
razón fumár sérvir cerrár

Audio Exercise: Stress placement – words with 3 syllables

rápido bárbaro trabájo ventána
lástima médico salúdos minútos
fósforo miércoles máñana tiquétes
siéntese sábado señóra centávos
déjeme céntimo difícil bolétos
único sánwiche molésta sabémos
último escúche llegáda
trabajár saludár
oración regulár
entendér conocér
españól Paraguáy
autobús Uruguáy
estación salvadór
corazón contestár

Audio Exercise: Stress placement – words with 4 syllables

dígamelo viéndoselo teléfono perdóneme
présteselo cámbiemelo simpático altímetro
tómeselo sáqueselo decídase figúrese
tráigamelo muévaselo magnífico América
véaselo súbamelas muchísimo milésimo
cuéntemelo cómaselo propósito tantísimo
dándomelo búscamelo fanático buenísimo
telegráma conociéndo trabajaré agricultór
inmediáta adelánte casuálidad entonación
despedídas demasiádo liberación encontrará
absolúto panoráma habilidád caminaré
suficiénte monográma comúnicar amarizár
presentárle entendído ferrocarríl amanecér
señoríta confundído mentalidád facilitár

Audio Exercise: Stress Placement – Words with 5 or more syllables

conociéndose presentaciónes anterioridád
acercándose americáno posterioridád
preciosísimo laboratório cristalización
presentándole conversaciónes cumunicación
primerísimo conservatório nacionalidád
encontrándola camisería argumentación
generalización especialización institucionalidád desnaturalización
identificación decontaminación impresionabilidád impersonalización
naturalización responsabilidád constitucionalidád agriculturización
recapitulación respetabilidád supernaturalidád americanización
capitalización irregularidad descapitalización superalimentación
igualménte Generalménte
usualménte literalménte
actualménte materialménte
cordialménte el señór Cárter
señór Cárter al señór Cástro
doctór Cámpos inmoralménte
colór vérde informalménte
señór Cástro especialménte
así díce el colór négro
el yá viéne el señór Várgas

Pronunciation of Spanish Consonants

In the section on Spanish vowels, we noted that where Spanish vowels retain their full pronunciation even under weak stress, English vowels often become indistinguishable from each other.  The issue with Spanish consonants is somewhat the opposite. While pronunciation of consonants in English tends to be very crisp and distinct, Spanish consonants, particularly d, b, v, l, and s are  often pronounced softly and sound somewhat “muddled” by English standards. The major exception to this is the r sound which is much harder in Spanish are is frequently pronounced with are hard trill. The remainder of this section covers the Spanish consonants most likely to trip up native English speakers.

The letter Dd in Spanish

The problem that arises from Dd is that is has two varieties of pronunciation which are, from the point of view of English speakers, actually different sounds; but from the point of view of Spanish speakers are one and the same sound.

The first sound of the letter is the “d” sound of English den, do, die, dare, etc., but the tip of the tongue actually touches the back side of the upper teeth when this sound is produced in Spanish, whereas in English it touches somewhat further back toward the roof of the mouth.

The other sound of is much like the “th” sound of English then, thee, the, those, that, there, etc., or the middle sound of mother, other, father, etc., or the final sound of lathe, bathe. This sound must be distinguished carefully, however, from the other sound which English writes with th, the initial sound of thin, thick, thistle, or the middle sound of ether, Ethel, or the final sound of bath. This sound is used only by Spanish speakers from central Spain (around Madrid, it’s called the madrileño dialect). It has no relationship to the “th” sound of we’ll be working with here.

Audio Exercise: The Spanish D

Examples of the two “d” sounds are:

dádo dédo adónde andádo
dúdar dudóso soldádo tildádo
guardádo cardádo desdeñádo desdichádo

Exercise on the letters Dd and Rr between vowels

oda ora pida pira
todo toro lodo loro
cada cara codo coro
seda sera mudo muro
modo moro ada ara
mida mira

The letters Bb and Vv in Spanish

The problem with and is similar to that of d, but compounded by the fact that two different symbols are used for the same sound in Spanish, both of which exist in English and have very different sounds. To Spanish speakers there is no difference; one of the most common spelling errors native Spanish speakers make is confusing for and vice versa. The first of these sounds is almost the same as the initial sound of English words like bee, bill, buyborrow;the middle sound in baby, tabby, tubby; and the final sound in tub, hub, rub. We call it the “hard b”. The second is a sound that does not exist in English. It is produced by bringing the lips close together, but not allowing them to touch, so that the air passes through them with a slight friction noise. The result, to English-speaker ears, sounds like a mixture of b, v, and w. The easiest way to learn to produce it is to start out as though you’re going to say the hard “b” described above, but not allow the lips to touch so that the resulting sound is something like a v. This is called the “soft b”.  Remember, though, that it is not the English “v” sound–that sound doesn’t exist in Spanish.

Audio Exercise:  The B and V in Spanish

Examples of the sounds of and v:

beber vivir silbaba salvaba
babor babosa enervaba hervaba
zumbaba cambiaba esbozaba esbozó

Making a mistake with and is not as serious as with the two “d” sounds, but errors can lead to misunderstandings and will emphasize that you’re not a proficient Spanish speaker. Most important, though, is that there is no sound like the English “v” in Spanish, although Spanish uses the “v” symbol in writing. The Spanish sound which English speakers may hear as in a word like Havana is actually the “soft b” sound.

The letter Gg in Spanish

The problem with is similar to that of and b/v. There are two varieties which are the same from the Spanish point of view, but noticeably different from the English point of view. We will call them “hard g” and “soft g”. The “hard g” is almost the same as the initial sound of English words like go, get, got, guess; the middle sound in ago, again; the final sound in tug, tag, tog. The “soft g” is a sound that is approximated rarely in English, in a word like “sugar”. It is produced by raising the back part of the tongue up toward the roof of the mouth as though to make a “hard g” sound, but without allowing the tongue to touch, so that the air is free to pass through with a slight friction noise.

Audio Exercise: The Spanish G

Examples of “hard g” and “soft g”:

galgo gaga estegalgo el gago
Gregorio gagera la garganta la gorga
agringado agangrenarse es Gregorio es gagera

The letter Rr in Spanish

Even though both English and Spanish use the same r symbol, you should understand that there is little relationship between the sounds it represents in English and Spanish. Any attempt to transfer the English sound to Spanish will result in a sound that is unidentifiable in Spanish-speaking ears. You have already had a session of drill work on the difference between and the variety of that appears between vowels in words like todo and toro. Now we come to the difference between the single (which is very similar to English tt or dd in words like cottage, better, wader, shudder) from the double rr. The double rr is a rapid trill of the tongue-tip, and it can usually be learned only by careful imitation. The following drill is to help you hear and learn to reproduce the difference between the two kinds of r. Many native English speaker struggle with the trilled R sound.   If you find yourself unable to reproduce the trilled R, try these 6 exercises designed to teach you how to roll your Rs.

Audio Exercise:  The Spanish R

Exercise on and rr between vowels

pero perro caro carro
para parra bara barra
coro corro cero cerro
hiero hierro foro forro
fiero fierro amará amarra

Not only is the Spanish very different from the English when it occurs between vowels, as in the preceding drills, it is also quite different in association with consonants. Take the Spanish word tarde, for example. Your first attempt will probably sound something like the English words tar day. If you will try to make it sound more like totter-they (spoken rapidly) it will come pretty close to the Spanish pronunciation. The following drill will allow you to practice in all combinations with other consonants.

Exercise on r before and after consonants

pronto cuerpo grande amargo
primo torpe frío marfil
tres carta frase perfil
trato puerta farsa
crudo cerca irse
creo parque Argentina
Brasil arbol surgió
broma curva dormir
drama tarde arma
droga guarda viernes
gracias garganta horno

Whenever occurs at the very end of an utterance (not necessarily the end of a word, but the end just before a pause), and especially when that final syllable is a stressed syllable, it has a different pronunciation from what is heard elsewhere. It is more like rr, but the vocal cords do not vibrate (produce sound) during its production. The effect is almost like combining with s, except that the tongue-tip remains up at the end. This sound can be practiced by imitation of the following words.

Exercise on Spanish at the end of an word

señor azucar hablar nacar
meter éter cansar cáncer
revolver revólver partir mártir
favor bulevar

The letter Pp in Spanish

It was mentioned earlier that in English there are at least two conspicuously different kinds of sounds: the pof pin, pill; which has the puff of air called aspiration; and the of spin, spill; which has no aspiration. The Spanish is always produced without aspiration. One way for an English speaker to get at the mastery of it is by thinking an before Spanish words that begin with in order to transfer the English pattern of producing unaspirated after s.

The following list will give you a basis for comparing the p sound in the two languages and learning to reproduce the difference.

Audio Exercise:  The Spanish P

Exercise on Spanish Pp

pace pes Peru Perú
pawn pan par par
pore por pone pon
pooh pu plan plan

The letter Tt in Spanish

The problem is like the problem: in English it is aspirated, in Spanish it is not. In addition, the tongue touches a point that is more forward in the mouth to produce a Spanish t: it literally touches the back side of the upper teeth, which it does not do in English.

Audio Exercise: The Spanish T

Exercise on Spanish t

ti ten ten
toss tas taboo tabú

The letter Cc (in some cases), the combination Qu, and the letter Kk in Spanish

If you have mastered and t, the “k “ sound will be a breeze since it involves again the aspiration issue. Note that the letter “k” is almost never used in Spanish, and only in words of foreign origin. The only fairly common examples are words referring to the metric system (kilo, kilógrama, etc.) and whiskey.

Audio Exercise:  The letters C, Q and K in Spanish

Exercise on Spanish “k” sound

kilo kilo Kay que
call cal can can
cafe café

The “S” sound in Spanish: the letters Ss, Zz and in some cases Cc

Spanish has an and a z, but unlike English they are considered as variants of a single sound, “s”. That is to say two words in Latin American Spanish are never distinguished solely by the difference s- z, as are the English words seal and zeal. In Latin American Spanish s, z and (in some cases) are pronounced alike.

Audio Exercise:  The letters S, Z and C in Spanish

Exercise on the distribution of the variants of the “s” sound

esbozo esposo rasgar rascar
esvelta espelta azno asco
mismo misto juzgar buscar
desdeñar desteñir disgusto discurso
desde de este es de este

In some dialects and styles of speaking Spanish, another variety of the “s” sound occurs. In some Caribbean and South American dialects, the “s” sound, particularly at the end of words, becomes something very close to the “h” sound in English. This sound is particularly pronounced in the Chilean dialect; in much of the Caribbean it is so faint as to appear to have disappeared entirely. The “s” sound is not dropped entirely, although in the case of speakers from the Caribbean Basin it may sound as if it has been.

You will notice that the “z” sound occurs in Spanish only in a syllable-final position before a voiced consonant, namely b, d, g, m, n, l and r. Everywhere else, the “s” occurs, except before semi-vowels (and w) where both the “s” and the “z” sound occur, depending on whether the syllable begins with the “s” sound or with the semi-vowel. Since there is no choice on the part of the speaker–only one or the other appears in any given situation, but not both–they are not in contrast and belong to only one basis sound unit.

For most people, it is a good idea to learn the “s” pronunciation as it is on the audio that accompanies this program. It is the most common, and is perfectly understood and not considered “incorrect” anywhere. One thing to remember: the “h” variant never appears for the “s” sound at the beginning of a syllable.

Typical errors from English “z” influence on Spanish “s”

There are certain groups of words in which the “s” sound will bother you more than elsewhere, because the words seem familiar and may lead you back to the English “z” sound. Some of these are below.

Kansas Kansas presidente president
influenza influenza presente present
Venezuela Venezuela presentar present
examenes exams presentaciones presentations
razón reason visitar visit
división division Santa Rosa Santa Rosa
propósito proposition Rosalinda Rosalinda

The lateral Ll in Spanish

in English is a sound that is produced by raising the tip of the tongue up to touch the roof of the mouth in such a way that the air column is forced to pass around either side of it: this way of producing a sound is called lateral (i.e., “side”) articulation.

In Spanish, the L is actually a laterally released d, and it has a very different sound from the English L. If you will try to follow by manipulating your own tongue, a technical description will be helpful: produce a as in the word did. Notice that to make the “d”, you release the whole tip of the tongue so that the air can flow suddenly out across the top of it. Now instead of releasing the entire tongue downward, keep the tip locked in its position at the end of the word did, but release the air through one side as though you were going to say the word diddle, but without lowering the back part of the tongue as you would in diddle. If you have followed these instructions, you are producing a close approximation of a Spanish L.

Compare the following word pairs which are approximately alike except for the sounds, and try to imitate the difference.

Audio Exercise: The Spanish L

Exercises on Spanish L

feel fil dell del
coal col hotel hotel
tall tal tool tul
el el

The letter Hh in Spanish

You probably already know that letter h is silent in Spanish. However, there are some Spanish words that approximate the English “h” sound,  usually spelled with a j, x, or sometimes ag. This sound isn’t exactly like the English “h”, though. It is more guttural, and can sometimes sound almost like clearing the throat. Following are words showing the English and Spanish pronunciation of this sound. When you produce the “h” sound in English, your tongue is relaxed and low in you mouth, so that you merely breathe easily across it before beginning the vowel that follows. For a Spanish “h” sound, the tongue must be tenser and higher in the mouth, near the roof but not touching it, so that more friction noise is created when air is forced past. It is especially difficult for an English speaker to produce the Spanish “h” sound between vowels and after a stressed syllable as in Méxicodéjeme, etc. Though it is always stronger than the English “h” sound, the Spanish carries more or less friction noise depending on the area of the Spanish speaking word. Listen carefully and imitate what you hear the best you can. Audio

Exercise on Spanish “h” sound

heater gira hurrah hurra
holly jale hotter hara
hoosegow juzgado Hilda Hilda
junta junta aha ajá
Mohican Mohican

The letter Nn in Spanish

The Spanish “n” sound differs from the English sound in that it is usually produced against the back of the upper teeth, instead of on the gum ridge above the teeth. In this respect it is similar to Spanish and d. The correct articulation of is not too difficult for English speakers, but there are a couple of combinations of plus another consonant that create problems.

Exercise on the “nt” cluster

quantity cantidad Tonto tanto
lentil lente canto canto
antidote antidoto Tantalus tántalo
pinto pinto junta junta
Santa Monica Santa Mónica

The close yoking of nt in English in words like the ones above does not happen in the pronunciation of Spanish nt, where the is clearly pronounced through the nose before the begins.

The letter Yy in Spanish

The sounds represented by the in Spanish have two variants which are obvious to the English ear because they are like two entirely separate sounds in English. The most common pronunciation is almost exactly like the English sound, however, the pronunciation of the can vary from something similar to the “zh” sound in French to something sounding very like the sound in English. Note that sometimes the y sound is spelled with hi in Spanish (which almost always will use the standard “y” pronunciation rather than the “zh” variation).

In the English words below, either of the two words on each line begins with a sound that is equally likely to occur in the Spanish words (some of which aren’t really words, but just syllables to illustrate the pronunciation) in the right hand column.

Audio Exercise:  The Spanish Y

yes Jess yeso
yellow jello hielo
yah jaw ya
yoe Joe yo
uke juke yugo
yearn germ yerno
yabber jabber yaba
yea jay ye

Spanish intonation

There is a final “pronunciation” issue which frequently causes problems for English speakers. That is the issue of intonation; the rise and fall in pitch of the voice in speaking a phrase or sentence. The intonation of phrases in Spanish follows three main patterns. The exercises below are on these three patterns. Note that Group I (falling pattern) includes commands, declarative phrases, and some questions (those that begin with an interrogative word – cómo (“how); cuándo (“when”), etc.) Group II (rising pattern) are all questions. Group III (ending in a low level pattern) are declarative, in the examples given mostly simple responses to questions.

Audio Exercise:  The Spanish Intonation System

Repeat the phrases, paying particular attention to the intonation of each phrase.

Group I (falling pattern)

1 Venga acá. 12 ¿Cómo le va?
2 Claro que sí. 13 ¿Quienes son?
3 Son las tres. 14 ¿Qué le pasa?
4 Llega en avión 15 ¿Cuándo llega?
5 No lo creo. 16 ¿Cuanto cuesta?
6 No me importa. 17 ¿Qué comemos?
7 Viene mañana. 18 ¿De dónde son?
8 Llegó María. 19 ¿Para dónde van?
9 Aquí se baila. 20 ¿Por qué se fue?
10 ¿Cómo está? 21 ¿Por cuánto tiempo?
11 ¿Dónde está? 22 ¿A cuánto estamos?

Group II  Rising Pattern

1 ¿Ya se va? 7 ¿Le gustó María?
2 ¿Quiere café? 8 ¿Leyó el diario?
3 ¿Vino con usted? 9 ¿Tienen otro?
4 ¿Comieron ya? 10 ¿Le paso la leche?
5 ¿Tiene un lápiz? 11 ¿Trajo su carro?
6 ¿Se va conmigo? 12 ¿Le gusta su trabajo?

Group III (Ending in a low level pattern)

1 Gracias, señor. 7 No. Muchas gracias.
2 Muy bién, gracias. 8 No viene entonces.
3 Si, señora. 9 Sí, papá.
4 No, señorita. 10 No, mamá.
5 No hay, hombre. 11 Adiós, señores.
6 Venga María. 12 Hasta mañana, señorita.


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