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Perhaps you’re looking to learn Spanish so that you can do some traveling, or maybe you just want to impress your new good-looking Spanish co-worker (don’t worry—we won’t tell anyone).
Whatever the reason is, you’ve come to the right place.
Even if you’ve been binge-watching Narcos and imitating all of the Spanish that you hear, it’s quite possible that to a native speaker you still sound like a gringo.
For those of you who were thinking “gringo” is a character off of Sesame Street, it is actually a term used in Spanish-speaking countries to describe English-speaking foreigners. Mainly North Americans. But don’t worry! If you follow this simple guide, we will help you shed the gringo name.
Spanish is a fairly easy language, considering that most Spanish words are pronounced exactly the way that they are spelled. It’s not like English where we have some of the most absurd pronunciations. I mean, who decided that pony and bologna should rhyme?!
That being said, there are some tips and tricks to have you sounding like a local in no time. So sit back, grab a cerveza (pronounced ser-bay-tha) and let us be your guide. We will be like Gandalf, and Spanish pronunciation will be your Middle Earth.
Something about the Spanish language that is much more important than I realized when I started learning, is which syllable you stress. I remember getting into a cab in Spain and getting nervous when the cabbie didn’t have a clue which street I was telling him to go to.
When I showed him the street name on my phone, I watched the light bulb go off above his head. He was quick to correct me and say that I had stressed the wrong syllable— and that small mistake had prevented him from understanding me at all.
But don’t stress about the stress! (I’m sorry, I had to. It was just so easy.) There are some simple rules that you can memorize so that you always know which syllable you need to stress. So print this out, laminate it, bring it into the shower with you. Whatever you need to do to make sure that this is ingrained into your mind. We don’t judge here.
Some general rules to follow:
Por ejemplo (for example):
Por ejemplo: Comer (to eat) is pronounced Koh-mehr
Por ejemplo: Próximo (next) is pronounced Prohk-see-moh.
See, that was easy. Feeling a little less stressed now? Yes, as calm as a hippy in a commune. Now before you start growing out your hair and exclusively wearing hemp clothing, let’s move on to vowels!
Once you know what sounds the vowels make when speaking Spanish, you’re pretty well in the clear because they very seldom change. That’s great for you learners out there because it means that you only need to memorize this guide below.
Then if you’re sounding out a word and you use these vowel pronunciations, there is about a 99.5%* chance you’ve got it right! And those are odds we’d take to Vegas, baby!
*Rough estimate. Very rough estimate. But you get the point.
|Vowel||Pronunciation Guide||Example||What the Example Means|
|A||is pronounced 'ah' like apple||Abajo||Down/Downstairs|
|E||is pronounced 'eh' like rent||Antes||Before|
|I||is pronounced 'ee' like free||Amigo||Friend|
|O||is pronounced 'oh' like flow||Beso||Kiss|
|U||is pronounced 'oo' like loose||Nube (Noob-ay)||Cloud|
|AI/AY||is pronounced 'y' like fly||Bailar /Hay (Eye)||Dance/There is|
|AU||is pronounced 'ow' like how||Aunque||Although|
|EI||is pronounced 'ay' like day||Aceite||Oil|
|IE||is pronounced 'yeh' like yes||Bien||Fine|
|UE||is pronounced 'weh' like well||Cuello||Neck/Collar|
Most of the consonants in Spanish are pronounced the same way as English. However, there are some that are different, and they can seem a little intimidating at first. No worries though, we’ve gone ahead and listed all of the ones that vary from English down below. That way, instead of having to spend the time looking them up elsewhere, you can focus on more important things—like baking a birthday cake for your cat.
|Consonant||Pronunciation Guide||Example||What the Example Means|
|C (before 'e',' i')||is pronounced 'th' like thanks||Gracias/Cena||Thank you/Dinner|
|C (before 'a','o','u')||is pronounced 'k' like corner||Casa/Con/Cuando||House/With/When|
|CC||is pronounced 'k' then 'th'||Direccion||House/With/When|
|D (between vowels)||Is pronounced ‘th’ like the||Cada||Each|
|G (before 'a','o','u')||is pronounced hard 'g' like grape||Gris||Grey|
|G (before 'e','i')||is pronounced a breathy 'h' like hi||Gente(Hehn-tay)||People|
|H||is not pronounced. Always silent.||Hay (Eye)||There is|
|J||is pronounced a breathy 'h' like hot||Jamón||Ham|
|L||is pronounced like ‘l’ in love||Libre||Free|
|LL||is pronounced 'y' like yellow||Llamar||To call|
|Ñ||is pronounced 'ny' like canyon||Mañana||Tomorrow|
|QU||is pronounced 'k' like keep||Queso(Kay-soh)||Cheese|
|R||is rolled only once||Pero (pare-oh)||But|
|RR||Is rolled twice||Perro (pare-roh)||Dog|
|V||is pronounced 'b' like beer||Vale (Ball-ay)||Okay|
|X||is pronounced 'cs' like exit||Extranjero||Foreign|
|Y||is pronounced like English 'y' in yard, except when by itself---it is pronounced 'ee'||Ya(Yah)/Y(Ee)||Already/And|
|Z||is pronounced 'th' like that||Zumo||Juice|
*The letter ‘B’ is pronounced the same way as ‘V’ is pronounced in Spanish—like ‘B’ in bad. This makes it difficult for my little Spanish host kids when trying to sound out words in their writing.
To further explain that tricky CC listed above, the example given—direccion, is pronounced like dee-rek-thee-on. So the first c behaves just like we have come to know and love, and the second is pronounced like ‘th’.
When you pronounce the letter ‘J’ you should almost sound like someone who has smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for the past 25 years, and you’re trying to clear your throat. Like you know that scene in Titanic where Jack is showing Rose how to “spit like a man”, and he’s hacking up something awful? Yeah, you should sound like that. If it doesn’t almost hurt your throat, you’re not doing it right.
The first ‘N’ example in the chart, the one where the ‘N’ is parading itself around like an ‘M’, isn’t always in the word that the ‘N’ is in. For example, when saying “con permiso” (excuse me-when trying to get by someone) is pronounced like “compermiso”. So since those two words get all cozied up together like – and sound like one word, the ‘N’ to ‘M’ maneuver takes place.
I actually didn’t notice this before I started learning Spanish, but in English the letter ‘L’ has two different sounds. The first is the obvious—‘L’ like in ‘love’. The second is as sneaky as I am when ransacking the kitchen at 3am while I’m supposed to be on a diet. If you say the word ‘ball’, there you have the second ‘L’ pronunciation. It’s a bit softer than the first. That ‘L’ sounds doesn’t appear in Spanish. Always go with the first!
You know how when you’re reading something in English you generally (“generally” because English is weird and there are always exceptions. Eye roll.) know that it’s a question before you get to the question mark at the end because of the word at the beginning? Por ejemplo: “Do you want something?”
I’m assuming that when reading that question, you put an upward inflection on it. That’s because the word “do” tipped you off that it was a question and not a statement. Well, in Spanish they don’t do that. Let me show you what I mean.
“Tu quieres algo.” / “¿ Tu quieres algo?”
The first is a statement. “You want something.” The second is a question. “Do you want something?”. But the only way to tell the difference is by the punctuation. So if you were reading the question, and there was no question mark doing a handstand at the beginning of it, you wouldn’t know that it was a question until you got to the end.
The same goes for when you’re speaking. It’s super important to make sure that when asking a question, the inflection of your voice goes up. It has to be clearly different than the inflection that you use when making a statement. If not, you could end up saying something different than what you intended, and it could be a little embarrassing. Yes, I did have an embarrassing experience with this. No, I’m not going to tell you about it.
Hopefully this guide has helped you navigate through all of the pronunciation confusion. If not, take another big swig of that cerveza we opened at the beginning and have another look. I always find my Spanish to be better after a few drinks.
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Nicole Dovak is a 20-something Canadian writer who moved to Spain in September 2015. Living with a Spanish host family for one year allowed her to gain insights into Spanish culture and language (and not to mention tons of yummy Spanish food).
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