If you’re learning Spanish, or already speak it, you’ve probably noticed that as an English native, there are sounds that are difficult to pronounce in Spanish. You may be marveled by the way Spanish speakers can switch from a throaty ‘J’ to a clipped ‘D’ and then roll their ‘Rs’ to perfection.
While these difficult Spanish pronunciation sounds may seem impossible to articulate, there’s one simple reason you still can’t master them. Those sounds don’t exist in English, therefore, you’ll have to adapt to new ways to pronounce words. In other words, new sounds or phonemes.
Languages are systems, composed of sounds (phonology), meanings (semantics), and rules (grammar). You could say that our native language is our default linguistic system. That’s why, from the time you acquire language, you are “wired” to produce the sounds of English seamlessly. Generally speaking, 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds coexist in the English language.
Therefore, the easiest way to learn the most difficult Spanish sounds for English natives is to compare the phonetics of the two languages. From there, you’ll get what sounds are you missing, and what are the most comfortable ways for you to produce those sounds.
For example, French natives pronounce R with their uvula and English natives with the apex of the tongue. If these two people wanted to make the Spanish R, they’d articulate it differently. The French native would take the sound from their throat to their tongue and palate and the English native would either keep the sound against the gum ridge or will have to go to their palate and roll their tongue.
While these difficult Spanish pronunciation sounds may seem a bit challenging, you have all it takes to speak Spanish like a native; understand what sounds you’re aiming for, and, of course, follow our tips to target them like a pro.
What are the most difficult vowels in Spanish to pronounce?
Spanish has five vowels and five vowel sounds. which are shorter in duration than their English counterparts. In English, we tend to drag out vowels.
Therefore, saying a basic phrase like, Hola. ¿Cómo estás? can often reveal our origins. So, let’s keep things short and sharp, giving each vowel just a sound of one or two seconds.
The most difficult Spanish pronunciation sounds for English speakers are vowels A, E, and the diphthong EU.
The Seven English A’s VS The Spanish A
The letter A has a versatile pronunciation in English. You’ll notice them in this sentence:
Jack was about to share his private yacht with his football coach when he received a cable informing him that the engine needed repair.
We have the A pronunciation of:
(exact, actually, apple, around, zebra)
(careful, rare, air)
(father, alms, barn)
(tall, calling, law)
(stable, able, ate)
For all of these English sounds you need to open your mouth a little bigger than you do in Spanish, move your jaw and chin, and even create a half smile.
In contrast, to pronounce vowels in Spanish your jaw must always stay in a fixed position.
When you say the vowels in English; A, E, I, O, U all together your jaw and chin keeps moving.
However, when you try to say them in Spanish while keeping these movements, they don’t come out right. To correct this, place your hand under your chin, and imagine you are Pacman.
Next, pronounce the vowels with similar movements to the ones Pacman does when he eats something. Remember to keep the sounds short.
The Spanish E Sound
American Spanish learners often it difficult to pronounce the Spanish E sound because they make the sound too long and turn it into the diphthong you read in May. That “ay” sound is what comes to mind to Americans when they say mesa, beso, or past tenses like olvidé or cerré.
To correct it, just imagine there’s an English H after all the Spanish E’s you read, so you end up saying eh.
Another method is to create a mental image/sentence to remember how to pronounce E in Spanish. For instance:
El elefante está bailando música electrónica en Barcelona.
(The elephant is dancing electronic music in Barcelona.)
The Spanish U sound
Many English speakers pronounce the U in Spanish in the way they pronounce it in you, cute, and mute in English. To pronounce U effectively, follow these steps:
- Move the back of your tongue to the back of your palate and leave a small space that allows airflow.
- The tip of your tongue should head to your alveoli (the gum behind your front teeth) but it shouldn’t touch them.
- Lips are heading forward, and have a small rounded opening.
- Your vocal chords should vibrate. You can test this by touching your neck.
- Now, you can say “ooh”, and there you have it!
Trick # 2
- Imagine you’re drinking a milkshake or smoking, and suck the air in.
- Now release the air saying “ooh”. That’s the right U Spanish pronunciation. As a bonus, if you say “ee” in this position, you’ll have the French U.
Practice with words like uno, unidad, película, nuclear, ciudad, and peculiar.
The EU Diphthong
Now, let’s combine this knowledge. With words like Europa and eutanasia, English speakers also drag the “eeooh” sound.
To fix this issue, please follow the advice of the two previous sections to pronounce “eh” and “ooh”, so you can say “ehooh”.
Keep in mind that, in order to succeed with this pronunciation, the air stream should be continuous. This is a diphthong, so this time you can allow chin and jaw movements. You can practice the EU sound by reading this text:
Eugenio es europeo y vive en Ceuta. El trabaja como terapeuta y también es neurocirujano. Su salario es en euros. Todos los días tiene reuniones de trabajo.
(Eugene is European and lives in Ceuta. He works as a therapist and is also a neurosurgeon. His salary is in euros. He goes to work meetings every day)
What are the most difficult Spanish Consonants to pronounce?
Many Spanish consonants are similar to English, but some can have sounds that aren’t part of English phonetics. Among the most difficult Spanish pronunciation sounds for English speakers are the consonants R, G, J, Ñ, N, and D sounds.
While practicing tongue twisters can help you relax and stretch your muscles; to achieve fluency, you’ll need to pay special attention to:
Rolling your R’s
For most English speakers, THE most difficult Spanish pronunciation sound in Spanish is the R consonant. In Spanish, Rs are vibratory sounds produced by pushing air past your tongue, while you tap your tongue behind your upper front teeth.
However, Spanish Rs won’t longer be a nightmare! Follow these steps to roll those Rs better than Chewbacca:
● Breathe as if you were hissing, like a cat or someone that has the flu.
● Notice that to create the English R sound, you usually do it in the middle of your mouth, and with your tongue curved. In contrast, to do the Spanish R, you curve your tongue and place it on the roof of your mouth. There, you’ll find the transition between your soft and hard palate, which is a good place to put your curved tongue.
● Now, curl your tongue, and add voice and vibration.
Pronouncing the different G sounds
The sound of G in Spanish changes depending on the vowel it precedes.
If G comes before a strong vowel (A,E,O) and diphthongs UE and UI, it sounds somewhat like the English G in goat or gorilla. For example; gato, gordo, guerra, guillotina, and gutural.
However, if G comes before E and I, G sounds like a harsh English H. Therefore, GE is pronounced “heh” and GI is pronounced “heeh”. For example; gente, recoger, alegra, girasol, and elegir.
Throaty J’s in Spanish
Some people think that the Spanish J sound is the same as the English H, but this isn’t true. The true J sound is a bit different. It’s more like the sound the coffee machine makes or of boiling hot water. Thus, an easy way to master the J in Spanish is to follow these steps:
For a hard J
- Get into position to make an H.
- Practice gurgling a little bit, like when you wash your mouth.
For a soft J
- Stick to the English H sound position, but make it slightly longer.
To pronounce J in Spanish, no matter which one, the tongue goes up a little bit but it never touches the palate. Your vocal cords don’t vibrate and the tip of the tongue must point downwards. You can practice the J sound with words like jamon, jefe, and ajo.
The pronunciation difference between Ñ and N
Although the letter Ñ doesn’t exist in English, you can associate it with the “ny” sound in canyon and Kanye.
However, you’ll notice that in Spanish, we pronounce Ñ even when it’s not written. Ñ is a nasal consonant, thus, when we pronounce it the air doesn’t come out from the mouth but from the nose. Besides, it’s a sound we produce on the palate.
For some people, it’s complicated because it implies simultaneous mouth movements. When we are going to say Ñ, the tip of our tongue points downwards and we place it on our lower front teeth. At the same time, we elevate the back of our tongue towards the palate. Then, we release the air through our nose making our vocal cords vibrate.
On the other hand, the Spanish N is pronounced just like in English with one exception. When it’s next to a consonant realized at the palate it’s actually the Ñ sound. For example; CH, the Y and Ll sounds for yeístas, as in ancho, conllevar, and un yate.
Keeping D at the tip of your tongue
The pronunciation of D in Spanish varies depending on its position in the word or the sentence. Thus, the D in Spanish is either:
- Similar to the English D in day, and produced with the tip of the tongue against or near the teeth
- Similar to the D in didn’t
- Similar to the English TH in father
To reduce your foreign accent in Spanish and properly say this difficult Spanish sound, you have to aim at perfecting the pronunciation of the second and third D’s listed above. But, how do you know which D to use?
At the beginning of a word, statement, vowel sound, N or L sound.
You pronounce D with your tongue against your front teeth. For example; dolor, dulce, or grande.
When D is in the middle of a word, statement, or vowel sound, or something you say after a pause, it’s interdental.
This D is pronounced with the tip of the tongue between your front teeth. For example; la dama, ese dólar, and adiós.
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