Wednesday, August 5, 2015

5 Advanced Spanish Pronunciation Tips

I’ve talked some about Spanish pronunciation on the blog before, from how to speak Spanish like a Spaniard to tips on learning how to roll your Rs; in fact, they’re two of my most popular posts! Today I’d like to share a little bit of what I learned when I took a Spanish linguistics course in college. Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure to explain everything in layman’s terms, but these subtle, rarely-discussed differences between English and Spanish were transformational in getting me to lose my American accent in Spanish and have made me sound much more native. I hope they help you as much as they helped me!

Spanish pronunciation tips
Plaza de San Nicolás, Madrid

1) B, D, G are soft, not hard consonants

This was one of the first things I picked up on in my linguistics class and it totally blew my mind. At the beginnings of word or phrases, the B, D, and G sounds are “full stops” or are pronounced strongly, just like they are in English: vinagre, día, and gamba begin with clean, firm Bs, Ds, and Gs.

However, whenever you see a B/D/G in between two vowels, that’s your key to smooth things out, since they are pronounced much softer in Spanish in this position. The technical linguistic term here is fricative vs. stop; but to make things simpler, whenever the letters B or V come between two vowels, they end up sounding more like a V than a B; the D becomes a voiced TH as in the English word “the”; and the soft G is the lazy cousin of the hard G that doesn’t want to get out of bed (think of the modern Greek pronunciation of gyro).

In all cases where B/D/G come between vowels, the sound they make is never as forced and enunciated as an English V, TH, or G, but instead something a little smoother and softer. Your lips and teeth don’t touch when you make the soft B sound, your tongue just kind of hangs out between your teeth for the soft D sound; and for the soft G sound, you want to push air at the back of your throat in the same way you would with the Spanish J sound, only with voice behind it.

Here’s a few examples with pronunciation guides:

* complicado “com-plee-KAH-tho” [kom.pliˈca.ðo]
* preguntaba “pray-ghoon-TAH-vah” [pre.ɣunˈta.βa]
* la bomba “lah VOM-bah” [la ˈβom.ba]
* la garganta “la ghar-GHAN-tah” [la ɣarˈɣan.ta]
* digo yo “DEE-gho jo” [ˈdi.ɣo ʝo]
* te lo digo “tay lo THEE-gho” [te lo ˈði.ɣo]

2) P, T, C aren’t aspirated

And this was something I realized while taking English linguistics classes in college. For whatever reason, in English we aspirate (i.e., we add a little puff of air to) our P, T, and K sounds whenever they’re at the beginning of a stressed syllable. Try holding up a sheet of paper to your mouth and see how much it moves when you say “party” versus “wrapper,” “target” versus “laptop,” or “car” versus “baker.” Linguists would transcribe those words like so (look for the little superscript letter H):

* [ˈpʰɑɹ.ɾi] vs. [ˈɹæ.pəɹ]
* [ˈtʰɑɹ.gɨt] vs. [ˈlæp.tɑp]
* [kʰɑɹ] vs. [ˈbeɪ.kəɹ]

Got the hang of it? Well, in Spanish, there’s none of this, which is the reason why the nickname Paco in Spanish sounds more like “Bah-co” than “Paw-co” to English ears—it’s because there’s no aspiration (the little H sound) after the P sound like there is in English.

This is also why many of my Spanish students got the English words “chair” and “tear” mixed up; to their ears, the CH sound is very very similar to the aspirated T in “tear.”

A good word to practice for the C/K sound is Coca-Cola, with those three back-to-back Cs.

Spanish pronunciation tips
Templo de Debod, Madrid

3) T & D are dental consonants

To make the T and D sounds in English, we touch the tip of our tongues to what’s called the alveolar ridge, just behind your upper front teeth but before the roof of your mouth opens up to your hard palate. (It’s the same spot where we make the S and Z sounds, too).

In Spanish, however, Ts and Ds happen when your tongue touches the back of your front teeth, not the roof of your mouth at all. Keep this in mind whenever you say words like tapas and ¡dime!

4) L is never “dark”

When the letter L comes at the end of English words like “bill,” “full,” or “troll,” it often sounds as if you had pushed the L into the back of your throat—this is also called the “dark L,” in contrast with the “clear L” in the words “lip” or “caller.” This is often exaggerated in Cockney English, where the L at the ends of words basically becomes a W.

The L is never “dark” in Spanish, though, so always make sure to pronounce a clear, strong L if you come across words like papel, caracol, or arenal.

Spanish pronunciation tips
Tortilla with pisto

5) There are five “pure” vowels

We love to draw out our vowels in English (even more so if you’re from the American South like I am): my Spanish students would sometimes transcribe the words “day” and “slow” as dei and slou because of that little extra glide we add to our long A and O sounds. You might not have this problem if you’re from Minnesota, for example, but for the rest of us (especially us who talk with a drawl), it’s important to practice the five “pure” vowels before speaking Spanish: aaah, eeeh, eee, oooh, and ooo.

Unlike many of its Romance language counterparts (I’m looking at you, French, with your 15+ vowels), Spanish fortunately only has these five simple vowels to deal with, although to be fair there are many diphthongs in words like tierra or puerta.

So, instead of pronouncing the word corto like “core tow” try something a little sharper like “KOR-toh.” The same goes for hasta luego; ditch “oss tuh loo way go” for “AH-stah LWEH-go.”

How did you begin to perfect your Spanish accent? Share any tips for making your accent sound more native in the discussion thread below!
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