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The Spanish alphabet -How to pronounce the 37 sounds like a native speaker

When we study a foreign language we start by learning the alphabet so that we can spell the words. However, very few of us learn how to pronounce each sound of the new language.

You might have heard that, in Spanish, we pronounce the words as they’re written.

But it isn’t totally true.

Some people may disagree and will say «Spanish is a phonetic language» -and they’re right. Nonetheless, less than half of the letters of the Spanish alphabet are always pronounced the way they’re written.

In other words, there’s more than one way to pronounce most of the letters, like the letter B, the letter C or the letter N.

Working on the sounds of Spanish and its articulation point is essential to hold a fluent conversation without forcing people to put too much effort into it.

Do you want to master the sounds of the Spanish alphabet?

When you pronounce Spanish, usually your mouth muscles are tenser than when you speak in English.

Pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet

Learning how to pronounce every single dialect of Spanish would be confusing for you and would take much more time so I’m going to focus on Castilian Spanish -the standard European Spanish.

The table below shows:

  • The letters of the Spanish alphabet and their names (first column).
  • International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)The symbol on the second column represents a specific sound which is usually common in more than language. These symbols make easier reading and pronouncing any foreign language. Maybe you’ve already seen some of them -some are common to both English and Spanish (second column).

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 simple things simple.

  • Examples of English words which contain that specific sound or a similar one – when the sound isn’t exactly the same, you will find this symbol [∼] (third column).
  • Examples of Spanish words for that specific sound (fourth column).
  • Some hacks to pronounce the Spanish letters (last column).
LETTER  IPA SOUND LIKE… EXAMPLES HOW TO PRONOUNCE THE LETTER

Letter a

(a)

[a] ∼ fun, fine alfabeto, casa, amiga Click to see how to pronounce the Spanish vowels.

Letter b

(be)

[b] ∼ bus, bean chamber, embrace barco, hambre, cambio
Vive en Barcelona.
Lo hice con buena intención.
The letter B has a dry sound and it’s softer than the English B -it doesn’t explode.
[β] 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.

Letter c

(ce)

[k] ∼sock, fake 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. It’s produced just when your throat gets open.
[θ] thing, tooth hacer, cielo The sound is produced by the air getting out of your mouth, between the teeth and the tongue.
[ʧ] chair, coach ch
ocho, chica, coche
In English, it sounds almost the same.

Letter d

(de)

[d] ¿De dónde vienes, Aldo?

The letter D has a dry sound. Your tongue, relaxed, touches your upper teeth and palate at the same time. The sound is produced when it’s separated from them.

TIP: the tip of your tongue doesn’t touch your palate. Try putting the very tip of your tongue in between your teeth, like if you were biting it.

[ð] this, those 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.

Letter e

(e)

[e] ∼ went, pay elefante, edad, este

Letter f

(efe)

[f] fox, affair feo, frío, África
[v] view, voice Dafne, Afganistán, afgano

Letter g

(ge)

[X] (raspier English H) geografía, energía

The letter G sounds like the letter J in Spanish. The sound is close to the 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.

[g] gas, go, gate engage, English gas, gol, engrasar Throaty sound. The Spanish SOFT G  doesn’t have the touch of /k/ -like the letter G in English.
[ɣ] 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.

Letter h

(hache)

No sound ahora, hielo, humo It only has a sound in words borrowed from other languages, like hamster or hockey.

Letter i

(i)

[i] ∼ need, you indio, limón, mira
[j] ∼ yellow, yes In diphthongs.
viuda, viento, indio

Letter j

(jota)

[X] caja, traje, cojín, abajo, jugar The letter J sounds like the HARD G.

Letter k

(ka)

[k] ∼sock, fake koala, kiwi, kilómetro The letter K sounds like the HARD C.

Letter l

(ele)

[l] luego, lila, ala It doesn’t sound like in ball or cable. Your tongue doesn’t touch your front teeth at all.
[lʲ] colcha, colchón, salchicha Your tongue is a little closer to your front teeth than the previous [l] but it doesn’t touch them.
[l̪] alto, aldea, oculta Your tongue is closer to your front teeth than the previous [lʲ] and may (barely) touch them.
[l̟] alzar, calcio, calcetín Finally, your tongue touches your front teeth.
[ʝ̞] , [ʤ] jeans, yes -ll-
lluvia, olla, calla
The double L sounds like Spanish Y.

Letter m

(eme)

[m] mountain, mum montaña, mamá, comer

Letter n

(ene)

[n] name, now nido, andar, nana
[n̟] once, quince, concierto The tip of your tongue appears between your teeth.
[ŋ] bang, English ancla, encontrar, inglés
[ɴ]

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.
[ɱ] enfriar, confiar, infravalorar The letter N is pronounced with your upper teeth and lower lip (like the letter F).
[m] moon, comb envase, envidia, invitado

Letter ñ

(eñe)

[ñ] 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.

Letter o

(o)

[o] ∼ mall, talk oso, color, oro

Letter p

(pe)

[p] up, cap pelo, pantalón, piano

Letter q

(cu)

[k] ∼sock, fake que, qui
queso, pequeño, quiero, aq
The letter Q sounds like hard C. It’s always followed by “ue” or “ui” but the letter U is never pronounced.

Letter r

(erre)

[r] bitter, butter (Am. EN) caro, horno, arpa The letter R sounds like “tt” in American English.
[R]  (trilled sound)
rueda, rubio
sonreir, alrevés
carro, perro, turrrón 

To pronounce trilled R your tongue must be relaxed: it is the air what produces the sound, not your tongue. Your tongue touches your palate, not your front teeth.

TIP: Call me crazy but it’s easier to get the sound if you do a headstand.

Letter s

(ese)

 [s] see, soon
seta, salir, fiesta

Letter t

(te)

 [t] ∼ football tener, tienda, tren

To pronounce the letter T your tongue touches the upper front teeth -when pronouncing the Spanish D the tongue’s in the same position.

TIP: try touching your lower teeth too.

Letter u

(u)

 [u] ∼ moon, wet luna, cuerda, uno
 [w] ∼ kiwi, web In diphthongs.
abuelo, huevo, agua

Letter v

(uve)

[b] bus, bean chamber, embrace vela, viejo, video
envidia, envío, invitado
The letter V sounds like the letter B.
[β] avión, uva, Eva It sounds like a SOFT B.

Letter w

(uve doble)

 [w] ∼ kiwi, web whisky, waterpolo, Hawai
 [b] brown, brave Wagner, Wamba It’s pronounced like the letters V and B.

Letter x

(equis)

 [s] sea, saw xilófono, xenofobia The letter X sounds like S.
 [ks] taxi, flexible taxi, oxígeno, saxofón It’s the only Spanish letter which is pronounced like 2 sounds: [k] + [s]

Letter y

(ye)

 [ʤ],  [ʝ̞] jeans, yes
ya, cónyuge, inyección
The letter Y sounds like Spanish “ll”.
 [ʝ̞] yoyó, vaya, ayer TIP: Try to say jeans without crushing your tongue against the palate.
 [i] yes, me, jersey, buey, rey Sounds like the Spanish vowel I.

Letter z

(zeta)

 [θ] throw zapato, buzón, zumo The letter Z is pronounced like a SOFT C.
 [ð] this, those hazme, hallazgo It sounds like a SOFT D.

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