The first thing we learn when we study a foreign language is the alphabet – perfect, now we can spell words but… can you pronounce those words accurately?
This is funny. We learn languages to speak not to spell! However, very few of us learn how to produce the sounds of the target language.
You probably heard that, in Spanish, we pronounce the words as we spell them.
It’s a lie.
Some people may disagree and they will say «Spanish is a phonetic language» -and they’re quite right. Nonetheless, less than half of the letters of the Spanish alphabet are always pronounced the way they’re written.
- The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters.
- There are, at least, 34 sounds in (European) Spanish.
- Some letters are pronounced the same way.
In other words. There’s more than one way to pronounce most of the letters, like the letters B, C or N.
If you want to avoid boring people to tears, if you want to hold a fluent conversation and not forcing people to put too much effort into it (so that people pay attention to you), you should be able to speak clearly. And that’s far easier if you know how to produce the Spanish sounds.
Today you’re going to see the letters and sounds of Spanish:
- Examples of Spanish words for each sound.
- English words that contain that specific Spanish sound (or a similar one).
- Audio. Because if we speak about sounds you should be able to listen to them.
- International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), to learn how to read any word in Spanish, even if it’s the first time you see it.
- A final image to summarize all the info.
Table of contents
- 1 Pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet
- 1.1 Letter a
- 1.2 Letter b
- 1.4 Letter c
- 1.5 Letter d
- 1.6 Letter e
- 1.7 Letter f
- 1.8 Letter g
- 1.9 Letter h
- 1.10 Letter i
- 1.11 Letter j
- 1.12 Letter k
- 1.13 Letter l
- 1.14 Letter m
- 1.15 Letter n
- 1.18 Letter ñ
- 1.19 Letter o
- 1.20 Letter p
- 1.21 Letter q
- 1.22 Letter r
- 1.23 Letter s
- 1.24 Letter t
- 1.25 Letter u
- 1.26 Letter v
- 1.27 Letter w
- 1.28 Letter x
- 1.29 Letter y
- 1.30 Letter z
- 2 The 34 sounds of Spanish in short
When you pronounce Spanish, usually your mouth muscles are tenser than when you speak in English.
Pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet
It would be confusing if you learn how to pronounce every single dialect of Spanish. And it would take much more time. So I’m going to focus on Castilian Spanish -the standard European Spanish.
To understand the table below:
- First column: The letters of the Spanish alphabet + their names in brackets.
- Second column: International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The symbol in this column represents a specific sound – usually common in more than language.
In order to make it easier I’ve substituted some of the sounds of the IPA. For example, we’ll use [ñ] for the letter Ñ instead of [ɲ] -let’s keep things simple.
- Third column: Examples of Spanish words for that specific sound + Audio. Examples of English words that contain the specific sound (or a similar one). When the sound isn’t exactly the same, you will find this symbol [∼].
- Fourth column: Links for more info (or some tips to produce that sound).
|IPA||EXAMPLES (Spanish & English)||HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE LETTER|
alfabeto, casa, amiga
∼ fun, fine
|Click to see how to pronounce the Spanish vowels.|
barco, hambre, cambio
Vive en Barcelona.
∼ bus, bean chamber, embrace
Spanish B has a dry sound and it’s softer than the English B -it doesn’t explode.
abrir, hablar, abuelo
Me gustaría ir a Barcelona.
|The lips are not hermetically sealed. The sound is produced by letting escape from the mouth a trickle of air.|
vaca, color, cuando
The letter C has a dry sound and -like letter B- doesn’t explode either: it’s a voiceless sound so you could pronounce it even if you hold your breath.
|The sound is produced by the air getting out of your mouth, between the teeth and the tongue.|
∼ chair, coach
It sounds similar in English, but not the same. In English, it sounds kind of «shhhh» (chshh), in Spanish it sounds more like «sssss» (chs).
Try lifting the tip of your tongue.
¿De dónde vienes, Aldo?
Here I wrote only the 2 official sounds but in colloquial speech, we may pronounce it in up to 4+1 different ways!
Tu padre viene después de desayunar.
|Your tongue should be in the same position as when you pronounce the SOFT C but, this time, the sound is produced by the throat. If you touch it you should notice that it vibrates.|
elefante, edad, este
∼ went, pay
feo, frío, África
Dafne, Afganistán, afgano
(raspier English H)
TIP: Pronounce the English H but lift your tongue a little bit, just as if you were going to pronounce the letter K.
gas, gol, engrasar
∼ gas, go, gate engage, English
|Throaty sound. The Spanish SOFT G doesn’t have the touch of [k] -like the letter G in English.|
pagar, algo, agua
|The feeling in your throat/back palate should be similar to caress the hairs in your arm, without actually touching the arm.|
Imagine you have hair in your palate and you have to caress it. The sound is produced when your tongue moves away from the palate.
|No sound||ahora, hielo, humo||It only has a sound in words borrowed from other languages, like hamster or hockey.|
indio, limón, mira
∼ need, you
∼ yellow, yes
caja, traje, cojín, abajo, jugar
|The letter J sounds like the HARD G.|
koala, kiwi, kilómetro
|The letter K sounds like the HARD C.|
luego, lila, ala
|It doesn’t sound like in ball or cable. Your tongue doesn’t touch your front teeth at all.|
alto, aldea, oculta
|Your tongue is closer to your front teeth than the previous [lʲ] and may (barely) touch them. Even though the position of your tongue is slightly different, it sounds like [l].|
alzar, calcio, calcetín
|The tip of your tongue is placed where your upper teeth meet the gum. It sounds like [l] too.|
lluvia, olla, calla
∼ jeans, yes
|The double L sounds like Spanish Y.|
montaña, mamá, comer
nido, andar, nana
once, quince, concierto
|The tip of your tongue appears between your teeth.|
andar, entrada, cantar
|The tip of your tongue is placed where your upper teeth meet the gum.|
ancla, encontrar, inglés
enjaular, ángel, injerto
Guisantes con jamón.
|You should put your tongue further back. Its position is the same when you pronounce letter J but your throat must be closed so the air comes out through your nose.|
enfriar, confiar, infravalorar
|The letter N is pronounced with your upper teeth and lower lip (like the letter F).|
envase, envidia, invitado
uña, mañana, niño
The letter Ñ has only one sound -it isn’t the same as “ny” or “n+i” (two sounds). Letter Ñ sounds like French «gn».
The middle part of the tongue touches the whole middle palate. The tip of the tongue doesn’t touch it. The sound is nasal and it’s produced when you separate your tongue from the upper palate*. Before the actual sound -when your tongue is still touching the palate- you will hear a nasal N. You should keep that nasal sound when your tongue moves away from the palate.
oso, color, oro
∼ mall, talk
|More info and tips to pronounce Spanish O.|
pelo, pantalón, piano
queso, pequeño, quiero, aquí
|The letter Q sounds like hard C. It’s always followed by “ue” or “ui” but the letter U is never pronounced.|
caro, horno, arpa
∼bitter, butter (Am. EN)
|The letter R sounds like “tt” butter (in American English).|
carro, perro, turrrón
TIP: Call me crazy but, for some people, it’s easier to get the sound of rolled R if they do a headstand. Well… actually, it’s enough if you look down. (Gravity helps to keep your tongue on your palate).
seta, salir, fiesta
tener, tienda, tren
luna, cuerda, uno
∼ moon, wet
|More info on mouth positioning and how to pronounce Spanish U.|
abuelo, huevo, agua
∼ kiwi, web
vela, viejo, video
∼ bus, bean chamber, embrace
|More info on how to pronounce the letters B and V.|
avión, uva, Eva
|It sounds like a SOFT B.|
whisky, waterpolo, Hawai
∼ kiwi, web
∼ brown, brave
|It’s pronounced like the letters V and B.|
|The letter X sounds like S.|
taxi, oxígeno, saxofón
|It’s the only Spanish letter which is pronounced like 2 sounds: [k] + [s]|
ya, cónyuge, inyección
|The letter Y sounds like Spanish “ll”.|
yoyó, vaya, ayer
|TIP: Try to say jeans without crushing your tongue against the palate.|
jersey, buey, rey
∼ yes, me
|It sounds like the Spanish vowel I.|
zapato, buzón, zumo
|The letter Z is pronounced like a SOFT C.|
|It sounds like a SOFT D.|
The 34 sounds of Spanish in short
European Spanish has 34 sounds.
However, there are 38 IPA symbols that represent those 34 sounds. Why are 4 extra symbols?
There are 2 sounds that natives produce in different parts of their mouth (depending on the following sound) for better flow: N and L.
Each of these letter may have a small symbol below:
- ᴨ: (n̪, l̪) This thing indicates that the sound is produced by placing your tongue where your upper teeth meet the gum. (Dental sound).
- +: (n̟, l̟) It means that the letter is produced forward. For example, to pronounce [n̟] your tongue touches your lower teeth too (quince). (Advanced sound).