Pronunciation Problems For Spanish-Speaking Learners Of English
Although a strong Spanish accent is usually easier to understand than a similarly strong French or Portuguese one, the pronunciation can cause considerable strain for the listener and seem somewhat harsh and flat. More importantly, Spanish speakers often have listening comprehension far below their other skills.
School English lessons in most Spanish-speaking countries also tend to focus much more on reading and grammar than speaking and listening, and so pronunciation work will both help redress the balance and be considered worthwhile by students.
This article will focus mainly on pronunciation problems that cause miscomprehension, including some attempt to prioritise the entries in each section. The sections themselves are arranged more traditionally, starting with individual sounds.
Points That Spanish-Speaking Learners Of English Find Difficult
Short and long vowel pairs
Perhaps the single biggest pronunciation problem for Spanish speakers is that their language does not have a distinction between short and long vowels. They often stretch all vowel sounds out too much and confuse pairs of short and long English vowel sounds like “ship” and “sheep” both in comprehension and speaking. Relevant pairs include:
- not/note and not/nought
As the pairs above are all pronounced with different mouth positions as well as different lengths, focusing on that can help students distinguish between the minimal pairs above even if they don’t fully get the hang of vowel length.
In common with most learners, Spanish speakers find the distinction between the very similar sounds in “cat” and “cut” difficult to notice and produce. Perhaps more importantly, they can also have problems with the two closest sounds to an “o” sound in “not” mentioned above, making “boat” and “bought” difficult to distinguish. The unstressed schwa “er” sound in “computer” does not exist in Spanish, and neither do the closest long sounds in “fur” and “her”. Spanish speakers tend to find it much more difficult to recognise not rhotic versions of vowel sounds.
Words written with “b” and “v” are mostly pronounced identically, making this perhaps the most common spelling mistake in Spanish. There is also no distinction between the first sounds in “yacht” and “jot” in Spanish and which of those two sounds is perceived by English speakers tends to depend on the variety of Spanish spoken (this being one of the easiest ways of spotting an Argentinean accent, for example). There may also be some confusion between the first sound in “jeep” and its unvoiced equivalent in “cheap” (a common sound in Spanish).
The “ch” in “cheese” may also be confused with the “sh” in “she’s”, as the latter sound does not exist in Spanish. The difference is similar to that between “yacht” and “jot” mentioned above, being between a smooth sound (sh) and a more explosive one (ch), so the distinction can usefully be taught as a more general point. Alternatively, the “sh” in “sheep” may come out sounding more like “s” in “seep”, in which case it is mouth shape that needs to be worked on.
Spanish words never start with an “s” sound, and words which are similar to English tend to have an initial “es” sound instead, as in escuela/school. This is very common in Spanish speakers’ pronunciation of English as well, leading to pronunciations like “I am from Espain”. Spanish speakers have no problem producing a hissing sound, so the secret is to have them make the word directly after that “ssss” and then practise reducing the length of that down to a short initial “s”.
Unlike most languages, the “th” sounds in “thing” and “bathe” do exist in Spanish. The problem with “bathe” is that the sound is just a variation on mid or final “d” for Spanish speakers and so some work on understanding the distinction between initial “d” and initial “th” is usually needed before it can be understood and produced in an initial position – in fact making the amount of work needed not much less than for speakers of languages entirely without this sound. The problem with “thing” and “sing” is different as it is a distinction that exists in some varieties of Spanish and not others, meaning that again for some speakers practice will need to start basically from zero.
Some speakers also pronounce a final “d” similar to an unvoiced “th”. “d” and “t” can also be a problem at the end of words, as can “thing”/“think” and sometimes “thing”/“thin” or even “ring” and “rim”. In general, Spanish consonant sounds vary more by position than English consonants do.
Although a “w” sound exists in Spanish, it is spelt “gu” and can be pronounced “gw”, sometimes making it difficult to work out if a “g” or “w” is what is meant.
As a “z” is pronounced as “s” or “th” (depending on the speaker, as in the two pronunciations of “Barcelona”), a “z” sound does not exist in Spanish. However, perhaps because not so much air is produced in a Spanish “s” I find that this version rarely produces comprehension problems.
Although a Spanish “r” is different from most English ones, it rarely causes comprehension problems. However, the English “r” can seem so soft to Spanish speakers that it is sometimes perceived as “w”.
The Spanish “j” in José (similar to the Scottish “ch” in “loch”) and the English “h” in “hope” rarely if ever cause communication problems, but is perhaps the main thing to work on if students are interested in accent reduction. An English “h” is like breathing air onto your glasses so you can polish them, and students can actually practise doing that to help.
Spanish doesn’t have the soft, French-sounding sound from the middle of “television” and “pleasure”, but this rarely if ever causes comprehension problems.
Number of syllables
Particularly when it comes to final consonant clusters in English, Spanish-speakers can suffer both from adding extra syllables (e.g. three syllables for “advanced” with the final “e” pronounced) and swallowing sounds to make it match the desired number of syllables (e.g. “fifths” sounding like “fiss”). With words that are similar in Spanish and English, they can also often try to make the English word match the Spanish number of syllables.
Trying to make Latinate words in English match Spanish pronunciation is also true for word stress. There is also a more general problem that Spanish, unlike English, has a pretty regular system of word stress.
Spanish is sometimes described as a “syllable-timed” language, basically meaning that each syllable takes up about the same amount of time. This means that the English idea of unstressed syllables and weak forms being squashed in between stressed syllables doesn’t really exist in Spanish. This can make it difficult for Spanish speakers to pick out and point out the important words in a sentence.
Spanish speakers, especially males, can sound quite flat in English, and this can cause problems in formal situations and other times when polite language is needed (especially as Spanish speakers also have other problems with polite language such as over-use of the verb “give”).
The names and pronunciations of the letters of the alphabet in Spanish can cause confusions between these pairs in both listening and speaking, e.g.
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Marcelo Bernal says:
Please do not confuse more to Spanish speaking people. To the end, what matters most in dealing with people is effective communication. Pronunciation depends on numerous variables. When I was a student in a TESOL masters´ program, I was freed from this pronunciation issue, when I saw two native American classmates arguing over what the right pronunciation of picture is. The one stated that ¨picture¨ is pronounced as ¨pitcher¨ and the other one disagreed utterly. Two native Americans were arguing over the pronunciation of a simple word. Picture yourself.
Let´s go beyond these artificialities and communicate one another without pointing on mispronouncing issues. Americans, African Americans, Italian-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Argentineans, Cubans, Irish, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, Londoners, Liverpoolers (?), Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese and so on do not have the best pronunciation because every brain is different. We must do all the best to communicate with each other peacefully and gracefully. That matters to me! The long e, the short e, the schwa, the alveolar r, the th sound, v vs. b, sh vs. ch sounds is simply a distraction that affects communication.
How did this person manage to be a speaker in a tedtalk? I assume the TedTalk team and Jon Jandai did not worry much about pronunciation. They simply focused on communicating ideas, opinions, and wisdom to other people.
Arnold Kapleau says:
You state: “Spanish words never start with an “s” sound, and words which are similar to English tend to have an initial “es” sound instead, as in escuela/school.”
This is not totally accurate. There are many Spanish words that start with S, such as sombrero, solo, salir, etc. I think what you meant to say is that there are no Spanish words that start with S followed by a consonant, such as school, sport, smart, stop. These tend to be pronounced by hispanoparlantes as eschool, esport, esmart, estop.
Jack McDougall says:
Interesting article, but as a native Spanish speaker I disagree with some points. For example:
“Although a “w” sound exists in Spanish, it is spelt “gu” and can be pronounced “gw”, sometimes making it difficult to work out if a “g” or “w” is what is meant.”
The w sound doesn’t exist really in Spanish, the letter exists in the alphabet but all words are not really Spanish, and it is pronounced just the same as in English.
The sound of the letter ‘g’ is the same as in English in the word ‘gun’ when before a and o. And the same as an English ‘h’ before e and i. The ‘u’ after ‘g’ is muted if it’s followed by e or i, and sounds like g in ‘gun’.
This website is very helpful. Could you please provide some examples the pairs of letters that cause confusion for Spanish speakers learning to speak English? (under the heading “Alphabet.”) Thank you!