Spanish pronunciation is quite easy compared to that of almost any other language. With little effort, one can pronounce quite well. Also, the orthography helps: knowing the basic rules, one can pronounce anything just reading the word (the opposite doesn’t always apply: knowing the pronunciation, one cannot always write the word without spelling mistakes).
Even so, many learners make a lot of mistakes, so I figured I could help them with the “basics” of Spanish pronunciation for pros. Keep in mind that this post doesn’t intend to be a lesson on basic pronunciation, which means that you should already know the basics of Spanish pronunciation.
Spanish has just 5 vowels, without distinction between short vowels and long vowels. Just 5. Also, every grapheme corresponds, without exception, to one phoneme:
- ‹a› is always pronounced [a] (closer than “car” but more open than “cut”; if you have to choose, “cut” is better)
- ‹e› is always pronounced [e] (just a bit closer than “red”)
- ‹i› is always pronounced [i] (more open than “cheese” but closer than “bit”; if you have to choose, “cheese” is better)
- ‹o› is always pronounced [o] (just a bit closer than “more”)
- ‹u› is always pronounced [u] (more open than “move” but closer than “put”; if you have to choose, “move” is better)
This means that in Spanish there is no vocalic reduction. For example, in English half of the vowels are schwa [ə], a “neutral” vowel that doesn’t correspond to any specific quality: the ‹a› in “about”, the ‹e› in “moment”, etc.
The problem is that most anglophones will perform the vocalic reduction following the English patterns, so most unstressed syllables will be reduced to schwa, which is incorrect in Spanish: elemento [eleˈmento], not *[ələˈmentə]; murciélago [murˈθjelago], not *[mɜrˈθjeləgə]; etc.
Also, note that if it’s written as a single vowel, it’s a pure vowel: no diphthongs unless it’s written with two vowels! It’s [eleˈmento], not *[eleˈmentou]; fácil [ˈfaθil], not *[ˈfei̯θil] nor *[ˈfaθai̯l]; etc.
Spanish consonants are very easy and quite similar to English, so let’s try to keep it simple. Unless specified below, Spanish and English consonants are exactly the same.
p, t, k are never aspirated. Just like that: in English, you would pronounce “pin”, “tin” and “kin” with a small (or not) aspiration, but not in Spanish.
h never means aspiration. Again: no aspiration in Spanish! While English “have” does have an aspiration, Spanish haber should be pronounced the same as in *aber. Read more in this post.
b, v are pronounced the same. Even if your teacher says otherwise, ‹b› and ‹v› represent the exact same phoneme /b/, as in “bet”. By the way, this means that there is no /v/ (as in “vet”) in Spanish. Read more in this post.
‹ll› and ‹y› are pronounced the same. Most Spaniards (and even more Latinos) don’t distinguish between the sounds of the graphemes ‹ll› and ‹y›, which is called “yeísmo“, so they pronounce poyo “stone bench” and pollo “chicken” the same, with the consonant of “joke”, but a bit lighter (something between “joke” and “visual”). Of course this doesn’t apply when ‹y› is a vowel /i/ as in y “and”.
‹z› stands for /θ/, not /z/! Castilian (unlike American Spanish) distinguishes between /s/ and /θ/. The [θ] sound (as in “think”) is represented by ‹z› (or ‹ce›, ‹ci›). Many anglophones tend to pronounce ‹z› as English [z] (as in “zoom” and “easy”), so they pronounce zapato *[zaˈpato] instead of [θaˈpato].
d, t are dental, not alveolar. In English, you pronounce your Ts and Ds touching your alveoli with the tongue of your tip. In Spanish, however, you must touch your teeth, not your alveoli, but without showing your tongue as in “the” or “think”.
l is always clear. Depending on your accent, you may pronounce every ‹l› the same or distinguish between “let” and “doll”. In “doll”, it’s a dark l in most accents, while in “let” it can be clear or dark depending on your accent. Just figure your own ‹l› out and learn that Spanish ‹l› is always clear.
r makes actual contact with your alveoli. In English, both ‹r› and ‹rr› represent the same sound, an approximant [r], which means that you only approximate your tongue without touching. But in Spanish you have to make actual contact. If you flap your intervocalic Ts (most Americans do), Spanish ‹r› is pretty much the same.
rr is… a double r. It seems easier than it actually is, and in fact many Spaniards struggle with this sound in their childhood. A double ‹r› is, of course, a double /r/, which means that you should touch your alveoli twice (in miliseconds), just the same way Scots do with their peculiar ‹r›. Keep in mind that simple ‹r› and double ‹rr› stand for two different phonemes, so they shouldn’t be pronounced the same.
j is always a hard sound. This is another difficult sound for anglophones. While Latinos tend to pronounce ‹j› in a similar way to English ‹h›, Castilian ‹j› is pronounced [x], that is, a stronger sound, between [k] and [h].
b, d, g stop being plosives between vowels. This one is for real pros and will be further elaborated in another post. In the meantime, you can read something about it here.