How to Improve Your Spanish Accent: A Spanish Pronunciation Guide for Native English Speakers
Would you like to lose your Spanish accent and be mistaken for a native Spanish speaker?
That’s the “holy grail” of language learning, after all.
Yet people can spend decades living in a foreign country and speaking the local language without ever completely losing the twang of their native tongue.
Clearly, a convincing accent isn't something that just comes automatically once you've spent enough time speaking – it has to be worked on deliberately.
Some people think that it's impossible to speak a language like a native if you start too late in life. This clearly isn’t true, and if you don’t believe me, look at Netflix. Many actors manage to learn a second language (or at least recite foreign lines from a script) with an impeccable accent because their jobs require them to. And I’ve met many people who fooled me with an excellent English accent despite not being a native speaker. It’s difficult, but it's not impossible.
I don’t claim to speak Spanish perfectly, but in this article I'm going to explore some of the most common mistakes we English speakers make. The full intricacies of a native-like Spanish accent are beyond the scope of one article (and of course they depend on exactly which dialect of Spanish you want to learn), but there are a few key points which English speakers typically get wrong and which cause 90% of our pronunciation errors. Focus on these tips if you want to sound less like a gringo or guiri.
(And by the way, if you're a Spanish speaker who wants to speak English more convincingly, the points below should help you too. Just think of this as a list of what not to do instead of what to do. The mistakes that gringos make in Spanish are the same non-mistakes you should be making in English.)
Spanish Pronunciation Tip 1: Roll (or Tap) Your R’s
Everyone knows about the ‘rolled R' sound, but not everyone knows how to create it. It can be tricky, and it takes practice, but if you want to sound even remotely convincing as a Spanish speaker, you absolutely MUST learn how to pronounce this letter. There's no way around it.
If you don’t understand how to roll your R and worry you might never be able, I feel your pain. When I had Spanish lessons as a teenager, I had no idea how to produce this sound. My teacher’s explanations were useless, and eventually I gave up trying. When I started learning Spanish again, years later, I had to practice every day for weeks before I finally managed to wrap my mouth around the rolled R sounds. Believe me when I say that it’s possible to learn!
Benny has written about the rolled R before, and I won't repeat him too much here, except to note a few key points:
First, there are actually two different but similar ‘R' sounds in Spanish.
The first, and easiest, is the ‘tapped' sound that's written with a single ‘r', and is pronounced somewhat similarly to how an American would pronounce the ‘tt' in ‘butter'.
The second, written with a double ‘rr' (or a single ‘r' if it's at the beginning of a word, like rojo), is the trilled sound that typically comes to mind when we thinking of ‘rolling' an ‘R' sound. The difference between these two sounds is the difference between the words pero (but) and perro (dog).
The good news is that the tapped R, which most people find easier to pronounce, is much more common than the trilled version.
Second, and more importantly, you have to understand that the Spanish R, whether trilled or tapped, is absolutely nothing like the English R sound. It may be written with the same symbol, but that’s where the similarity ends. When learning to tap or trill your R’s, forget everything you know about the sound in English that uses the same letter. There's basically no relation between them.
The English ‘R' sound (technically the ‘postalveolar approximant') doesn't exist at all in Spanish, so you need to make sure you never make it. In fact this sound is not just foreign to Spanish, but very distinctively English, and a dead giveaway that you're from an English-speaking country.
In fact, as your accent improves you might find that people can tell that you're not a native, but can't tell where you're from. This will NEVER happen if you pronounce your R's the English way!
Spanish Pronunciation Tip 2: Don't Diphthongise your O and E
Many Spanish pronunciation guides make this mistake: they tell you that the Spanish ‘o' is pronounced like the vowel in the English words ‘go' or ‘toe', and the Spanish ‘e' is pronounced like the vowel in the English ‘way' or ‘say'.
Yuck! This is terrible advice. O and E aren't pronounced like this! It's just that these are the closest English sounds to the correct Spanish ones – but you'd better not pronounce them in the English way, or you might as well be walking around with a giant sign that says hablante de inglés stapled to your chest.
To illustrate the difference, say the English ‘o' and ‘ay' sounds (as in in ‘go' and ‘way') out loud, slowly. You'll notice that your tongue and lips actually move throughout the course of each vowel. That's because both of these sounds are actually ‘diphthongs', which means “two vowel sounds said quickly one after the other”.
If they were single vowels (“monophthongs”), you'd be able to continue making the unchanged sound for as long as you like (until you run out of breath) without moving your tongue or lips at all. Examples of monophthongs in English would be the ‘ee' in ‘bee' or the ‘a' in ‘bat'.
You may have guessed where I'm heading with this: the Spanish O and E are simple monophthongs, meaning that your tongue and lips mustn't move at all when you say them. (Spanish diphthongs are always written explicitly with two vowels, such as in león or puerto.) The problem, once again, is that our habits as English speakers get in the way, and we tend to replace the simple Spanish ‘o' and ‘e' with the doubled-up ‘oh' and ‘ay' sounds of English. The ‘ay' sound, in fact, is actually closer to the Spanish ‘ei/ey' as in ley or leído than it is to the single Spanish ‘e'.
As an aside, this is a great example of just how crazy English spelling can be. The English ‘oh' and ‘ay' sounds can be written a ridiculous number of ways: go, toe, though, sew, tow, beau, day, paid, neigh, buffet, alien, prey, brae, and I'm probably missing a few. It's tough enough for native speakers; I'm sorry for foreigners who have to learn all of this the hard way.
Spanish Pronunciation Tip 3: ‘Soften' your T’s and D’s
Another common pointer you’ll read in a guide to Spanish pronunciation is that the T and D sounds are ‘softer' or ‘lighter' than their English equivalents. That's great, but what does this actually mean?
It's pretty simple actually. First, say ‘T' and ‘D' out loud in your regular English way, and notice that for both sounds, your tongue touches your upper gums just behind the teeth. The Spanish ‘T' and ‘D' are pronounced with a subtle difference: your tongue should be slightly further forward in your mouth, touching or almost touching your upper teeth.
Can't hear the difference? I assure you, a native Spanish speaker can, much like you can hear the difference between ‘bit' and ‘beat' but a Spanish (or Italian, or French, or Portuguese) person might not be able to. And as your Spanish improves you'll start hearing the difference more clearly.
Of all the common mistakes in this article, this one is probably the easiest to correct. And also note that, if you pronounce your T’s or D’s the English way, it makes it almost impossible to pronounce the combined ‘tr' or ‘dr' sounds as in padre, trago, quadro… so you have an extra incentive to get this one right.
Also note that many Spanish dialects tend to ‘soften' their D’s so much that they get dropped altogether when they're between two vowels, so a word like encontrado would actually be pronounced ”encontrao”. This is very common in the south of Spain, for instance.
Spanish Pronunciation Tip 4: Shift Your Emphasis from Consonants to Vowels
How do you say “Canada”? It has three ‘a's in it – shouldn't they all be the same? Not quite: any native English speaker would say ‘CAH-nuh-duh', only bothering to fully articulate the ‘A' in the first, emphasised syllable. For the remaining two ‘A's, we relax our mouths and just grunt out a neutral ‘uh' sound, technically known as schwa.
This has nothing to do with dialect or formality; it's just the lazy way we do vowels in English. Not even the Queen of England would say ‘CAH-nah-dah'. But the King of Spain would.
While Spanish words still have stressed and unstressed syllables – and it's important you get the stress right – you need to pay a lot more attention to the individual vowels than you would in English. An A is an A, an E is an E, etc., and you've got to pronounce them properly every time they're written. Cánada, not Cah-nuh-duh. Barcelona, not Barcelon-uh. This is a very common tendency of English speakers, and it's totally wrong in Spanish.
More generally, in English we tend to place more emphasis on the consonant sounds in a word than we do on the vowels. Take the word ‘considerable', which translates in Spanish to… considerable, although (as I hope you've figured out by now) it's not pronounced the same. In English when we say this word we're happy to mash the syllables together with no emphasis on the vowels: “kun-SID-ruh-bull'. Sometimes we even miss out syllables altogether, like in the word “probably”, which is often pronounced as “probly” or just “prolly”.
In a sense Spanish is the inverse of English, in that if you want to sound natural you need to place less emphasis on the consonants and more on the vowels. Considerable is pronounced something like ‘kon-seed-eh-RAH-bleh', and each syllable needs to be articulated clearly, especially the vowel sound. If you want to talk in a relaxed, colloquial manner, the consonants get dropped before the vowels do – you need to make sure that each individual vowel sound (considerable) shines through.
It takes some getting used to, but if you can't figure it out, just spend more time listening to native speakers and paying attention to which sounds they do and don't emphasise.
The above is by no means a complete guide to perfect Spanish pronunciation, but it's a start. The above four points are by far the most common issues for English speakers, and are very much worth focusing on as you strive to improve your accent.
And the inevitable side effect of learning the pronunciation lessons here is that when you hear other native English speakers trying to speak Spanish, you'll realise that most of them make all of the above mistakes all the time, and their accents will make you cringe! Maybe you could send them a link to this article?