To learn fluent Spanish, you can’t just memorize words — you also have to master Spanish pronunciation. Today I present my top tips for pronouncing Spanish sounds authentically. Here’s the first tip: To develop your own “Spanish voice”, make sure to do the pronunciation exercises, out loud, throughout this episode!
Time… for a voice change.
Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.
This week we’re going to finish laying our fluency foundation, and I’m super excited to dive into por, para, and Spanish articles and pronouns; what’s coming up are my absolute favorite Spanish lessons to teach. Some of the most enormous breakthroughs that our students see come from these next few lessons — even from some of the most advanced students that we start working with.
But before we learn any new words, we need to take a step back and talk about pronunciation.
Pronunciation is at the heart of what makes a language unique. Have you ever noticed that when you walk down the street, it’s easy to recognize the voice of a non-English speaker… even without hearing the specific words they’re saying?
Spanish, like every other language, has a unique sound. It’s not just unique because of its vocabulary. It’s unique because of the entire sound of the language.
For example, here are a few names that are familiar to both Spanish and English speakers:
Now let’s hear these names read in a native Spanish voice.
So the difference between English and Spanish isn’t just the words. It’s how those words are pronounced, and the voice that’s used to pronounce them.
Being bilingual means being able to switch between two different voices. When you’re in English, you think and speak in one way. When you’re in Spanish, you think and speak in a different way.
So let’s try something. Go ahead and try to pronounce the name “Samuel” both ways.
First start with the English pronunciation: Samuel.
Now switch to your Spanish voice and say it that way:
Our goal in the next few weeks is to develop the skill of switching back and forth between an English voice and a Spanish voice. We’ll go into some nuances of the pronunciation rules of the two languages in a minute.
But before we do, let’s try something fun. Even if you don’t know any Spanish, there’s a good chance that you already have the skills to switch between languages. It’s actually the same skill you use to mock an accent from a different English-speaking region – maybe an Australian accent or a Texas drawl — or to mimic the voice of a friend or a famous actor.
See, we normally think that doing an impression of someone else’s voice is just a fun joke or party trick, but it also provides some very useful insights about language learning. Let’s say that someone asks you, right now, to speak with a convincing cockney accent, as if you were raised on the streets of London. You could do two things:
Obviously, Option 2 sounds a lot easier!
Using imitation, you don’t even have to think too much about all the little rules of how an accent works. All you have to do is think of someone who speaks with the accent you want to imitate and simply imitate that person. You can even switch into an Australian accent or an Irish accent or a Scottish accent without getting them mixed up, as long as you’re familiar with someone who speaks with each of these accents. If you think of the voices of these people and can imitate their individual voices, it’s a simple mental personality switch.
Language learning is very similar. Speaking Spanish is not about memorizing thousands of rules that you have to call to mind at every moment. Instead, it’s about imitation and switching to a Spanish voice.
Now we’re going to go back to the list of names, and the key is to be able to switch between the two voices. But we do have to zoom in on a few pronunciation rules just to highlight some of the main differences between the languages. The goal is to develop a convincing Spanish voice, right from the start, and then eventually speaking this way will become second nature.
Let’s start with the vowels, which in English are called “A, E, I, O, and U”, but in Spanish they’re “A, E, I, O, and U”. In English, pretty much any vowel can make any vowel sound, but in Spanish, they pretty much always make the same sound, no matter what word they’re in. And each of them is a short, crisp sound.
The vowels that English speakers call “A, E, and O” are in some ways the most similar between the two languages. If you put a silent letter H after each of these letters, you get something kind of close to the Spanish sound. The letter A is always “ah” (which is sort of half-way between “ah” and “ah”: “Ah”). The letter E is always “eh”. (Make sure not to bend it, like “ay”; it’s always a short, single sound: “eh”.) And O is always “oh”.
The letters I and U are a little different. The letter I is pronounced like “ee”, and the letter U is pronounced as “oo”. (Not “ew”, but “oo”.)
So again the five vowels are A, E, I, O, and U.
Let’s practice with a couple of the names from our list. We’ll start with the name “Tamara”, which has only one vowel, the letter A repeated three times. In English, “Tamara” is pronounced with all three of those vowels sounding different from each other. But in Spanish, this is Tamara, with all the vowels sounding exactly the same.
Now try out the name Samuel. See if you can predict how it should sound before we play the recording.
Now try the name “Olivia”.
The way that Spanish uses short, crisp vowels is very different from English, which is much more all-over-the-place with vowels. But this is part of what’s going to make your Spanish-speaking voice different your English-speaking voice.
Now let’s talk about consonants. For the most part, Spanish consonants are pretty similar to English consonants, but there are a few significant differences. For example, when you speak with your Spanish-speaking persona, you should get into the habit of touching your tongue to your teeth a lot. So for example, the letter T in English is formed against the roof of the mouth: “t”. But in Spanish, it’s against the teeth: t. And then D is similar: It’s more like “th”. Let’s practice this in the names Daniel and Tamara.
While we’re on the name Tamara, let’s talk about the letter R. This letter is super different in Spanish from how it is for most English speakers. In fact, it’s formed approximately where the D or T would be formed in English! Unlike our “Rrrrrr”, which can go on for a long time, just like a vowel sound, the normal flipped R in Spanish, ere, is pronounced as a single-moment event.
If you have trouble flipping your Rs, as in ere, let’s do a little exercise. (I didn’t make this exercise up; it’s been around for a long time, but a lot of our students have found it super useful.) So, say “pot of tea” really quickly, over and over. “Pot of tea, pot of tea.” If you say it fast enough, the “T” at the end of “pot” turns into a quick little tongue flip, exactly like the Spanish letter R. Go ahead and try it, and try to sound exactly like this: “Pot of tea”. “Pot of tea”. Now to home in on that specific sound, shorten it down to “potof”, “potof”. Now just “oto”, “oto”. Now try using that same sound, but changing the vowels to “ara”, “oro”, “ere”.
Now try putting it into the context of this name: Tamara.
The letters T, D, and R are going to be some of the distinguishing elements that separate your English voice from your Spanish voice. Feel free to have a little fun right now going back and forth between the English “Tamara” and the Spanish Tamara. “Tamara.” Tamara.
Another big difference is the letter J, which in Spanish is always pronounced as “H”, like the letter H in English. So the name “Julia”, in Spanish, is pronounced as Julia.
Meanwhile, as you’ll see in upcoming lessons, the letter H in Spanish is always silent. The letter J takes its place any time you hear “Hh” in Spanish.
As one last letter to learn, the letter V in Spanish is pronounced exactly like the letter B. So the name “Olivia” is pronounced Olivia.
To put all of these pronunciation rules into practice, I’m going to have you try to pronounce these names with a Spanish voice. I’m going to read each one off in English, and you should see if you can predict exactly how the Spanish will sound, out loud. And then, after you hear the Spanish, try to be as accurate as possible in imitating the Spanish that you hear.
All right, enough pronunciation for now; I’m guessing you’re itching to learn some new words, so let’s go ahead and work on how to say "the" in Spanish.
Although English only has one word for "the", Spanish actually has several words that can mean "the", and the most common two are el and la. El is used for masculine nouns, as in el boy, and la is used for feminine nouns, as in la girl.
And it’s not just people who get el or la before them. The fact is, every noun in Spanish is either masculine or feminine, and that will tell you which one to use. For now, to practice this, I’m going to make it easy by just using guy or girl humans so that you know whether to use el or la. But pretty soon, when we learn nouns, we'll give you a memory trick to use so that you'll always know whether a noun is a feminine noun (and uses la) or a masculine noun (and uses el).
Let’s get some practice choosing el or la in sentences, and we’ll also mix in most of the things we’ve learned so far on this podcast. As you work with these sentences, try to switch back and forth between your English voice and your Spanish voice. I know it’s awkward right now that we’re using Spanglish, but pretty soon we’ll be switching to sentences that are entirely in Spanish. For now, take this opportunity to try out your Spanish pronunciation with just the few Spanish words we’ve learned.
I’m going to start with some pretty simple examples, but then I’ll move on to include some of the more tricky concepts we’ve learned such as the word no and tricky uses of the word que. Let’s start with this one:
The man has that.
El man has eso.
El hombre tiene eso.
The guy went to the house.
El guy went a the house.
El chico fue a la casa.
That is the girl’s.
Eso is de la girl.
Eso es la de la niña.
You couldn’t come from there.
You no could come de there.
Tú no podrías venir de allí.
The boy didn’t see us.
El boy no saw us.
El niño no nos vio.
The man can’t have the girl’s things.
El man no can have the things de la girl.
El hombre no puede tener las cosas de la chica.
The man and the woman wouldn’t go there.
El man y la woman no would go there.
El hombre y la mujer no irían allí.
The guy told the girl it was a plastic cup.
El guy told la girl que it was a cup de plastic.
El chico le dijo a la chica que era un vaso de plástico.
The lady and I told her it was OK.
La lady y I told her que it was OK.
La señora y yo le dijimos que estaba bien.
To get more practice with these sentences, go to LCSPodcast.com/6 and quiz yourself with them until you’re acing this.
If you’re a member, you’ll also see an assignment to record yourself for pronunciation tips for feedback from the coaches so that we can help you develop a convincing Spanish voice right away.
Tomorrow it’s finally time to start working on lo, that confusing word that drives English speakers crazy but that you’re going to be using flawlessly very soon.
This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.