One of the greatest debates amongst linguists is whether a non-native speaker of a language can ever achieve a native-like pronunciation, or whether certain characteristics of one’s first language will always make an impression upon the second. Some argue that, after a certain age, the brain fossilizes in such a way that it does not admit the production of new sounds. Other say that this is all hogwash and point to many examples of second language speakers with seemingly flawless accents. As with everything, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle… most of us will probably never achieve so perfect a mastery of Spanish pronunciation that all remnants of our English-speaking lives are erased, but neither must we settle for a the “Yo Kero Taco Bell” accent which so many gringos unwittingly produce. Today I want to focus on a few areas of pronunciation that we, as English speakers, often overlook. Specifically, we’ll look at a handful of letters of the Spanish alphabet which many textbooks erroneously state “sound like English.” I’ll also offer some online resources which will help you hear and practice these sounds in context.
If you’ve studied Spanish for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the infamous rolled “r.” So much has been written on this subject, I won’t belabor it here. There are other sounds, however, which give away our gringo-ness when mispronounced. Most of the fixes are comparatively easy, so let’s go through them one by one:
D: Before we examine this one, I want you to close your eyes and say the English word “day.” As you do so, notice where your tongue goes. If you’re a native speaker, it hits the roof of your mouth and makes a pretty hard sound. The Spanish D is never pronounced in that location but instead has two sounds, both of which involve your upper front teeth. When the sound comes at the beginning of an utterance or after a hard consonant like “l,” “m” or “n,”, it also sounds hard but the tongue strikes the very spot where the upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth. The words “dia,” “cuando,” and “falda” all contain this hard D. It sounds something like the TH is this or that.
Whenever the D falls between vowels, it softens up and sounds like the English “th” in the word bath, which is actually a little softer than the TH of this (say them both together-this, bath– and you’ll notice that there is, indeed, a difference). When you say the word “bath,” the tip of your tongue falls at the bottom of your upper teeth. If you say the Spanish word “dorado,” the first D is hard and like the TH of this, but the second D is soft as in bath and the tongue goes elsewhere to produce it. It usually just taps the bottom of the upper teeth or, in some dialects, doesn’t even reach the teeth (in Cuba, Puerto Rico and parts of Spain, “cansado” sounds like “cansao”). Most of the D sounds in Spanish are soft, since most D’s occur between vowels. In either instance, if you can stop thinking of D as D and start thinking of it as an English TH, you’ll be much closer to a correct pronunciation.
The thing is, the letter D is a “dental” consonant. This means, whether hard or soft, the tip of your tongue will be interacting with your upper teeth to produce it. The “blade” of your tongue, or that part just behind the tip, will rest against the roof of your mouth where the tip actually goes when speaking English. That said, we won’t dispense with the sound of our English D altogether… it turns out that our D is very close to the infamous Spanish R! I found this video from antaño (yesteryear) which I think explains it quite well. If you can get the D and the R sounds down, you’ve pretty much corrected the most egregious of errors which makes your accent sound, well, so English.
L: This is another tricky one for gringos because in English there are two L sounds, rather than one as in Spanish. The English word little contains both of these sounds. The Spanish version is the sound of the first L (in fact, Spanish speakers struggle to pronounce that second English L because there is no Spanish equivalent). The tip of your tongue will make contact on the roof of your mouth just behind the upper teeth. It’s a short, crisp sound which doesn’t get drug out as often happens in English. The L in the words “ala,” “ley,” “hola” and “comparable” are all pronounced in the same manner (and never like the English “-ul” as we say in our comparable… that “le” at the end of the word is actually pronounced “le”).
When the L meets D, the tongue goes to one place to produce both sounds, right where the upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth. Remember that I mentioned that the D becomes a hard sound after L? The words “caldo,” “celda,” and “falda” do not require you to move your tongue from one place to another to produce both letters. The sounds actually assimilate to one another, making life that much easier for us. This same phenomenon occurs with the T, which is also a dental consonant and which we’ll look at in a moment. First, however, here is one of the very few videos I could find on the topic of L.
P: Before we get to T, however, it makes sense to stop at P (primarily because P comes before T and I didn’t want to destroy the rhythm we’ve got going). I don’t have a lot to say here except that, as English speakers, we tend to emit a lot of air when we pronounce the P (perhaps this is how we expend what’s in our brains… sorry, I’m being a jackass). Hold your hand up in front of your mouth and say “papa.” Do you feel that puff of air? Now trying saying the same word, but without the air. That is the difference between the English P and the Spanish P.
I found this video about the P (in Spanish) to help you practice this sound aloud..
T: The Spanish T is a very close relative of the Spanish D in that it’s a dental consonant, generally produced with the tip of the tongue touching the point where the upper teeth and roof of the mouth meet. Some speakers, in fact, produce it by tapping their tongue against the back or even bottom of their upper front teeth. In all cases it is pronounced further forward in the mouth than its equivalent in English and, like the Spanish P, does not produce a puff of air when enunciated. If you put your hand in front of your mouth and say the English word “too,” you’ll notice two things: 1) you exhale air (and sometimes a little saliva) and 2) your tongue does not approach your front teeth. In Spanish you don’t exhale and your tongue does touch the front teeth.
Also, when T follows L, the two sounds become one, as in “alto” or “falta.”
Of course, if you use the English T instead of the Spanish T, you’ll be understood… but will remain an eternal gabacho (what Mexicans actually call “gringos). To avoid that, check out this video which reviews the D and offers some practice with the T.
V: This letter sounds exactly like the Spanish B which, spoiler alert, does not sound exactly like the English B. I grouped these two letters together simply because they’re identical in Spanish, a fact which trips up a lot of native speakers when it comes to writing (my Mexican friend, for instance, often wrote vaca as baca). Both letters are less forced and less aspirated than their English counterparts. The B is made in a similar way to English, but the lips do not completely close and, once more, there’s no puff of air. When it comes to the V, the upper teeth do not make contact with the lower lip as in English, but the lips come almost together and the sound passes through the opening. Linguists call these letters “voiced fricatives,” but all you really need to remember is that they are softer than in English.
You may be wondering, if the B and V sounds are identical, why do we have two letters to distinguish them? I don’t know the definitive answer but can say that, in other languages which descend from Latin, there remains a distinction between these two letters. It’s Spanish that somehow morphed them into a single sound but yet, for reasons lost in the distant past, kept both letters in its alphabet.
You won’t lose too many brownie points with natives if you mispronounce the B or V, but your Spanish will sound more fluid if you can remember to soften them up. This video is long but thorough and provides plenty of tips and practice to achieve this.
There are other sounds worth paying particular attention to, such as the Spanish N and the five vowels, but we can cover these another time. For now, I want to leave you with two outstanding resources which I’ve used over the years. The first is a website produced by the University of Iowa which digs deep into this topic and is aptly named “The Sounds of Speech.” There are graphics which show exactly where to put your tongue for each sound and videos demonstrating usage in Latin American and Castilian dialects. The second resource is forvo.com which contains spoken examples of nearly every word in the Spanish dictionary, provided by native speakers from almost every major dialect.
And, on another note, the pronunciation guidelines we reviewed in this post are generalizations only. The way people speak in Argentina differs markedly from way they speak in Mexico, just as Mexican Spanish is not the same as Caribbean or Castilian Spanish. Don’t be surprised if you find that not everyone follows the “rules,” – this, after all, is a common trait in the Spanish-speaking world and is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that we envy them.
¡Hasta la próxima!