The gringo accent is a well-known phenomenon in Spanish. Throwing in vowels that don’t exist and bungling the “r” are dead giveaways that one comes from Gringolandia. Yet even those who master the vowel system and the infamous “r” can still wind up sounding quite foreign to a native’s ears. Here are three sounds that natives have pointed out to me and which, despite their apparent simplicity, still give me away at times…
The “D”… Some years ago I asked a native speaker what part of my accent made me sound most foreign. I expected that he’d tell me that my “R”s were off, but to my surprise he told me that I had a “harsh D”. Many textbooks will tell you that the “D” is similar to English, but it really isn’t. As English speakers, we tend to make a harder sound when we use this letter. If you say the English words “day”, “dumb”, “does”, you’ll notice that your tongue touches the roof of your mouth. In Spanish, it should touch the spot where your teeth and the roof of your mouth come together… try “día”, “doy”, “damos”. And when the “D” comes between vowels, it sounds even softer. In some accents (think Cuban) it’s hardly pronounced at all, but most Spanish natives produce a sound very similar to our “TH” combo. If you use the “TH” from “this”, you’ll be close to the intervocalic “D”. Try “cansado”, “dedo”, “comprado”.
The “B”… Put your hand in front of your mouth and say the word “boy”. Feel that pull of air? It’s far less forceful when Spanish speakers say the “B”. In fact, their mouths don’t even close entirely. Try practicing with “bajo”, “bueno” and “burro” and see if you can produce the “B” sound without that puff of air. Incidentally, the “V” in Spanish is pronounced exactly the same way. The words “vaya”, “voy”, “valle” start with a Spanish “B” sound which is the same as the “V” sound which we English speakers make with our upper teeth and lower lip. Spanish speakers themselves have trouble distinguishing between their own “B” and “V” and often make spelling errors with these… you’ll sometimes see “vaya” written as “baya” and “haber” written as “haver”!
The “L”… The problem with the “L” is that we have actually two sounds to choose from in English, whereas Spanish generally has one. Say the word “little” and you’ll notice that the first “L” is pronounced closer to the teeth than the second. It’s the first “L” which Spanish speakers use. The sound is produced by bringing the tongue to the point just behind the teeth. Try producing the following words with the first “L” of “little”: “bolsa”, “baile”, “la langosta”. There is a slight exception to this rule: when the “L” comes before the “D” and the “T”, it tends to be produced by touching the back of the teeth, just as these letters are pronounced: “falda”, “aldea”, “alto”. This basically just makes it easier to say the “L” before a dental consonant.
There’s an excellent website about Spanish phonology at the following website: http://soundsofspeech.uiowa.edu/index.html#spanish As with any pronunciation practice, the best way to master sounds is to hear them and then practice based on what you hear. Our mouth muscles have had years of getting used to English, so it takes a bit conscious retraining to get the Spanish sounds right, even if the rules appear simple on paper. Many gringos obsess about the dreaded “R” so much that they neglect these other sounds which they can more easily improve. These are just a handful of examples and you’ll find many more at the above link, complete with sound and diagrams. ¡Buena suerte!