How well does Will Smith speak Spanish? Pronunciation analysis

Have you ever heard Will Smith speaking Spanish?
Could you say whether he has a thick accent or not?

“I’m conscious of my terrible accent”  

Will Smith

Will Smith says in an interview with America Reads Spanish, that he’s conscious of his terrible accent when he speaks Spanish.

Do you think that’s true?

Today, I’m going to analyze his Spanish spoken skills (I’m not gonna focus on grammar or vocabulary) and find out if it’s true what Will Smith says about his accent.

In today’s post I’m going to:

  • Analyze Will Smiths pronunciation (sounds, connected speech and pitch).
  • Find the pronunciation mistakes he’s making (and you can avoid).
  • Compare Will Smith’s accent with the pronunciation of a Spaniard [my pronunciation] (Audio + International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA).
  • Demonstrate how he should put words together in the sentences he’s using.
  • Identify his weaknesses and strengths, and tell a few conclusions and suggestions that would make him improve his pronunciation.
  • The 3 factors that make Will Smith succeed in speaking Spanish.

Let’s find out how fluently Will Smith speaks Spanish.

Analyzing Will Smith’s accent in Spanish

To know whether Will Smith speaks Spanish clearly or not, I’m going to use a video recorded in London. Will Smith and his son Jaden were invited to a Spanish TV program called “El Hormiguero”, where Will introduces one of his films (quite an old one but I found very few videos of Will speaking Spanish).

This is the video I’m going to use to analyze his pronunciation:

(The sentences I’m going to assess begin at 2:28)

The 3 sentences I’m going to assess are:

  1. “La película es(tá) basada mil años en el futuro”.
  2. “La película tiene acción y los efectos especiales”.
  3. “Pero la película es de un padre y un hijo”.

Sentence 1. “La película es basada mil años en el futuro” – Pronunciation analysis

Pronunciation of sounds: Does Will pronounce clearly?

This is what Will Smith says, according to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):
[la pi.’li.ku.la es ba.’sa.da mil. ‘a.ños. en el fu.’tu.Ro]

A Spaniard pronounces the sentence like this:
[la pe.’lí.ku.la es βa.’sa.ða mil ‘a.ños en el fu.’tu.ro].

There are 3 words Will Smith could pronounce better:

Mistakes (words he could pronounce better)

Película

[pi.lí.ku.la] vs [pe.lí.ku.la]

how to pronounce pelicula will smith talking Spanish film after earth

Will Smith (and the vast majority of people who speak English as their first language) change the vowel sounds and say [pilíkula], [pilíkola] or [pilíküla], with [i] instead of [pe.lí.ku.la] with [e].

This word seems easy to say, nevertheless, it’s one of the words English natives mispronounce more often.

Listen how a native pronounces the word “película”:

I think Will could say “película” correctly if he spoke slower because he pronounces very crispy vowels.

However, this looks like one of those words you learn and have been saying wrong for such a long time that, even when you know the correct pronunciation, the wrong sounds come out of your mouth automatically (fossilization).

It takes time and effort to erase fossilizated errors.

Basada

[ba.’sa.da] vs [βa.’sa.ða]

In Spanish, we have 2 possible sounds for the letter B:
[b] and [β].

And 2 possible pronunciations for the letter D:
[d] and [ð].

I’m not going to explain how to pronounce each one here (if you’re interested, you can learn all about them on the links above).

This isn’t a mistake. Will pronounces “basada” quite softly actually. It’s just that a native can notice the foreign accent.

He says something between [ba.’sa.da] and [βa.’sa.ða], but a Spanish native would pronounce the letters B and D even softer.

Will:

Spanish native speaker:

English natives tend to use only the sound [b], and Spanish natives normally understand. But, in some cases, if you replace the sound [β] (soft) with the sound [b] (strong), as Will does, Spaniards may think you’re pronouncing a letter P.

And that may change the meaning of the word.

Examples:

basada (based) vs pasada (passed)
bala (bullet) - pala (shovel)

This happens because the English B sounds very similar to the Spanish P. Remember: Spanish B is pronounced softly most of the time. SOFT B is one of those easy sounds that can make you look a little more native-like.

Futuro

[fu.tu.Ro] vs [fu.tu.ro]

Listen carefully how Will sais futuro:

Pay attention to the letter T (it sounds something between English and Spanish T) and the letter R.

People often have trouble to roll their R’s in Spanish.

Will does not. He trills his R’s like a native but sometimes he trills the R when he should be pronouncing a SOFT R (the sound of “dd” in ladder or “tt” in butter in North American English).

Listen to the Spanish native pronunciation and compare:

In this case, it’s not important, since the word futurro doesn’t exist in Spanish.

In fact, it’s preferable to pronounce the letter R like Will or Russians do, and say it always stronger (even when it doesn’t belong) to use English R, which doesn’t exist in our language.

English R immediately gives you away as a foreigner.

If you have trouble trilling your R’s you can read this. There, you’ll find a free guide to help you master your Rs (you can download it if you want).

Connected speech: Does Will speak fluently?

Will Smith: la pelicula es basada mil años en͜ el futuro
Native speaker: la película͜ es basada mil͜ años͜ en͜ el futuro
Native speaker: la pelícu la͜es basada mi l͜a ño s͜e n͜el futuro

How to link the words

join linking sounds connected speech overcome obstacles improve spanish put words together fluenvy flow lika a spanish native speak natural

There are 4 links in this sentence:

  1. Película + es (pelícu laes)
  2. Mil + años (mi laños)
  3. Años + en (año sen)
  4. En + el (e nel)

In Spanish, the syllables tend to be Consonant + Vowel.

This is important because when a consonant (miL) is followed by a vowel sound (Años), we pronounce them together. Even if they are letters of 2 different words.

In that case, we create a new syllable (mi la.ños).

Taking into account that Will Smith speaks Spanish slowly, it’s incredible that he still gets to join 2 words: EN + EL (¡bravo, Will!).

I bet if he didn’t need so much time to think what he’s going to say, he’d have joined all the words in this sentence like a native so I think there isn’t much more to improve here.

Intonation and Pitch: Is Will Smith’s intonation correct?

Will:

Native pronunciation:

  1. Start with a low pitch
  2. Then raise it with the words MIL or AÑOS
  3. Continue flat until the word EL
  4. And finally, rise and slightly drop his pitch at the end of the word FUTURO (↑fuTU↓ro).

Don’t confuse pitch (blue arrows) with accent (bold):

La pecula es basada mil años en el futuro.

  • The 2 words Will emphasizes the most are AÑOS and FUTURO.
  • The 2 words a native would emphasize are MIL/AÑOS and FUTURO.

It’s quite complicated to objectively assess Will’s intonation since he stumbles quite often (so his intonation is quite flat) but I suspect it’d be quite accurate if he didn’t.

Sentence 2.“La película tiene acción y los efectos especiales” – Pronunciation analysis

Pronunciation of sounds: Does Will pronounce clearly?

Will says:
[la pi.lí.ko.la ti.e.ne ak.sión i los e.fek.tos es.pe.sja.les]

A Spaniard would say:
[la pe.lí.ku.la tie.ne ak.θión i los e.fek.tos es.pe.θja.les]

Mistakes (words he could pronounce better)

Película

[pi.lí.ko.la] vs [pe.lí.ku.la].

It’s the second time Will mispronounces this word but in the first sentence, he pronounces“película” better than now: this time I hear “pilícola” instead of “película”.

Tiene

[ti.e.ne] vs [tie.ne]

The sounds Will produces when he says “tiene” are correct. Maybe the letter T has a touch of English T, but it isn’t a big deal. The most important thing is that Will pronounces this word as if it had 3 syllables when it has only 2: [tie.ne].

He adds an extra syllable because he separates the diphthong “ie” [tie.ne] into a hiatus [ti.e.ne].

Listen to the 2 audios. Do you notice the difference?

Notice how I+E merge into a single sound.
Acción*

[ak.sión] vs [ak.θión]

how to say acción in spanish will smith pronunciation analysis speaking asessment

*Will pronounces this word correctly but with Latin Américan accent:

A Spaniard would rather say [ak.θión], (with the sound of “th” in bath) instead of [ak.sión] with [s].

I already explained how to pronounce Spanish C in this post.

Especiales*

[es.pe.sja.les] vs [es.pe.θja.les]

*It’s correctly pronounced, although it isn’t Castillian Spanish but Latin American accent (the same with the word acción):

Spaniards say [es.pe.θja.les] instead of [es.pe.sja.les].

In this case, I barely pronounce the letter E in “especiales” because I kind of join the 2 Ss (efectoSspeciales).

I explain this below.

Connected speech: Does Will speak fluently?

Will Smith: la película tiene acción y los͜ efectos͜ especiales
Native speaker: la película tiene͜ acción͜ y los͜ efectos͜ especiales
Native speaker: la película tie ne͜ac ció n͜y lo s͜e fecto s͜es peciales

How to link the words

There are 4 links in this sentence:

  1. Tiene + ación (tieneac ción)
  2. Acción + y (acció ny)
  3. Los + efectos (lo sefectos)
  4. Efectos + especiales (efecto sespeciales)

The last link is the most tricky one because, depending on the speaker and on the pace, we may pronounce the letter E in “especiales” in different ways:

  • A clear [e], as Will does:
  • A weak [e].
  • Drop the letter E, as I do:

I don’t pronounce the letter E in “especiales” because there are 2 S separated only by a vowel (efectos especiales). Our brain and our tongue are sluggish, so we tend to save energy by pronouncing the vowel (E, in this case) weakly or even dropping it (efectos (e)speciales).

Examples of other words where we may pronounce a vowel sound weakly (or even drop it):

el helado  → el (e)lado 
en interior → en (i)nterior
es ese → es (e)se

Will makes 2 out of the 4 connections there are in this sentence. Again, I think he doesn’t link all the words simply because he stumbles.

Intonation and Pitch: Is Will Smith’s intonation correct?

In this sentence, it’s easier to assess Will’s intonation and, even if he makes pauses, he does a good job:

  1. He starts with a low pitch
  2. Then he raises it with the word ACCIÓN
  3. Continues flat
  4. And finally, rises his pitch with the word EFECTOS and slightly drops it at the end of the word ESPECIALES (↑efectos especia↓les).

It’d had been better to only stress the words ACCIÓN y ESPECIALES though:

La pecula tiene acción y los efectos especiales.

  • The 3 words he emphasizes the most are ACCIÓN, EFECTOS, and ESPECIALES.
  • A native would emphasize the same words, except for EFECTOS.

Sentence 3.“Pero la película es de un padre y un hijo” – Pronunciation analysis

Pronunciation of sounds: Does Will pronounce clearly?

Will:
[pe.Ro la pi.lí.ko.la es de un pa.ðre i un i.ho]

Native:
[pe.ro la pe.lí.ku.la es ðe um pa.ðre j un i.χo]

Mistakes (words he could pronounce better)

Pero

[pe.Ro] vs [pe.ro]

The same with the word futuro. Will over pronounces the letter R.

If we heard only this word, we could think he’s saying “perro” (dog) but we understand him because of the context.

Native pronunciation:

Película

Once more, he says the word película exactly the same way: [pi.lí.ko.la]

De

[de] vs [ðe]

The letter D has 2 possible pronunciations but the most common pronunciation is the SOFT D (or BLOWING D): [ð]. That’s the sound natives would use in this sentence.

Listen to how Will pronounces the letter D in the word “de”.

It sounds more like a Spanish T to my ears since natives don’t use the STRONG D in the middle of a sentence [d], except for a few exceptions. Or if we want to emphasize something but “de” is a word you’d rather make disappear.

Compare Will’s recording with my recording:

Yes, I say “dum” because I join the word “de” with the following one (un), but we’ll see that later. Now, focus on the sound of the letter D: [d] vs [ð].

Connected speech: Does Will speak fluently?

Will Smith: pero la pelicula͜ es de un padre y un hijo
Spanish native: pero la película͜ es de͜ un͜ padre y͜ un͜ hijo
Spanish native: pero la pelícu la͜es de͜un͜ padre y͜u hi jo
Spanish native: pero la pelícu laes deum padre ju ni χo

How to link the words

There are 5 links in this sentence, and most of them are quite more complex than those in the previous sentences (that’s because 2 new sounds result from the connected speech: [m] and [j]):

  1. Película + es (pelícu laes)
  2. De + un (deun/dun)
  3. Un + padre (umpadre).
  4. Y + un (jun)
  5. Un + hijo (u nijo)

pero la pelícu la͜es de͜um padre ju n͜i χo

Let’s see these complex links in detail:

a) De un padre

Will Smith: [de un padre]
Spanish native: [ðeum paðre] or [ðum paðre]

In connected speech, each of the 3 words is modified by the next or the previous one but Will pronounces them as 3 separate words: with pauses in between them, and without modifying any sound.

When a native speaker says “de un padre”, the 3 words become 2 “new words” with somewhat different sounds ([ðeum paðre] or [ðum paðre]). Compare:

Let’s see step by step why this happens, how Wil says “de un padre”, and how a native would join the words:

1. DE + UN

Will Smith:

Natives join the 2 vowels, as if they formed a diphthong (eu) and sometimes, we even drop the letter E, as I do in this case:

de un → deun / dun

Examples:

de una vez  → deu na vez 
de un amigo → deu na migo
de un solo uso → deun solo uso

2. UN + PADRE

Will Smith:

Try saying “un padre” with N (un padre).
Then try saying “um padre” (replacing the letter N with an M).

Which one do you find more effortless?

The letters N and P are produced in different places of your mouth, while the letters M and P are produced in the same place of your mouth (with the lips).
So for better flow, when the letter N is followed by a P, the letter N changes its sound to [m]:

un padre → um padre

b) Y un hijo

Will: [i un iho]
Native speaker: [ju ni.χo]

Will says “y un hijo” as 3 individual words, without linking the words:

Spanish native speakers would join the 3 words and pronounce them as if they were 2 “new words” with slightly different sounds:

Can you hear the difference?

Each of the words affects the next one, as in the previous phrase.

1. Y + UN

The word “y” might be pronounce in 2 different ways:

1. [i]: When the following sound is a consonant, we pronounce Y as the vowel I.

Examples:

vas y vuelves  → va si vuelves 
ordenador y televisión → ordenado ri televisión

Will uses this sound.

2. [j]: When the following sound is a vowel, we pronounce Y as a semivowel [j].

Examples:

perros y osos  → perros josos
un padre y una madre  → um padre juna madre

Spanish natives use this sound.

To pronounce “y un” like a native, you should join the 2 words and change the sound [i] for [j]:

y un → jun

2. UN + HIJO

Remember that syllables in Spanish tend to be Consonant + Vowel.

The letter N (un) is followed by a vowel sound (hijo), so we join them and create a new syllable: -ni-.

un hijo → u nijo → [u ‘ni.χo]

More examples:

los elefantes  → lo selefantes
en abril  → e nabril

Intonation and Pitch: Is Will Smith’s intonation correct?

He stumbles a lot so his intonation is quite flat. Still, he delivers a very clear message:

The word he emphasizes the most is HIJO. A native would emphasize this word too, as well as the word PADRE.

  1. I start with a low pitch
  2. Then I raise it with the word PADRE
  3. I continue flat
  4. And finally, I rise and slightly drop my pitch at the end of the word HIJO (↑hi↓jo).

Pero la película es de un padre y un hijo.

Overall assessment: Does Will Smith speak Spanish well?

spanish pronunciation assessment analysis will smith pronounce intonation pitch sound connected speech linking words like a native audio la pelicula es basada en el futuro tiene acción efectos especiales un padre y un hijo el hormiguero london londres after earth

Image from “El País” (newspaper)

I can’t know exactly what’s his level of Spanish after a few sentences, but when I heard him speaking in this program for the first time, I freaked out.

  • Will Smith speaks pretty good Spanish. He can convey simple thoughts despite his limited vocabulary.
  • Any Spaniard would understand what he’s saying even though he speaks with elementary sentences, and makes some grammar mistakes.
  • He might be a beginner-intermediate learner but his pronunciation is so good that it looks like his level of Spanish is at a much higher level. Will Smith pronounces better than most B2 Spanish learners.

Strengths

spanish pronunciation will smith strengths speaking the language vowels, connected speech, sounds

Pronunciation of sounds

This is his biggest strength.

Will pronounces the sounds of Spanish quite clearly: he’s got to erase some of the English traces that give away English natives when they speak Spanish.

That’s the best way to start learning a language: by listening and speaking.

Pronouncing correctly makes Will automatically appear to speak much better Spanish than he actually does (at the same time that it improves his listening skills).

Vowels

He produces very crispy vowels most of the time, almost like a native speaker.

P, T, K

Lots of English natives say these sounds with a puff of air, as in pin, tomato, or cake.

Mr Smith pronounces the sounds [p] and [k] flawlessly, and [t] almost perfectly.

Letter Ñ

When he says años the sound [ñ] is very clear. He pronounces it as a single sound (people often use 2 sounds: [ny]).

Connected speech: Linking words

Sometimes he put some words together, which is something great considering his overall level of Spanish.

  • en+el [e.nel]
  • los+efectos [lo se.’fek.tos]

This allows him to speak more fluently, naturally and to understand natives when they put words together.

However, he still needs to practice and to learn how to join complex words.

Intonation and pitch

Despite hesitating when he speaks, Will has an incredible intonation, again, taking into account his actual level of Spanish.

Weakest points

weakness pronunciation spanish speaking how to improve pitch intonation connected speech join sounds like a native audio examples

Pronunciation of sounds

There are 2 sounds that could drastically improve his pronunciation:

Letter R

He overpronounces the letter R when it should be a SOFT R (like “dd” in ladder, or “tt” in butter in North American English accent).

Letter B (and V)

The sounds of the letters B and V are among the most commonly used in the Spanish language so it’s worth learning when and how to produce each of the 2 sounds both letters have.

Connected speech: Linking words

Connected speech is one of Will’s weakest points, but I think that’s only because of Will’s speaking rate.

He uses some basic links but that’s only one of the 3 areas connected speech has:

  • Grouping words together (something we couldn’t assess this time since Will speaks with quite many breaks). Examples of grouping words together:
  1. (La película es basada) (mil años en el futuro).
  2. (La película tiene acción) (y los efectos especiales).
  3. (Pero la película es) (de un padre) (y un hijo).

Will doesn’t deliberately group the words together.

  • Linking words. Joining words when possible, gives the speech a more natural pace. Will already makes some simple links but he still needs to improve this area.

la pelícu la͜es basada mi l͜a ño s͜e n͜el futuro

  • Replacing sounds. Sometimes, when natives link words, we need to change some sounds for better flow.

la película es βasaða mil años en el futuro.

Intonation and pitch

His intonation and pitch are not bad at all but they’re affected by the rate of his speech.

Conclusions and Suggestions for pronunciation improvements

Pronunciation of sounds

No matter how complicated texts you can read or write if you aren’t able to speak clearly.

People don’t freak out with your perfect grammar (some foreigners speak even better than Spanish natives) but they’ll do if you pronounce naturally (very few foreigners get it because books and schools don’t teach how to do it).

Connected speech

Remember that connected speech has 3 different areas, and to speak fluently you should master the 3 of them:

  • Grouping words together
  • Linking words.
  • Replacing sounds. When certain letters are side by side (for example N + P), we need to change one of the sounds for better flow (-np- is replaced by -mp-).
    En Portugal → Em Portugal

Intonation

Unclear pronunciation spoils all your grammar, vocabulary and fluency.

And a poor intonation spoils your pronunciation.

However, speaking with a good intonation helps you convey the message, and it makes your Spanish look more solid.

This is my personal opinion and I have no clue whether it’s true or not:

Probably, Will doesn’t know how to say “hacer la cama” or “montar en autobús”. He seems to be focused on the words/sentences he’s going to use the most in his daily life, and that’s the most intelligent approach, and the best advice I can give you to improve your Spanish.

Don’t try to learn everything. Focus on what is more useful to you.

Why would someone who hates cooking want to learn how to say “stove”?

It’ll be much more helpful if you invest your time and effort in learning the vocabulary you’re going to use daily. In the case of Will, the main topic to learn about is presumably movies.

So next time you see a new word, ask yourself: “Am I going to use this word when I’m holding a conversation, or is it a single-use word?

If that’s the case, if you’re only going to use that word when you’re talking or reading about a specific topic, then learning that word isn’t a good use of your time.

The secret behind Will’s pronunciaion: 3 keys to success

3 main factors have made Will speak and pronounce such good Spanish (taking into account that he isn’t an intermediate student yet, or he doesn’t look like, at least at the moment when they recorded this video):

Confidence

“Little by little I’ve been learning and I’m not afraid of talking or making mistakes, but I’m conscious of my terrible accent”.

I don’t think Will has a thick accent at all but still, even when he thinks he has, he doesn’t feel embarrassed about it. Not being afraid of making mistakes is one of the things that will make you improve faster.

Coach

Will has a Spanish coach. The 2 of them have done a great job by learning Spanish by listening and speaking, and focussing a lot on his pronunciation and the words/sentences he’ll use the most.

Practice

Will began learning Spanish “talking to people” -he says- when he moved to Los Angeles (where 1 out of 3 people speak Spanish) and had proper exposure to the language.

Will speaks Spanish whenever he has the chance. In fact, he and Jada Pinkett Smith (his wife) practice their Spanish together at home (or so they say).

He also has many friends in Spain, where he often travels since it’s one of his favourite countries.

Repetition is the key to speak automatically, without thinking.

Here I leave here a 30 seconds video, where Will promotes After Earth in Spanish as well. See what I mean?

And that’s all fort today.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, you can read this.

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