Major Differences Between Spanish and English 2/5: The Sound of Spanish

This is part of a series going over major differences between English and Spanish:

  1. The Look of Spanish – Differences with the spelling, punctuation, and written markings of Spanish
  2. The Sound of Spanish – A brief overview on how Spanish pronunciation compares to English pronunciation
  3. The Words of Spanish – Things to know that are inherently different about Spanish words (like why there’s more than one way to say the word “the”)
  4. The Structure of Spanish – How word order is different in Spanish
  5. Addressing People in Spanish – A look at how Spanish makes a more precise distinction than English about addressing people formally, informally or as a group

In this article we’ll look at how pronunciation differs in Spanish and English.  Enjoy!! 🙂

The Sound of Spanish

While Spanish and English have differences in how they sound, the good news is that there are also many similarities to help native English speakers out! In this section I’ll briefly go over some of the most noticable ways that pronunciation is different between English and Spanish.

Vowels

This is a topic in your first week of studies, so I won’t go into detail on vowels here. The big thing to remember, though, is that there are less vowel sounds in Spanish than in English. English has both long and short vowel sounds, like the short a in ‘apple’ and the long a in ‘angry’. In Spanish, however, all of the vowel sounds are short! You’ll learn the Spanish vowels very soon.

Also, Spanish vowels are always pronounced the way they are written.   Especially those precise, clear vowels!  English on the other hand often has this mushy sound that has a really fancy name – it’s called the schwa and it’s in way more words that you would think.  This sound is an unstressed vowel sound pronounced a neutral ‘uh’ sound .  It’s in these words where the vowel is underlined: banana, problem, pencil, gallop, supply.  Notice how that ‘uh’ sound can appear in any English vowel!  This can trip you up when you’re learning Spanish because it’s hard to not bring that pattern over to when you are pronouncing the Spanish words.  Key thing to remember: In general, every Spanish vowel is pronounced.

Even better, since you don’t have to worry about that unstressed ‘uh’ sound showing up in Spanish in unpredictable ways, is that every vowel in Spanish makes just one sound.  In English, you can pronounce a long ‘a’ as in ‘ate’ and a short ‘a’ as in ‘father.’  Key thing to remember:  Vowels in Spanish are always short.  They sound like this:

The vowel...sounds like...as in...
a"ah"father
ethe first part of "ay"day
i"ee"feet
othe first part of "oh"old
u"oo"boot

Consonants

It’s helpful to remember three things when it comes to consonant sounds: (1) there are sounds in English that don’t exist in Spanish, (2) sounds in Spanish that don’t exist in English, and (3) even when the letters in each language sound very similar, most of the time they are not exactly the same.

As a beginning student, it may take awhile to eliminate some of the English sounds from your Spanish, and to correctly pronounce the Spanish sounds that don’t exist in English.  Just do your best approximation of the sounds until you are used to hearing and speaking Spanish, and your pronunciation will become more authentic will practice!  It may help to remember that English sounds are more complex than Spanish sounds.  Spanish is very predictable and once you learn the pronounciation rules, you’ll be able to pronounce anything you read quite accurately.  If as you continue learning Spanish you find you are struggling to pronounce words accurately, this would be an excellent section to review.

These consonant sounds exist in Spanish, but not in English:

  • the rolled ‘r’ — This sound is pronounced with the tongue vibrating against the roof of the mouth.
  • the  double ‘ll’ — This sound is between the English y as in yeah and j as in job. Depending on where the speaker is from, it may be pronounced closer to one sound than the other (for example, in Spain, the sound is more like a y, and Mexico, the sound is more like a j.)

These consonant sounds exist in English, but not in Spanish:

  • the ‘sh’ in ‘shirt’ — This sound also appears in the common suffix -tion as in the word construction.  In Spanish the word for construction is construcción.  Each c in this word makes a different sound.  The first c makes a k sound, and the second c makes an s sound.
  • the ‘dr’ in ‘drag’ — This sound is very similar to the j in jump and it does not exist in Spanish.
  • the ‘tr’ in ‘tree’ — A lot of words start with ‘tr’ in Spanish.  It’s common to mispronounce these words.  The t and the r are both individually pronounced in Spanish, but the t is a little closer to the tongue and the r is tapped here.  Words with the ‘tr’ in Spanish include tres (3), treinta (30), and trabajo (job/I work).
  • the ‘z’ in ‘zoo’ — The z is not voiced in Latin American Spanish and simply sounds like an s.  Note that this letter is pronounced differently in Spain (like a ‘th’).

Some letter sounds are similar in English and Spanish, but they are not exactly the same.

In the following table I’ll go over some letters that have pronunciation differences in Spanish and English:

LetterExplanation of differenceExample
gis pronounced like an "h" before an e, i (otherwise is pronounced like a hard 'gh' sound as in English)gimnasio
his always silenthola
jis pronounced like the English 'h'Jorge
qwhen followed by a u, makes a k sound (the u is the one example of a silent letter in Spanish)quesadilla
vin standard Spanish is indistiguishable from the "b"violín

There are a few other differences between letters that sound extremely similar.  For example, the “p” and the “t” at beginning of words in English are often aspirated.  What that means is that you let out a little puff of air as you say the word.  Try saying these English words out loud with your hand very close to your mouth:  Paper.  Pot.  Top.  Thomas.  Do you feel a puff of air?  That little puff of air doesn’t happen (or happens very minimally) in spoken Spanish.

And finally, one last thing difference between spoken Spanish and spoken English…

Speed

If it seems to you that spoken Spanish is faster than spoken English, it’s not all in your head.  In general, Spanish uses more words to express the same idea in the same amount of time as English does, so that causes the speech to be faster.  The good news for those of us who speak English as a first language and want to learn Spanish, however, is that the pronunciation patterns are very predictable, so with practice… you can get up to speed! 🙂

That’s it for now on an overview of pronunciation in English and Spanish differs.  Hopefully this info is helpful to you!

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