Pronunciation is KEY to becoming fluent in Spanish. I wasn't always aware of this but when I finally understood what I am about to share with you, I was able to drastically improve my ability to be understood by native Spanish speakers.
Have you ever said something in Spanish that you know is correct? Maybe you’ve taken the time to prepare what you’re going to say and looked it up in a dictionary or online. You've checked for accuracy, you know that the sentence structure is correct. You're using the right words, and the grammar and conjugations are all correct. But when you say it, the listener does not understand you. I know it's definitely happened to me, and it is frustrating.
When I first started learning Spanish, I sort of ignored the pronunciation side of things because I thought that as long as I knew the words, as long as I could string together a coherent sentence, my message would be understood. I wouldn’t sound like a native speaker by any means, but I would be able to get my message across. However, that actually was not the case at all.
I had many of these experiences where I would say something that I knew was correct and sometimes would have to end up writing it down because the listener just did not understand me. Yet, when I would write it down and show it to them, they knew exactly what I was saying right away. There was something about the way I was saying it. My pronunciation was off and that completely inhibited their ability to understand me. That's when I realized that pronunciation is so important. Now I would like to provide you with some tips and things that you can practice in order to improve your pronunciation and reduce the amount of frustrating experiences like these, that you find yourself in.
One of the biggest mistakes that English speakers make when trying to learn Spanish is that we tend to focus on what we see instead of what we hear. Yes, it can be very helpful to see the written word. Often times it is a lot easier to understand something if you see it, but in verbal conversation, if you want to be fluent, you're not always going to have the option to view the written word. While learning to read Spanish words can have its benefits, it's much more important to focus on the sounds if you want to become fluent in spoken Spanish.
The English and Spanish alphabets are very similar, so it's easy to assume that because we can read the word, we will be able to create the sound. That’s not really necessarily the case because Spanish pronunciation is quite different than English pronunciation.
Babies spend about nine or ten months just listening and observing the actions, gestures, and facial expressions of how people interact with each other while using the language. Then they start to experiment with their mouths by moving them in different ways until they eventually start to try and reproduce these sounds. Usually, in the beginning, it sounds like gibberish, but they’re actually just experimenting with the language. Eventually, they'll start pronouncing words that make sense, then say a whole sentence, until they become fluent and are able to have an entire conversation. This is the way we should all approach language learning, regardless of our age.
But of course, who has nine to ten months to just focus on that? As adults, we already speak a language, so we don't need to take quite as much time to get there, and we can skip over the gibberish stage, allowing us to accelerate the process. We will talk about some shortcuts that you can take in order to help you master your pronunciation in the upcoming weeks/posts.
In Spanish, every letter is pronounced, and it's pronounced exactly as it's written. This is very nice for those of us that have to learn the language. We can just look at a word, and as long as we know the pronunciation of each letter, especially the vowels, we can work out the pronunciation even without hearing it because it is pronounced exactly as it's written. There's one exception to that and one letter that is always silent in Spanish: h. H is always silent. For example, in hablar, we don’t pronounce the h, we start saying it from the “a” sound. Hola is another great example.
But before you learn about the consonants, we must work on mastering the Spanish vowels.
Vowels play a large role in Spanish, they are in every word! If you can learn and master the vowel sounds, you will be able to pronounce 80% of Spanish words correctly. If you don't pronounce them correctly, it's going to be really hard for people to understand you.
There are only five vowels: a, e, i, o, u. There is “y” as well, but we won't focus on “y” today. Today we're going to focus on the five main vowels and their sounds. The good thing is it's actually a lot easier for us as English speakers trying to learn Spanish versus Spanish speakers trying to learn English. In English, we have the same five vowels, but those five vowels have 19 different sounds. You can't just look at an English word and know how to pronounce it because the vowels aren't always pronounced the same.
However, in Spanish, there are five vowels, and there are only five sounds. It doesn't get any more complicated than that. It doesn't change depending on the word, the sounds will almost always be the same (as always, there are a few small exceptions, such as the “e” having a shorter sound like in the word “él” vs the longer e sound like the second “e” in the word “empezar”.) If you can master the vowel sounds, you will go a long way, and it will make a big difference in your pronunciation.
Let's start with the first vowel: the letter a. In Spanish, the pronunciation is actually, “ah”. It’s pronounced like the “a” in the word law or father. All Spanish words that have the letter a will have this sound: amigo, amar.
Next we have the e, which is actually pronounced like the long “a” in English. This is where it gets a little bit tricky, but don't worry. The more you hear it and practice with it, the more it will start to stick and eventually just become second nature. It depends on the word: sometimes it's a little more prolonged and you have that clear “a” sound. But other times, it's cut really short and has more of an “eh” sound. It’s the same sound, in essence, just cut shorter.
For example, the word hey has the longer “a” sound, but bed has the shorter sound. The Spanish word elefante has an example of both of those slightly different pronunciations. The short e sound is at the beginning while the longer e is pronounced for the other two e sounds.
Next we have the i. The i in Spanish, again, is the opposite of English and the pronunciation is actually like an “e” sound, just like the bee in bumblebee. Some Spanish words are vivir and salir.
Next we have the o, which is pretty much the same as English, although English does have some slightly different pronunciations. In Spanish it will always be “oh”, like the word go in English. Some Spanish words are moto or contar.
Next we have the u sound, which is like an “oo”, and basically the same sound that we have in the word boot. Some Spanish examples are universidad or usar. Those are the main consonants that you should be aware of and that you can practice with. If you can get those five consonants down and you learn the five vowel sounds, you will be able to pronunce about 80% of Spanish words correctly!