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- 1 Types of Sounds
- 2 Vowels
- 3 Consonants
- 4 Tonic accent
- 5 Intonation
Types of Sounds
Each Spanish word is made up of a sequence of vowels and consonants (also called "phonemes") grouped into one or more syllables. In words that have two or more syllables, one of the syllables is stressed (or accented), and all other syllables are unstressed (or unaccented). Changing one of the sounds in a word to a different sound or moving the stress (or accent) to a different syllable either produces a different word with a different meaning or produces a nonsense word.
Individual words are joined into meaningful phrases and sentences by using intonation to signal where phrases begin and end, signal whether a sentence is a statement, a question or an exclamation, signal contrast or emphasis, and so on.
In the rest of this article, spelling and letters will be written inside quotes "", while sounds, or phonemes, will be written inside slashes //. For example, the sound /a/ is written as "a". (Using slashes // this way is a convention for marking sounds that many linguists use when they write about pronunciation).
|/a/||a||ah like the a in father|
|/e/||e||eh like the first e in ever|
|/i/||i, y||ee like the double ee in green|
|/o/||o||oh like the o in "okay" (for American/Canadian English) or the first o in October (for British/Australian English)|
|/u/||u||oo like the double oo in boo|
Diphthongs and Triphthongs
Diphthongs are a sequence of 2 different vowels that are pronounced as a unit to make the center of a syllable. The vowels /i/ and /u/ can form diphthongs with all of the other vowels, but the vowels /a/, /e/ and /o/ can form diphthongs only with /i/ or /u/.
The diphthongs that start with /a/, /e/ or /o/ and end with /i/ or /u/ are:
|/ay/||ai, ahi, ay||Like the English name of the letter "i"||hay, dais|
|/ey/||ei, ehi, ey||Like the English name of the letter "a", or the word "eh"||rey, reina|
|/oi/||oi, ohi, oy||Rhymes with the English word "toy"||soy, sois, prohibir|
|/aw/||au, ahu, (ao)||Like the English word "ow" in most varieties of English||causa, chao|
|/ew/||eu, ehu||No English equivalent||deuda|
|/ow/||ou, ohu||Like the English word "owe"||ROU (an acronym)|
The other diphthongs all start with either /i/ or /u/, and often those vowels are pronounced like the related semivowels (or semiconsonants) /y/ and /w/, especially at the beginning of a word or after vowels. These diphthongs are:
|/ia/ or /ya/||ia, hia, ya||Like the beginning of the English word "yacht"||ya, hiato, variar|
|/ie/ or /ye/||ie, hie, ye||Like the beginning of the English word "yet"||bien, hierba, yema|
|/io/ or /yo/||io, hio, yo||Like the first syllable of "yoga"||biología, yo, hioides|
|/iw/ or /yu/||iu, yu||Like the English word "you"||viuda, yuca|
|/ua/ or /wa/||ua, hua||Like the beginning of the English name "Watt"||cual, huaso|
|/ue/ or /we/||ue, üe (after g), hue||Like the English word "weigh" with no off glide to ee||bueno, hueco, lengüeta|
|/uo/ or /wo/||uo, huo||Like the beginning of the English word "woke"||cuota|
|/uy/ or /wi/||ui, üi (after g), hui||Like the English word "we"||suiza, huir, lingüista|
Triphthongs are sequences of 3 vowels. In Spanish all triphthongs must start with either /i/ or /u/ and end with either /i/ or /u/, and must have one of the vowels /a/, /e/ or /o/ in the middle. The most common triphthongs by far are those that appear in second-person plural familiar verb endings "ais" and "eis" when the verb stem ends with either /u/ or /i/, but the others do exist in a few words. The possible triphthongs include:
|/iai/ or /yay/||iai, iay||Like "yah, aye" run together||variáis|
|/iei/ or /yey/||iei, iey||Like the English word "yay"||variéis|
|/ioi/ or /yoy/||ioi, ioy, hioi||Like "yo, oy" run together||hioides|
|/uai/ or /way/||uai, uay||Like the English place name "Wye"||averiguais, Uruguay|
|/uei/ or /wey/||uei, üei, uey, üey||Like the Enlish word "weigh", with a strong off glide to "ee"||averigüéis, buey|
|/uau/ or /waw/||uau||Like the English word "wow"||guau|
Other triphthongs are possible, but they are extremely rare.
Consonant sounds are not as universal in nature as are the vowel sounds. Some consonants vary by virtue of the country, region, or area where Spanish is spoken. For example in certain countries the double ll is pronounced as a y as in the word yesterday. ¿Cómo se llama? sounds like Kohmoh seh yama in Mexico and Central America. But in Argentina and Uruguay it would sound like Kohmoh seh zhama (the zh being the sound of z in the word azure.)
Furthermore, while some consonants are pronounced the same way in practically any context, other consonants have different pronunciations that are used in different contexts; using the wrong pronunciation for a particular context may sound very strange to a native speaker or cause a native speaker to not understand what you are trying to say.
The descriptions we give here are generally viewed as being relatively neutral and common, and they are easily understood by most native speakers.
Spanish also allows some consonant clusters at the beginning of a syllable, and a few pairs of consonants may form a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable.
The consonant sounds of Spanish are:
|/p/||p||Like the "p" in "spin", but not the "p" in "pin"||pero, súper|
|/b/||b, v||After a pause or after /m/, like English "b".|
Everywhere else like English "v", but with lips touching
|/t/||t||Like the "t" in "stop", but not the "t" in "top"||tengo, siete|
|/d/||d||After a pause or after /n/ or /l/, like English "d".|
Everywhere else like English "th" in "then".
|/k/||c (before a, o, u)|
qu (before e, i)
|Like the "k" in "skit", but not the "k" in "kit"||casa, cosa,|
|/g/||g (before a, o, u, üe, üi)|
gu (before e, i)
|After a pause or after /n/, like the "g" in "gate".|
Everywhere else it is much weaker, almost like gargling
|/f/||f||Like "f" in "from".||falso, difícil|
|/th/||c (before e, i)|
|Like "th" in "thing".|
Used only in parts of Spain.
Like /s/ elsewhere. See Note 1.
cero, cinco, zinc,
c (before e, i)
|Like "s" in "sin".|
When spelled "s", sometimes like "s" in "raised",
but only before voiced consonants.
See Note 1.
|/ch/||ch||Like the "ch" in "child"||muchacho|
g (before e, i)
|Like "h" in "hill", or "ch" in|
German pronunciation of "Bach"
n before b, p, v, f
|Before vowels, like English "m".|
Before consonants, even across word boundaries,
see Note 2.
con pollo, enfermo
m at end of word
|Before vowels, like "n" in "none".|
Before consonants, even across word boundaries,
see Note 2.
|/ny/||ñ||Touch the middle of the tongue against the roof|
of the mouth. "ny" in "canyon" sounds similar.
|/r/||r||The tip of the tongue flaps once against|
the roof of the mouth, like "dd" in "ladder".
Occurs between vowels, after some consonants,
and at the end of syllables.
Never occurs at the start of a word
r as first letter
|Multiple-flap trill. Occurs at the start of words|
and between vowels.
|/l/||l||Like "l" in "legal", not like in "fall".|
(The tongue doesn't curl up as in English.)
|/(l)y/||ll||Touch the middle of the tongue to the roof|
of the mouth. "lli" in "million" sounds similar.
Used only in a few regions. See /y/ and Note 3.
|/y/||y, i, hi, (ll)||Varies between "y" in "yellow" and "j" in "Joe". See Note 3.||yo, hielo,|
ü in güe, güi
|Like "w" in "wow".||guapo, lingüista,|
Note 1. The sounds /th/ and /s/ are distinguished in northern, central, and eastern Spain. In southwestern Spain and all of Hispanic America these sounds have merged, and all instances of /th/ are replaced with /s/. In some regions , when /s/ ends a syllable and it is spelled with "s", in casual speech many speakers either pronounce it as /h/ (an aspiration) or omit it altogether. (The spelling "z" at the end of a syllable always sounds like "s" as in "sin".)
Note 2. When the sounds /m/ and /n/ occur before another consonant, even across word boundaries, they always assimilate to the point of contact for the next consonant: with the lips (like "m") before /b/ and /p/, with the lower lip and upper teeth (similar to "m") before /f/, with the tip of the tongue touching the back of the upper teeth before /t/, /d/, /s/ and /th/, with the tip of the tongue behind the upper teeth before /l/ and /r/, like ñ before /ch/, /y/ and /(l)y/, and with the back of the tongue before /h/, /k/, /g/ and /w/.
Note 3. The sounds /(l)y/ and /y/ are distinguished in northern and eastern Spain and in a few small regions in Hispanic America. In all other areas these sounds have merged, and all instances of /(l)y/ are replaced with /y/.
All of these consonants can start a syllable. With very few exeptions the only consonants that end a syllable are: /s/, /th/, /m/, /n/, /l/ and /r/. (The few exeptions include /f/, /p/, /b/, /g/ and /k/, but it is not uncommon for some speakers to omit these sounds or to change them to another sound.)
Spanish has 2 groups of consonant clusters. One group of consonant clusters can start a syllable, and the other group of consonant clusters can end a syllable.
Consonant Clusters That Can Start a Syllable
Consonant clusters that can start a syllable have a sequence of 2 different consonants. All of these clusters end with one of the consonants /l/ or /r/.
The clusters that end with /l/ are:
The clusters that end with /r/ are:
Consonsant Clusters That Can End a Syllable
The only consonant clusters that can end a syllable are /bs/, /ns/ and /ks/. Some speakers may simplify them to only /s/.
Pronouncing the letter 'X'
The letter 'X' can be pronounced several different ways in Spanish. While there are some guidelines to determine which pronunciation is usually used for a given word, sometimes you just have to ask a native speaker what the correct pronunciation is.
- Between vowels
- In most words 'x' is pronounced as /ks/, /gz/ or /s/. Often the same speaker will use more than one of these pronunciations more or less at random.
- In some Mexican place names 'x' is pronounced as /j/. Often these place names will be spelled using 'j' instead of 'x' in countries other than Mexico, although they usually will be spelled with 'x' in Mexico. For example, México/Méjico, Texas/Tejas, and Oaxaca/Oajaca.
- Before another consonant letter the letter 'x' is most frequently pronounced as if it were the letter /s/.
- Between vowels
Tonic accent (acento tónico in Spanish) is the name used for the stronger stress on the accented syllable of a word that has two or more syllables. Some pairs of words differ only in the position of the tonic accent in the word. One commonly-used example is this set of three words
- continuo (3 syllables, /con-TI-nwo/, an adjective meaning continuous),
- continúo (4 syllables, /con-ti-NU-o/, first-person singular present indicative tense of the verb continuar meaning I continue, I am continuing or I will continue),
- continuó (3 syllables, /con-ti-NWO/, third-person singular simple preterite tense of continuar meaning he/she/it continued or you (polite) continued).
Words that end in a vowel letter or that end in the letters n or s usually have their tonic accent on the next-to-last syllable: for example carne /KAR-ne/, hablas /HA-blas/, comen /KO-men/. All words that end in a vowel or in the letters n or s whose tonic accent is not on the next-to-last syllable bear a written accent placed above the letter of the central vowel of the syllable that has the tonic accent: rápido /RRA-pi-do/, según /se-GUN/, revés /rre-VES/, jóvenes /HO-ben-es/.
Words that end in any consonant letter except the letters n or s usually have their tonic accent on the last syllable: for example, español /es-pa-NYOL/, vivir /bi-BIR/, verdad /ber-DAD/, Uruguay /u-ru-GWAY/. All words that end in a consonant letter other than n or s whose tonic accent is not on the last syllable bear a written accent placed above the letter of the central vowel of the syllable that has the tonic accent: carácter /ka-RAK-ter/, árbol /AR-bol/.
Words whose tonic accent is earlier than the next-to-last syllable always bear a written accent placed above the letter of the central vowel of the syllable that has the tonic accent: régimen /RRE-hi-men/, rápido /RRA-pi-do/, dámelo /DA-me-lo/.
If the tonic accent of a word falls on one of the vowel letters i or u, and that letter stands next to one of the vowel letters a, e or o, or separated from an a, e or o by a single letter h, then the i or u must bear a written accent in order to indicate that there is no diphthong: país /pa-IS/, baúl /ba-UL/, prohíbo /pro-I-bo/.
Syllabication is the set of rules for dividing a word into it syllables.
Assigning consonant letters to syllables obeys these rules:
- A single consonant between vowels always starts a new syllable: Ana -> A-na, dedo -> de-do.
- Sequences of two consonants between vowels depend on whether they form a valid consonant cluster.
- If the two consonants are one of the consonant clusters that can start a syllable, both consonants belong to the second syllable: habla -> ha-bla, vidrio -> vi-drio, correr -> co-rrer.
- If the two consonants are not one of the consonant clusters that can start a syllable, then the first consonant ends the first syllable and the second consonant starts the second syllable: estar -> es-tar, canción -> can-ción, acción -> ac-ción.
- Sequences of 3 consonants always contain at least one valid consonant cluster.
- If the last two consonants are one of the consonant clusters that can start a syllable, then the first consonant ends the first syllable, and the second and third consonants start the second syllable: contrato -> con-tra-to.
- Otherwise the second consonant must be s, and the first and second consonants end the first syllable and the third consonant starts the second syllable: constante -> cons-tan-te.
- Sequences of 4 consonants always divide with the first two ending the first syllable and the last two starting the second syllable. The second consonant is always s, and the last two consonants are always one of the valid consonant clusters that can start a syllable: obstruír -> obs-tru-ír.
Assigning vowel letters to syllables obeys these rules:
- Sequences of a, e and o always divide into separate syllables, one for each vowel: saeta -> sa-e-ta.
- Sequences of two vowels that include at least one instance of i or u that does not have the tonic accent always form a diphthong and always count as one syllable: coméis -> co-méis, bueno -> bue-no, bien -> bien, duerme -> duer-me, seria -> se-ria.
- However, any instance of i or u that has the tonic accent in a word does not form a diphthong with a neighboring a, e or o, and it counts as a separate syllable: continúo -> con-ti-nú-o, país -> pa-ís, oír -> o-ír, oí -> o-í, sonreír -> son-re-ír, sonrío -> son-rí-o, sería -> se-rí-a.
Intonation is the set of patterns for varying the the volume (loudness), pitch (high or low), and other qualities of a sound (breathiness, creakiness) used by speakers to signal the boundaries of phrases, clauses and sentences, distinguish statements, questions and exclamations, show emphasis or contrast, and show some emotional attitudes or judgements.
For this guide we focus on using intonation to signal the end of a phrase or clause inside a sentence, the end of a statement, or the end of a question.
- maintaining a level pitch at the end of a phrase or clause signals that the sentence continues with another phrase or clause.
- dropping the pitch starting with the last stressed syllable through to the end of the sentence signals a statement or an information question.
- raising the pitch on the last stressed syllable through to the end of the sentence signals a yes/no question.