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This section gives a guide to Spanish pronunciation. Pronunciation can be quite a complex issue, and learners at different levels will be interested in different levels of complexity. So the approach we'll take here will be as follows:
Students at a more advanced stage will want to delve in a little deeper and look at some of the phonetic processes that happen in fluent speech, and abandon the idea of speech being made up of discrete "sounds" or "segments". But for many learners, the simple "letter by letter" approach to pronunciation we take here will be enough to pronounce Spanish understandably.
On a simple level, we can say that Spanish has five basic vowels, generlly represented in writing by the letters a, e, i, o and u. The table below gives a "typical target pronunciation" for each of the five vowels, trying to relate them to the closest vowel of English. Of course, how close a Spanish vowel is to an English vowel really depends on the particular accent of both English and Spanish!
|Similar to English ee, see, keeping your lips spread throughout the vowel.
|Similar to English eh, bed, but
with the tongue slightly higher in the mouth.
|Similar to English ah or car (British pronunciation).
|Similar to English o as in hot, but with the lips well rounded; similar to typical Southern British pronunciation, but with the back of the tongue slightly higher in the mouth.
|Similar to English oo as in boo, keeping your lips rounded throughout the vowel.
Spanish vowels can actually combine into diphthongs in many cases. See the next section on the syllable in Spanish for more details.
|Like the p in English spot.
Note that in Spanish, the letter k is essentially only used in loanwords, such as kilo, or in SMS messaging as a shorter replacement to qu (e.g. kiero = quiero; ke = que/qué).
|Like the t in English stop.
|c before a, o, u
|Like the c/k in English scoot, skip.
|Like the b in English humble.
|Like the d in English sanding.
|g before a, o, u
|Like the g in English finger.
|Like English ch.
|Note that in words such as chofer, chef (where English would generally have a "sh" sound at the beginning of the word), Spanish speakers tend to still pronounce these words with a ch— similar to the ch in English church.
|Like English m.
|If m occurs at the end of a word (which is rare in Spanish), some speakers pronounce it as n.
|Like English n. For many British speakers, like the n in tenth.
|Spanish speakers generally pronounce n with the very tip of the tongue touching the back of the upper teeth (as with t and d). As with t and d, the tongue also makes contact with the alveolar ridge. However, note that, as in English, the n is very susceptible to changing how it is pronounced depending on the surrounding sounds. So in tengo, the n is pronounced with the tongue in the position for a g, as would usually happen in the English word tango or in the phrase ten girls.
|A bit like English ny in canyon.
For details of how this sound actually differs from English ny, and from the ni in a Spanish word such as genio, see the separate page on pronunciation of Spanish n tilde.
|Like English f.
c, sc (before e or i)
|In most dialects of Spain: similar to US English th in think.
In most other dialects (notably in Latin America): pronounced as s.
|Essentially like English ss, with dialectal variation.
g (before e and i or at the end of a word)
Before or after a "front" vowel (i, e), often similar to the h sound in hue, or the fricative k sound that you can get in English kick it when said very rapidly.
In the presence of other vowels, often similar to the Scottish/Welsh ch sound (as in loch), or German Aachen.
There is some variation in how this sound is pronounced. The "common factor" is generally that the back of the tongue comes into contact with the roof or back of the mouth and causes friction, and that it is voiceless (speakers aim to stop their vocal cords vibrating during this sound).
Some speakers essentially have a pronunciation similar to English kick it said rapidly (i.e. the friction occurs around the tongue position for k), whatever the following vowel. For others, it tends to always be towards the back of the mouth, similar to Scottish loch (or a a voiceless French r sound). And in other dialects it can be similar to a h sound.
|In Spanish words: like the English x of boxer.
In Mexican loanwords: either like ks, j or English sh (see comments).
|In many dialects, pronounced ks.
|In Spain, some speakers pronounce this combination as sz (a bit like English miss things).
|Like English l as in "with Lee".
|Usually the same as Spanish y (see below).
hi- (at start of word)
|Similar to English y, but pronounced with frication.
|Not pronounced as such.
Normally, the letter h does not represent a sound in Spanish. When deciding how to pronounce a word, you can usually disregard it. (In some cases, it is simply written to distinguish words that would look similar in certain typefaces: when a word begins with ue-, it is usually written hue- to distinguish it from ve-.)
A notable exception are words beginning with hi-, where hi-
is essentially an alternative to
If between two vowels inside a word or if not at the beginning of a syllable, a tap, similar to US English "flapped t" (better, butter).
If at the beginning of a syllable (and not after a vowel inside a word), a trill with the tongue otherwise in a similar position.
(In practice, this usually means at the beginning of a word, or after n, s or l)
|As a trill, similar to r at the beginning of a syllable.
|Like English w or v.
|This letter only occurs in occasional loanwords such as wáter, and its pronunciation varies.
On the next page, we look at Spanish syllable structure.
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