Idiot’s guide to Spanish pronunciation

Quickly learn the most essential parts of Spanish pronunciation.

pronounce spanish pronunciation

¡Hola idiotas!  Here’s your guide to Spanish pronunciation. No, seriously, welcome to Hablarama’s whistle-stop tour of Spanish pronunciation.

In just a single internet page we’ll cover all those strange sounds you’ll need to master if you want people to understand you when you speak Spanish.

We look at everything from that gravelly ‘RRRRR‘ noise to the ‘V’/’B’ conundrum, and the role of accentuation.

We also touch on the variations in pronunciation between different Spanish-speaking countries.

We’ve got loads of audio files to listen to as well. Ready? Let’s go…

Rhythm’s going to get you.

spanish pronunciation
Spanish pronunciation has a lot in common with this little fella.

English pronunciation generally consists of a string of alternating long and short sounds which are strung together in a fairly melodic fashion. Spanish is not like this.  Spanish words and phrases are made up of loads of short, blunt syllables which the average Spanish speaker shoots out like a loose machine gun.  This can be very disconcerting at first, and takes a little getting used to. Just listen to this sample phrase:

  • ¿Ustedes buscan información sobre nuestras habitaciones?
    Are you looking for information about our rooms?

Let’s listen to that last word on its own, at a very slow pace:

  • habitaciones

Is that 5 or 6 syllables? For a single word. Crazy or what?? Here’s another example:

  • ¿Me puede enseñar su pasaporte?
    Could you show me your passport?

Count those syllables!:

  • pasaporte

Accents

While accents in Spanish might make texting/chatting on your mobile phone so much slower, they do have a useful function: They show you where the accentuation (the stress) falls in each word.

Only on the vowels

Just to make things clear, you’ll only every see accents over vowels.

What about the ñ?

That pesky ‘ñ’ isn’t strictly a plain old ‘n’ with an accent, but a whole separate letter. But more of that later.

Some examples of accented Spanish words

Look at where the accents are on these words and listen closely to the pronunciation.

  • fotografía – Photography
  • fotógrafo – Photographer

Notice the difference? Here’s an example of two words which are spelt exactly the same except for the accents:

  • Yo hablo con mis padres cada día.
    I speak with my parents every day.
  • Ayer mi hermana habló con mis padres.
    Yesterday my sister spoke with my parents.

Two rules to remember:

  1. The accent indicates which syllable of a word should be stressed, i.e: The strongest sound in the word.
  2. Accents always go over vowels. You can’t use them with consonants.

Check out our series of classes on basic Spanish phrases to listen to more native speakers. There are also videos in the articles on giving personal information and forming basic Spanish questions.

GRRRRRRR….

perro pronunciation
Make sure you say PERRO not PERO

Famous for being one of the most difficult elements of Spanish pronunciation, the RR will cause problems to most native English speakers, except, maybe, anyone from Glasgow. Think of the sound your pitbull made the last time he attacked your granny. Here are a couple of examples (of the RR, not the pitbull), with a neutral Spanish accent:

  • perro – dog
  • aburrido – bored
  • burro – donkey
  • Correr – run

Altogether now…

  • Un perro aburrido corre detrás de un burro.
    A bored dog runs after a donkey.

Top tip: You have to get your tongue in the right position BEFORE you start to say the letter.

Here are a couple of examples which show the contrast between the single and double R:

  • Perro – dog
  • Pero – but

A phrase for all us who are fed up with felines:

  • Amo a los perros, pero odio a los gatos.
    I love dogs, but I hate cats.

Another example? Sure!:

  • Ahorra – save
  • Ahora – now

And some phrases:

  • Él ahorra mucho dinero. – He saves a lot of money.
  • Ahora te entiendo. – Now I understand you.

And here’s a random video which should serve as a warning on the importance of pronouncing words correctly:

A ‘V’ that thinks it’s a ‘B’

Check this out:

  • votar – vote
  • botar – bounce

Yep, in Spanish the ‘V’ has the same sound as the ‘B’. This can take a little getting used to, though getting it wrong is unlikely to cause any major misunderstanding. The locals will just have a quiet chuckle to themselves at your expense. Listen to how the following names are pronounced in Spanish:

  • David
  • Valeria
  • Victor

LL

English doesn’t make any distinction between the single and double ‘L’. However, in Spanish that’s not the case.  In most of the Spanish-speaking world the ‘LL’ has the same sound as the ‘Y’ not the ‘L’. Why, why, why?

  • valla – fence
  • medalla – medal

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there as those lovely Italian-descended Argentinians and Uruguayans like to be different.

  • valla – fence
  • medalla – medal

Notice the difference?  Wherever you go in Argentina or Uruguay you’ll hear this form, which is unique to just these two countries (thankfully!)

The vowels

The vowel sounds in Spanish can be quite confusing. They’re like a mixed up version of the English vowels:

  • A E I O U

The good news is that Spanish is very consistent with regards to pronunciation. Once you know how to pronounce the vowels you’ll be able to guess the pronunciation of any new word you see which contains them.

The I of the beholder

Listen to how the Spanish pronounce this brand name:

  • Microsoft

That’s the same pronunciation of the ‘i’ that you’ll find in most other Spanish words:

  • Italiano – Italian
  • Intentar – to try (to do something)
  • Impertinente – impertinent
  • Gracias – Thank you

Easy Ace

The ‘E’ in Spanish sounds like a sharp ‘A’ in English

  • Te lo dijeI told you
  • Me gustas – I like you

As you’ll have noticed from the other example phrases in this class, thankfully the Spanish ‘A’ usually sounds like an English ‘A’:

  • Te gusta el arte – you like art

IKEA

To remember the difference between the I and the E we obviously need…a trendy Swedish furniture shop. Listen to the Spanish pronunciation of Sweden’s favourite export:

  • IKEA

See what they did there?

Zorro

In Spain, the ‘Z’ is usually pronounced like the English ‘th’.  However, this is not the case in Latin America, where it sounds like an English ‘Z’.

Compare the Spanish version:

  • Vimos un zorro anoche
    We saw a fox last night.
  • ¿Quedamos en la plaza mañana?
    Shall we meet in the plaza tomorrow?

And the Latin American version:

  • Vimos un zorro anoche
  • ¿Quedamos en la plaza mañana?

We can notice the difference in the alphabet too:

In the alphabet (Spain):

  • Z

In the alphabet (Latin America):

  • Z

Ñ is not N + accent

And finally a word about Ñ, which is actually a separate letter in the Spanish alphabet.

The ÑBA

Though football is undoubtedly the king of sports in Spain, basketball also has a strong following and many Spanish players (such as the Gasol brothers) have gone on to have very successful careers in the NBA.  The Spanish sporting press collectively refers to these US-based players as the ÑBA.

  • ÑBA

See what they did there? Let’s listen to a few more common words which contain the Ñ:

  • baño – bathroom
  • guiñar – to wink
  • Cataluña – Catalonia*

*A rebellious region in the north east of Spain.

  • Barcelona es la capital de Cataluña.
    Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia.
  • ¿Dónde están los baños?
    Where are the bathrooms?

Be careful not to use a normal ‘n’ instead of the ‘ñ’:

  • año – year
  • ano – anus

A phrase:

  • Mi hija tiene 3 años.
    My daughter is 3 years old.

You can imagine what this would mean if you mistakenly pronounced the ‘ñ‘ as an ‘n‘.

As we mentioned earlier, Ñ counts as a whole separate letter.  Look, it even gets its own key on Spanish keyboards:

 

Are we done yet?

Don’t be like that. Yes, we are. However, we’ve a whole load more free Spanish classes and free Spanish courses for beginners right here at Hablarama.com. Did I mention that they were free?

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About chris bartlett 20 Articles

Chris is the founder of Hablarama and its sister site, Linguabanca.com