In the video above, I’ve attempted to explain Spanish pronunciation in ten minutes, including all the most essential information. There’s a lot packed in there (and I went a little over on time), so you may need to watch it more than once. Of course I had to leave out some details, but the idea is to give you enough info that you could get by and sound pretty good even if all you know is what’s in the video. Basically it’s the 80/20 rule applied to Spanish pronunciation – this is the 20% of the information that will get you 80% of the way (or more) to sounding like a native.
Below I’ve written out more or less the same info about Spanish pronunciation that’s covered in the video. One effective way to learn is to read the text either right before or right after you watch the video. That way your mind is primed and you’re basically reviewing on the second pass.
I’ve broken the basics of Spanish Pronunciation up into these categories:
- Letters that sound the same as English
- Letters that sound subtly different from English
- Rules to remember (i.e. memorize)
- “Special” letters that deserve extra attention
Category 1: Vowels
- A, pronounced “ah”. Examples: mala, habla
- E, pronounced “eh”. Examples: que, de
- I, pronounced “ee”. Examples: si, mi
- O, pronounced “oh”. Examples: no, solo
- U, pronounced “oo” (like boo). Examples: tu, su
The vowel sounds are pure and never change, and keeping them consistently pure is one of the biggest steps towards sounding like a native speaker. Learn these sounds correctly once, and remember they’re always the same. A good way to practice the vowel sounds is to read out loud in slow motion, holding each vowel sounds for an extra second to make sure you’re making the right sound.
Category 2: Letters that sound the same as English (or close enough)
All of the letters below sound the same in Spanish as they do in English, or at least close enough that if you pronounce them like English you’ll sound fine.
- F, M, N, S, P, K, W
- Sh, Ch
- B, V, X*
*B, V, and X have some minor differences from English, but these differences are okay to ignore for now. You’ll still sound good if you apply the other rules in this post.
Category 3: Letters that sound almost the same as English
You could “get by” saying these letters the way you do in English, but unfortunately that might make you sound like a gringo. So it’s worth a minute to learn the difference.
T – the tongue sits further forward, touching the upper teeth, and the sound is softer than in English. Try this out with the words below, first the English version and then Spanish:
- English: trap, top
- Spanish: tu, tengo, todo
L – similarly, the tongue is further forward and contacting the upper teeth. The sound is shorter and less slurred compared to English. Try it out:
- English: lot, pill, el
- Spanish: la, playa, el
Category 4: Simple rules that you’ll need to memorize
The seven letters below each have a specific, simple rule that you’ll need to memorize.
H is always silent. Examples: hola, hablo
J sounds like an English ‘H’ (almost). Examples: Javier, vejiga, joven
Q is always followed by a ‘U’, but sounds like ‘K’, as opposed to the ‘KW’ sound which is more common in English.
English: quick, quack
Spanish: quita, Quijote
Y sounds the same as a Spanish ‘I’ (which is the same sound as an English ‘Y’ when it’s the first letter in a word, such as “you” or “yellow”, but not like “by” or “quickly”).
Examples: yo, playa, soy
LL is the same as a Spanish ‘Y’, which is the same as a Spanish ‘I’… so yes, technically all three letters make the same sound (though there are regional differences in places like Argentina).
Examples: llevar, costilla
Z sounds like an English ‘S’.
Examples: corazón, nariz
Ñ sounds like ‘NY’ together. You could replace the ‘Ñ’ in any Spanish word with ‘NY’ and it would sound the same.
Examples: señor, año, leña
Sounds the same as: senyor, anyo, lenya
Category 5: Special Letters that deserve extra attention
These five “special” letters will take a bit more effort and practice to get right, but the payoff is significant if you can use them correctly. ‘R’, ‘RR’, and ‘D’ in particular will go a long way to determining how much like a native speaker you sound versus like a gringo. ‘C’ and ‘G’ follow similar rules to each other, and they each have two sounds they can make.
R sounds like one version of an English ‘D’, specifically the ‘D’ sound in words like “muddy” and “eddy”. Say those words out loud a few times and pay attention to your tongue movement.
Try these examples: para, cura, pero, cero
RR is trilled. I’m sure you’ve heard this sound before, but it isn’t always easy to replicate. Basically it’s don’t by blowing air between the tip of the tongue and roof of the mouth. If you would like a more detailed explanation, there are many YouTube video tutorials on how to trill.
Examples: perro, parra, pantorrilla
Technically, ‘R’ is also trilled when it’s the first letter in a word (but never in the middle of a word), as in “rubio”. But it’s ok to ignore this as a beginner – I did.
D is not like an English ‘D’, because, for one thing, the Spanish ‘R’ is already making a sound that is similar to an English ‘D’. So what does a Spanish ‘D’ sound like?
I think the best way to explain it is that it sounds kind of like a ‘TH’ in English, but not as breathy, with the tongue resting gently on upper front teeth.
Examples: donde, nada, dinero, durar, dirección
WARNING: The sections below about C and G appear somewhat long and tedious compared to the other letters. To boil it down, ‘C’ and ‘G’ each have two sounds in Spanish, but knowing when to make each sound takes some practice. Also, if you’re going to skip something, these would be the sections to skip for now, as you may be able to mostly figure out when to use the different C and G sounds by listening to other people.
C is either “hard” or “soft”, depending on the letter that follows. A hard ‘C’ sounds like ‘K’, while a soft ‘C’ sounds like ‘S’.
How do you know whether the ‘C’ is hard or soft?
C is hard (‘K’ sound) when followed by a “strong vowel”. The three strong vowels are ‘A’, ‘O’, and ‘U’.
Examples: vaca, como, cuñada (notice the ‘ca’, ‘co’, and ‘cu’ sound like ‘ka’, ‘ko’, ‘ku’).
C is soft (‘S’ sound) when followed by a “weak vowel”. The weak vowels are ‘E’ and ‘I’.
Examples: hacer, cita
C makes a hard sound when followed by a consonant, as in dirección. Notice the first ‘C’ is hard, and the second ‘C’ is soft because it’s followed by a weak vowel, ‘I’.
G, like ‘C’, is either “hard” or “soft” depending on what letter follows it. A hard G sounds like “go”, and a soft ‘G’ sounds like an English ‘H’ (which sounds like a Spanish ‘J’, as you learned above).
G makes a hard sound when followed by a strong vowel (‘A’, ‘O’, or ‘U’).
Examples: agua, haga, gol
G is also hard when followed by a consonant, as in sangre.
G makes a soft sound (like an English ‘H’ or Spanish ‘J’) when followed by a weak vowel (‘E’ or ‘I’).
Examples: gente, página
When you see the syllables “GUE” or “GUI”, the ‘U’ is silent but the ‘G’ is hard.
Examples: guitarra, pague
But if the ‘U’ in either of those syllables is supposed to be pronounced after ‘G’, it will have two dots over it, like ‘Ü’.
Examples: güero, agüita
And…that’s all the letters!
With the information above, you’re well on your way to mastering the basics of Spanish pronunciation. But there is at least one more topic that’s worth addressing, and that is how you know which syllable to stress in any given word.
Bonus category: Accents
Knowing which syllable to stress in Spanish may seem confusing, but it can be broken down into three simple rules. With these three rules you’ll always know what syllable to stress in any written word.
Keep in mind that in English, there are no rules that you can learn, and you simply had to memorize what syllable to stress in every word when you learned English.
Three rules to always know what syllable to stress in Spanish
Rule 1: If a word ends in ‘N’, ‘S’, or any vowel, stress the 2nd-to-last syllable.
Examples: malo, hablas, comen
Rule 2: If a word ends in any other consonant (besides ‘N’ or ‘S’), stress the last syllable.
Examples: señor, total, hablar
Rule 3: If the word has an accent mark, stress the syllable with the accent mark (and ignore the first two rules). In other words, accent marks are there to tell you that the word doesn’t follow the other rules.
Examples: dígalo, arándano, hablé
That concludes the basics of Spanish pronunciation, and if you can learn that much information you’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine in fact, because that’s about 90% of what you’ll ever need to know about Spanish pronunciation, and the rest is just gravy.
So review those rules, and then practice, practice, practice! As I alluded to above, I think a great way to practice is to read out loud in slow motion. Hold the pure vowel sound an extra half-second to make sure you’re doing it right, and at the same time you can practice all the consonant sounds. Refer back to the rules whenever you need to. And try to avoid any slurring, as there is no Southern drawl in Spanish. 🙂