One of the first things we learn when we study a foreign language is the alphabet – perfect, we can spell but can you pronounce accurately?
This is what you'll find in this post
- Spanish is not a phonetic language
- Pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet
- The 33 sounds of Spanish in short
There are different reasons why you have a terrible accent but most of the mispronunciations are the consequence of reading a symbol (letter) and saying it as we’d do in our native language.
And it’s very tough to shut that association (letter-sound) off.
For example, most English natives pronounce the letter B in “la bota” (SP) as the letter B in “a boat” (EN) (error!)
Your brain did the effort to learn this association a long time ago, and now, when you see the letter B, you don’t think how to pronounce it.
Your mouth produces the sound automatically.
The problem is that English, Vietnamese, or Spanish native speakers read and pronounce multiple letters in a different way so you’re likely to produce the wrong sound if you speak in Spanish or any other foreign language.
Spanish is not a phonetic 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, 33 sounds in (European/Castillian) Spanish, so
- Some letters are pronounced in 2 -or more- different ways, and
- Some letters are pronounced the same way.
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. And if you learn (it barely takes 1 or 2 days) the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) so that you can pronounce any word in Spanish, even if it’s the first time you see it.
Today you’re going to see the letters and sounds of Spanish:
- Examples of Spanish words for each Spanish sound.
- Examples of 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.
- A final image to summarize all the info.
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 (and it would take a lot of time) so I’m going to focus on Castilian Spanish -the standard European Spanish.
In the second column, you’ll see a symbol from the IPA. Each of these symbols represents a specific sound – usually common in more than language.
In order to make it easier I’ve substituted some of the symbols of the IPA. For example, we’ll use [ñ] for the letter Ñ instead of [ɲ]. Let’s keep things simple.
In the third column, you may find this symbol [∼]. It means that the word in English contains a sound similar to the Spanish one (but not exactly the same one).
|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.
Lo hice con buena intención.
∼ bus, bean chamber, embrace
|Click to see how to pronounce the letters B and V. 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 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. Touch it. You should notice that it vibrates.
*Sometimes we don’t pronounce the letter D.
elefante, edad, este
∼ went, pay
|More info on how to produce the sound of the Spanish vowels.|
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
|Learn the differences between English and Spanish vowels.|
∼ 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 the 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 a 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” in 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 that is pronounced like 2 sounds: [k] + [s]|
ya, cónyuge, inyección
|The letter Y sounds like Spanish “ll”. At the beginning of the sentence, after N, or when you want to emphasize, it’s pronounced stronger.|
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 33 sounds of Spanish in short
European Spanish has 33 sounds.
However, there are 38 IPA symbols. 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: the sound of the letters N and L (see the table below).
The letters N and L may have a small symbol below: “ᴨ” or “+”.
- n̪, l̪: Dental sound.
“ᴨ” indicates that the sound is produced by placing your tongue where your upper teeth meet the gum.
- n̟, l̟: Advanced sound.
“+” means that the letter is produced forward. For example, to pronounce [n̟] your tongue touches your lower teeth too (quince).
To practice the sounds of Spanish, you can follow the recommendations of these 5 experts to improve your pronunciation and listening.