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

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 something 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 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.

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 people to pay attention to you, you should be able to produce these 37 sounds. And to know its articulation point. It is essential to hold a fluent conversation without forcing people to put too much effort into it. Without boring them to tears.

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 simple things simple.

  • Third column: 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: Examples of Spanish words for that specific sound.
  • Last column: Some hacks to pronounce the Spanish letters.
 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.

Click to see how to pronounce the letters B and V.

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

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.

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. Even though the position of your tongue is slightly different, it sounds like [l].
[l̟]

alzar, calcio, calcetín

Finally, your tongue touches your front teeth. It sounds like [l] too.

[ʝ̞]

[ʎ]

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
More info on how to pronounce the letters B and V.

[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)

[ʝ̞]

jeans, yes
ya, cónyuge, inyección
The letter Y sounds like Spanish “ll”.

[ʎ]

yoyó, vaya, ayer TIP: Try to say jeans without crushing your tongue against the palate.

 [i]

yes, me, jersey, buey, rey It 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.