Perfecting your Spanish Pronunciation with Phonetics
One of the more important but subtle aspects of really perfecting your accent is noting the smaller differences in pronunciations of specific letters and words. To illustrate some of these differences, we rely on International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols, which in a single page chart represent the sounds made in every language around the world.
The IPA chart allows us to compare sounds across languages using this common written phonetic alphabet. If you know how a foreign word is written phonetically using the IPA, you can both compare the pronunciation with familiar sounds native to your language, and also understand how to correctly pronounce any word.
We’ve gone into great detail about the IPA chart in a previous post on our blog here if you’d like to learn more. Below, we summarize the most important points we want you to know relative to the Spanish language. You may find it either be complicated or fascinating depending on your interests. You can still get something out of this post if you just want to skip the phonetic chart speak. And for those who are interested, you’ll have the basics.
The IPA Chart - Consonants:
How to understand the chart:
1. PLACE OF ARTICULATION: The top row represents the places of articulation or the point where the sounds are made in the mouth. Moving from left to right, corresponds to further back in the mouth.
2. MANNER OF ARTICULATION: The far left-hand side column represents manners of articulation, which tells you how the airstream is affected as it goes through the vocal track.
3. VOICED vs VOICELESS: Each column or cell has a maximum of 2 symbols. Symbols on the left-side of the cell are voiceless ( do not use vocal chords) and on the right are voiced voiced (do use vocal chords). Two symbols in the same column are articulated exactly the same, with the only difference being one is voiceless (does not used vocal chords) the other is voiced (uses vocal chords).
An example of voiced vs voiceless is the ‘th‘ sound in the English words then, and think, written phonetically as [ðɛn] and [θɪŋk]. Notice when you pronounce the word think, how airy it is, versus when you pronounce the word then, invoking your vocal chords to create a sound. Same place and manner of articulation, just one uses air, one uses voice.
Visual representation of Places of Articulation (top row)
Key pronunciation points in Spanish using phonetic symbols
1. [ð] D isn't just D
The Spanish ‘d’ is not pronounced quite the same as that in English ‘d’, especially when it’s in the middle of a word. In these cases, it’s pronounced softer and less harsh, where the tongue doesn’t hit the roof of the mouth, but moves forward to hit more the top front teeth.
Look at the two words below: madre (Spanish) and mother (English). When written phonetically they share the same symbol [ð]. This symbol is a voiced, dental, fricative, but in laymen’s terms is expressed as the ‘th‘ sound in English as in the word mother or other or then.
Practice saying the Spanish word ‘madre‘ by replacing the ‘d‘ with a ‘th‘ sound like that in mother (mau-threy). Stay away from making the sounds too harsh, it should be light and shouldn’t sound disjointed, just a light hint of that ‘th’.
Additional examples of words using [ð] D: adíos, adivinar, quedar, traducir, estudiante, ciudad, vida, siendo
* Notice Maider’s pronunciation of the second ‘d‘ in ciudad. It actually sounds just like the voiceless version of the ‘th’ sound (see ‘c‘ sound in the next section). As we mentioned above, two sounds [ð] and [θ], are next to each other on the IPA chart, meaning they are pronounced in the exact same place and manner in the mouth, it’s just one is vocalized (uses the vocal chords) and one is voiceless (air only). The second ‘d‘ sound, because it’s at the end of the word, is more likely to not be vocalized when pronounced.
2. [θ] Ceceo - the Spanish lisp
Regional accents are often about very specific pronunciations of specific letters or words. This is the case with that Spanish ‘lisp’ known as ceceo, which is almost exclusively found in Spain. In this case, most ‘c’ and ‘z’ in Spanish are pronounced with a ‘th’ sound instead of an ‘s’ sound, which accounts for that ‘lisp’.
We have the same sound in English, in a word like ‘breath’ or ‘thanks’. In the example below you can see this represented as the theta [θ] symbol in both words and is known as a voiceless, dental, fricative.
Additional examples of words with [θ] / C: vez, veces, piscina, noticias, capacidad, opción, conducir, plaza, servicios, hace
* Note that above we talked about a ‘th’ sound above as well. The difference between these two ‘th’ sounds is one is ‘voiced‘ and one is ‘voiceless‘. Try to distinguish between how you create the sound in the word ‘think‘ (voiceless) vs the word ‘then‘ (voiced). This is also why these two symbols ( [θ] and [ð]) are next to each other on the international phonetic chart
3. [β] B & V aren't just B & V
Similar to the story with the Spanish ‘d’, the Spanish ‘b‘ and ‘v‘ are not quite the same as the English ‘b‘ and ‘v‘. In fact, in Spanish they are the same sound and represented phonetically by [β].
You could think of them as being half way between the English ‘b‘ and ‘v‘ sounds, while just barely touching your lips together.
You could also think of it as trying to pronounce a ‘v’ but instead of touching your top teeth to your bottom lip as you would with a normal ‘v, touch only your lips together.
no real equivalent
between ‘b’ and ‘v’ but without teeth touching lip
Additional examples of words with [β] B & V: sobre, hablar, movíl, deber, llevar / llevaba
4. [ɣ] A partial G
The different G sound may be more pronounced in some accents than others, but it’s a delicate distinction to think about when you’re perfecting your accent.
In this case, it’s much like pronouncing the English hard ‘g’, as in ‘golf’ or ‘again’, but in this case you keep your mouth more open and don’t fully connect your tongue to the roof of your mouth. This makes for a rounder sound, and even sounding like you have something in your mouth.
no real equivalent
‘g’ without touching tongue to roof of mouth
Note this doesn’t apply to every Spanish ‘g’.
It very often occurs for a ‘g’ found in the middle of a word:
[ɣ] = rounded g sound without touching tongue
[g] = harder g sound
[x] / [χ] = more throaty as in ‘happy’ or the further back in the throat as in Spain
[x] / [χ]
5. [ʎ] The Double LL
Anytime you see two l’s together in Spanish, you will not hear any ‘l‘ sound. You will hear a ‘y‘ sound, and specifically you will hear the sound represented as this [ʎ] voiced palatal lateral approximant.
It’s very similar to the English y sound you hear in the word ‘million’, or even the word ‘your’. The only real difference between the Spanish double ‘ll’ [ʎ] and the English ‘y’ [j] is in Spanish the tongue hits the roof of the mouth further back in the mouth.
Additional examples of words like [ʎ] LL: cabello, llover, llevar, llamo, ballena
6. [r] The Spanish R - not one, but two
If you’re still struggling with your Spanish ‘r’, see our previous lesson. The main point to note here is just that there are actually 2 types of ‘r’s. While they both have a trill effect, the harder trill occurs when you have two ‘r’s together, as in perro.
There are several tricks to learn the Spanish r, but one of the most important is to realize the placement is very much at the front of the mouth, just behind the front teeth. If you try to roll it too much further back you can get stuck. You can also see this in the chart of places of articulation, the closest option to the front of the mouth possible (alveolar).
no real equivalent
more intense version of [ɾ]
7. [χ] Jota - J
While English doesn’t have an exact equivalent of the Spanish [χ], there are 3 ‘haa’ sounds that differ only by the placement in the mouth from front to back. The middle sound, represented below is more ‘throaty’ then the other two and somewhat more particular to the Spain region in context of the J.
no real equivalent
more ‘throaty’ version of [h]
[x] = no throat sound (like the ‘h’ in happy but pronounced closer to the front of the mouth
[χ] = more throaty sound, in the middle of the mouth
[h] = as in ‘happy’, pronounced at the back of the throat with no friction sound between the tongue and the back of the throat
8. [ɲ] A new symbol ñ, but not a new sound
The Spanish ñ is perhaps the most unique relative to English in written terms, but not so much in terms of pronunciation. It’s very similar to English ‘n‘ followed by the ‘y‘ sound as in ‘canyon‘.
no real equivalent
similar to canyon [kænjən]