Lesson 1 – Spanish Pronunciation


Are you scared to speak Spanish because your American accent will make you look silly?  Don’t worry.  We all know some people who speak English with an accent and for the most part, as long as they are understandable, it is charming!   The most important thing to keep in mind when learning a second language is that, unless you’re studying to be an undercover spy, having no accent is not nearly so important as being able to simply speak the language clearly enough to communicate your message.  That is certainly the case for most people who want to learn Spanish for work.  If you can be understood by the person you’re trying to communicate your message to, that’s all that matters.  Watch my brief introduction to my first FREE Spanish lesson on Pronunciation.

Lesson 1.1

Proper Pronunciation of Spanish Vowels

This first part is on the proper pronunciation of the Spanish vowels–A, E, I, O, and U.  They are pronounced “ah,” “eh,” “ee,” “oh,” and “oo” respectively. The important thing to remember is that each vowel only has one sound (unlike some of our English vowels, which can start out with one sound and “glide” into another sound).  Also, Spanish vowels are always pronounced the same way–there are no “long” and “short” vowels like we have in English.  A is always “ah,” E is always “eh,” and so on.

Enjoy the video!

Here’s a video with some more opportunities for you to practice correct pronunciation of Spanish vowels.

Lesson 1.2

Proper Pronunciation of Spanish Consonants

Most of the Spanish consonants are pronounced almost exactly the same way as they are pronounced in English, with only subtle differences.  However, there are a few consonants that are different enough that they are worth spending a little time getting to know.  The main ones are:

H – silent in Spanish.  You pronounce the word as though the letter were not even there.  For example, the word “hora” is pronounced “ora.”

J – sounds like our English H.  You’ve probably heard of jalapeños, or maybe San José, California…

LL – the single L is pretty much the same as in English, but the double L is pronounced like our English Y.  Most of us are familiar with tortillas and quesadillas.  Maybe some of us have even vacationed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  The LL used to actually be considered a separate letter in the Spanish alphabet, with its own section in the dictionary and everything.  That changed quite a few years ago, however.

Ñ – Nowadays, the ñ is the only letter in the Spanish alphabet which does not exist in the English alphabet.  It sounds like the “ny” in canyon or the “ni” in onion and union.  Maybe you’ve seen it in Cañon City–a town in Colorado, or La Niña–one of Christopher Columbus’s three ships, or the el niño climatic phenomenon that happens every few years.

R – This seems to be the most dreaded of the Spanish consonants.  The rolled R, which you often hear when a word begins with R or when there is a double “rr” inside the word, is very difficult for most Americans to pronounce.  Although your inability to properly pronounce the R will instantly give you away as an American, you’ll still be understood, which is the most important thing to keep in mind.  Don’t worry too much if you can’t get it just right.  The R is not always rolled.  Sometimes it is “flapped,” similar to the way we Americans flap our tongue against the ridge inside our mouth when we say the “tt” in the words “letter,” and “butter,” or the “dd” in “ladder.”  Generally you roll the R when it appears at the beginning of a word, and “flap” it when it appears in the middle of a word.

X – usually sounds just like our X in English, but once in awhile they pronounce it like an H.  For example, México is pronounced “MEH-hee-co.”  This is uncommon, but something to be aware of.   Occasionally there are other ways to pronounce the X, too, but they are so uncommon that we won’t worry about those for now.

Z – sounds like an S in Latin America.  In Spain it is pronounced differently, but we’ll focus on Latin American pronunciation in Swift Spanish because that is what we’ll be more likely to encounter in the workplace here in the U.S.   Perhaps you have heard of pozole, a popular soup in Mexico.  It is pronounced ‘posole’ (and often spelled that way in the States).

There are a few other consonants worth looking at–C, G, and Q–we’ll look at those next in our pronunciation lesson. Meanwhile, here’s the video on Spanish consonants so you can hear the pronunciation I’ve been talking about.

Lesson 1.3

Pronouncing C, Q, and G in Spanish

Here are the basics for pronouncing C, Q, and G in Spanish:

The C has a hard version (pronounced like a K) and a soft version (pronounced like an S), much like English does. The C is soft when it is followed by E or I.  It sounds like “say,” or “see.”

If you want to say the sounds “kay” or “key,” use a Q.  QUE/QUI, like in our words “bouquet,” and “quiche.”  The U is silent, though many Americans may be tempted to say “kway” or “kwee.”  If you need to say “kway” or “kwee,” spell it CUE and CUI.  (The letter K is rarely used in Spanish.)

The letter G also has hard and soft sounds. The hard G is like our English hard G in the word “garden.”  The soft G is pronounced like an H. Don’t be tempted to pronounce it like a J like our English soft G. Like the C, the G is soft when it is followed be E and I. It sounds like “hay,” and “he.”

To make a hard “gay/ghee” sound, you again employ the use of the silent U: GUE/GUI.

The sounds “gway” and “gwee” are pretty rare in Spanish, but you distinguish them with the special u with dots over it: Ü.  Using this special U (güe/güi) tells the reader that the U is not silent.

Have a look at the video where I’ll explain all this and give some examples!

Lesson 1.4

How to Pronounce Spanish Words with Accent Marks

Are you confused by accent marks? There are some general methods for pronouncing Spanish words with and without accent marks–knowing which part of the word to place the emphasis on. The basic rules are:

1. If a Spanish word ends in a vowel, N, or S, emphasis is placed on the second-to-last syllable in the word, regardless of how long the word is.

2. If a Spanish word ends with any other consonant besides N or S, emphasis is placed on the final syllable, regardless of the length of the word.

3. Accent marks override the first two rules. Emphasis should always be placed on the syllable that has the accent mark.  Also, if the emphasis is placed anywhere but the last or second-to-last syllable in any word, that word should have an accent mark in it.

Placing the emphasis on the proper part of the word is important, because sometimes emphasizing a different part of the word can change the meaning entirely, just like emphasizing a different word in a sentence can change meaning in English. For example, in the following sentences, place emphasis on the red words when you read them aloud:

Johnny is feeling happy today.

Johnny is feeling happy today.

Johnny is feeling happy today.

In the first sentence, if you stress the word “Johnny,” it might imply that he is happy, but none of the other kids are.  In the second, it is stressed that Johnny is feeling happy, rather than some other emotion such as sad or angry.  In the last sentence, you might take it to mean that Johnny isn’t normally a happy kid, or that yesterday he was unhappy, or perhaps may be unhappy tomorrow, but today he is happy.  Do you see how different placement of emphasis can change a meaning?

If you’re in the healthcare or child care field, you may encounter the word “vomit” from time to time.  In Spanish, the word is mito.  However, if you spell it vomito it means “I vomit,” and if you spell it vomi it means “you/he/she vomited.”   Two other common words that change meaning with an accent mark are el papa/el pa (the pope or the dad) and mama/ma (he/she/it suckles, or mom).  There are also some single-syllable words whose meaning changes depending on whether or not they have accent marks.

Examples of accent mark rules are given in the video, showing how they work. Enjoy.

Lesson 1.5

How to Pronounce Spanish Vowel Combinations

This is our final video on Spanish pronunciation!  In it, we discuss the common vowel combinations in Spanish.

In Spanish no vowel makes the long “gliding” sounds like some of our English vowels do. (Note how when we say the letter A, we start out with an “eh” sound and glide into an “ee” sound. With I, we start out with “ah” and glide into “ee.”   With U, we start out saying “ee” and glide to “oo.”)  These kinds of gliding double sounds are called diphthongs, and in Spanish they require two vowels to make, because each vowel always only makes one sound in Spanish. Listen to the Spanish names in this video to see how the vowels are combined.

Congratulations, you’ve made it through Lesson 1!  Onward to Lesson 2:  Spanish Greetings and Pleasantries.

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