We all have been there — spending countless hours (and tons of money) learning a foreign language to find out native speakers later still cannot understand you; or that you are actually mispronouncing a series of words.
So, to help you sound less like a ‘foreigner’ and more like a local, I have compiled a series of tips to avoid common Spanish pronunciation mistakes.
• Rolling the ‘R’
Let’s get this one out of the way, as I know for native English speakers, it is tough to pronounce the letter ‘R’ correctly. As a rule of thumb never mark it as you will in English; think of it as an entirely different letter!
Let me start by saying that depending on where the letter is located in the sentence, it is pronounced different. The simple ‘R’ found in words like ‘pero’ (but) or ‘quiero’ (want) is similar to the sound you make when saying ‘scare’ or ‘where.’ The other ‘R’ often thought of as a ‘RR’ is a more difficult one, as the person needs to ‘roll’ their tongue. The easiest way to explain it is by using the word ‘throw’ as an example. When you pronounce ‘throw’ the letter ‘R’ takes a very similar sound to the one in Spanish. This ‘RR’ is widely used in words like ‘carro’ (car), ‘perro’ (dog), ‘cigarro’ (cigarette).
It may take some time and require an extra effort on your part, but if you practice I am sure you can master the sound!
• Pronouncing the ‘U’
Believe it or not, the letter’ U’ is another typical mispronounced letter. In Spanish, the letter’ U’ sounds more like the sound we make when saying the ‘oo’ in a word like ‘moo’ or ‘poop’ than what an actual ‘U’ sounds like in English. Thus, try to keep this in mind for future reference.
Also, if the ‘U’ comes before another vowel (diphthongs), the ‘U’ merges with the next vowel. As a result, it sounds like a ‘kw’ would in English. Great examples of this rule are the words ‘cuenta’ (account) or ‘Quito’ (Ecuador’s capital city).
Of course, you can also find words than include a dieresis. In these rare occasions, like when pronouncing the word ‘pingüino,’ the ‘U’ sounds more like a ‘W.’ But dieresis is used in less common words. Hence, you should not worry about it too much.
• Sounding out the ‘H’
This is an easy one… just don’t! In Spanish, the letter ‘H’ has virtually no sound. No matter how or where it appears in a word, the ‘H’ is never pronounced, unless it is a ‘CH’ combo. In this case, the sound is similar to a ‘shhh’ sound in English.
• Buzzing the Z
Okay so, depending on your location the letter ‘Z’ can be pronounced in one of two ways. In Latin America the ‘Z’ has a smoother sound, much like the English’ S’; while in Spain, the ‘Z’ has a more prevalent sound. Here, the letter sounds more like a ‘TH’ would in English.
This has more to do with local argot than with grammar or spelling. But, if you want to sound legit, I suggest you pay attention to how natives pronounce it and try to imitate the sound.
• Differentiate the ‘B’ from the ‘V’
This is a tricky one, as even natives (especially those who have not to receive extensive education) tend to mispronounce these letters. In proper Spanish, the ‘V’ sound is made by your teeth touching the tip of the lips. Words like ‘vino’ (wine) and ‘viaje’ (trip) are great examples. On the other hand, the ‘B’ sound is more of a round sound made only with your lips. Think of words like ‘bueno’ (good) and ‘bonito’ (pretty).
However, do not worry too much about mispronouncing your B/V as it is quite common. If you can perfect that, you will definitely sound like a local.
• Learning the ‘LL’
It is probably the only Spanish consonant that I’ll tell you to enunciate more strongly. It used to be considered an extra letter of the alphabet, but in recent year the ‘LL’ simply disappeared. Nonetheless, you will still need to learn how to pronounce it as many common Spanish words use it.
In a nutshell, you should consider the ‘LL’ to be just like a ‘Y’ in English. Think of how you pronounce the words’ yell’ and ‘yo-yo.’ So, the word ‘playa’ (beach) will be pronounced ‘plah-yah.’
• Soften your ‘Ts’ and ‘Ds’
Usually, the letters’ T’ and ‘D’ have lighter or softer pronunciations that their English counterpart. And let me tell you that, of all the common mistakes listed above, this is probably the quickest fix.
Also note that many Spanish natives like Cubans, Dominicans, and Venezuelans tend to ‘soften’ their D’s to the almost inconceivable point. For instance, when pronouncing the word ‘encontrado’ (found) you might want to skip the ‘D’ altogether and sound it as ‘encontrao.’
As you can see, there are many ways in which you can improve your Spanish pronunciation. These tips will not only help locals and other natives understand you better but will also come in handy when writing or reading in Spanish. If you have a clear understanding of how letters sound, then you will have a better grasp of the language, making less grammatical and spelling mistakes.
Remember learning a second language is no easy task. Hence, do not be afraid to make mistakes or mispronounce words. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect; so, keep on going!