How to Speak Spanish: The Ultimate Guide to Spanish Pronunciation
Speaking a language in the real world is like serving a tennis ball over the net. Sometimes the ball doesn't make it over the other side.
For the first two years of my Spanish learning journey, I had already become a vocabulary and vocabulary whiz. But did I stand a chance in the real world? Nope. Most of my serves went straight into the net. I didn't just have an accent. I was incomprehensible.
Don't be me. This guide will work on the building blocks of pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, and language practice.
What I hope to do in this blog post is provide a catch-all resource for helping anyone learn how to speak Spanish.
That is, how to get yourself conversational as fast as possible and maintain that trajectory all the way towards fluency.
What This Guide Is Not About
This guide does not cover written Spanish, grammar and vocabulary rules, spelling, as such topics are very easy to come by online.
Also, we will not be taking a deep dive into linguistic theory. Such concepts will be very easily explained in this post.
Instead, this guide is aimed at tackling one of the hardest parts about learning Spanish: learning to speak.
Let's get started!
Alphabet: Sounds of the Spanish Alphabet
We start with the alphabet because letters are the foundation of any language. Before delving into words, one must learn to pronounce the letters in a given language perfectly.
First things first: How many letters are there in the Spanish Alphabet?
This is a surprisingly tricky one.
If you ask any child born in an English-speaking country how many letters there are in the alphabet, they will tell you there are 26. There is even a song written about it.
Now for the surprising bit.
Repeat the same question to several Spanish-speaking children, and you might just get different replies! Depending on the area in which you live, now everyone agrees on what official alphabet should look like. However, the leading authority is Real Academia Española (RAE), who says it should look like this:
a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z
In fact, if you read a Spanish dictionary, the "ch" and "ll" words are listed separately, and not together with "c" and "l". All in all, that would bring the total letter count to 29 because of "ch," "ll," and "ñ." Some other sources include "rr" as a separate letter, which would make it 30. Yet other sources do not count the "k" or "w", because they only exist in borrowed words like whiski and koala.
Fun Fact #1: The most common letter in both Spanish and English is the letter "e".
Fun Fact #2: The least common letter is "w" in Spanish.
The best answer to the question of how many letters there are in the Spanish alphabet falls between 25 and 30. However, let's be comprehensive.
For this speaking guide, let's work with a 30-letter alphabet to cover all the possible combinations.
Spanish Alphabet Fun Facts!
As a quick detour before delving into the pronunciation of letters, here are a collection of relevant yet non-obvious facts.
- Spanish letters are all feminine: When talking about individual letters, you would say la a, la be, la ce, and so on.
- Accented letters are not separate letters. You may be wondering about letters with accents like á, é, í, ó, and ú or the rare dieresis, ü. These are not considered separate letters. We will, however be covering their impact on Spanish pronunciation and speaking in a later section.
- There are two ways to say "Alphabet" in Spanish. El alfabeto or el abecedario. The second one is quite cute, since it lists the first four letters.
Let's start with how to say the Spanish vowels.
How to Pronounce Vowels
Too many other guides focus on vowel charts and complicated jargon such as dipthongs, vocal height, and backness. We're not going to do that here.
However, before we can start talking about vowels, we'll need to ask: what exactly is a vowel, and how can we use that knowledge to improve Spanish pronunciation?
Vowels are created when air flows out of your mouth and or nose while producing a sound. To alter that sound, the tongue plays a crucial role. The tongue can block or permit air coming through both the mouth and nose, as well as change the property of the sounds produced.
Knowing that, there are a few key Spanish-specific principles:
Key principle #1: Tongue, tongue, tongue. Where your tongue is matters a lot. Over time, this becomes natural, but in the beginning it helps to be very conscious that tongue position defines vowel sound.
Key principle #2: Cut the nasal out. Unlike French, where there is an abundance of nasal vowels, Spanish is a very oral language. Air should be generally flowing out of the mouth.
Key principle #3: You'll be saying them a lot. Over 80% of the sound that you actually produce in Spanish will come from vowels in terms of absolute time. Therefore, they are very important to being understood.
In general, awareness goes a long way. We speak our native languages without thinking about the movements in our mouth. The first step is developing an awareness with respect to specific vowels.
a - Like the 'a' in 'father'
Mala (bad), Nada (nothing), Hola (hello), etc.
"¿Como te llamas?" (What's your name?)
"¿Cuántos años tienes?" (How old are you?)
For the A, the most important thing is to exaggerate the opening of the mouth and move the tongue as far down and forward as possible. The mouth is much more open than in English words.
The most common mistake it to round the mouth and say "uh" from the word "American", instead of "ah" as in "father". Particularly in words like americano where the similarities are huge, it is very tempting and incorrect to pronounce the word like one would in English.
e - Like the 'ay' in 'pay'
Eso (that), Enviar (to send), Elegante (elegant)
"Soy de Los Angeles" (I'm from Los Angeles.)
"Tengo treinta años." (I'm thirty years old.)
Just like the 'a', the the tongue is low. However, unlike the 'a' sound, the mouth is not fully open and round but the edges of the lips are farther apart. The mouth should be in the shape of an oval longer than it is high.
Try to think of words that rhyme with "pay", like "say", "bay", "lay", etc. However, the analogy is not perfect, because sometimes in english the sound glides up. In certain regions, "hey" is pronounced "haiiieee" with a long "e" (as in feet) sound at the end.
This must be avoided. The Spanish e is short and free of such glides. It must be crisp and to the point.
i - Like the 'ee' in 'feet'
Hijo (son), Ir (to go), Impuesto (tax)
"¿Cuántos años tienes?" (How old are you?)
"Mi color favorito es el rojo." (My favorite color is red.)
This sound should be very familiar to English speakers, as it is the same as the long e sound found in words like he, she, fee, knee, and so on. The only difference is that the Spanish pronunciation of i is shorter and crisper than the English version.
o - Like the 'o' in 'no'
Algo (something), O (or), No (no)
"¿Qué cosas te interesan?" (What are you interested in?)
"Me gustan los deportes." (I'm interested in sports.)
The sound is just like a cut off version of the o in the English pronunciation of no. Frequently, english speakers glide the o towards the u sound. When exaggerating the word, one sometimes starts off by saying no followed by the oo sound in moon, leading towards a prolonged noooooooh-oo.
In Spanish, just like the i, it is very important to keep the vowel short and crisp.
u - Like the 'oo' in "pool"
Un (a), Usar (to use), Tu (your)
"Esta soleado afuera." (It's sunny outside today.)
"Soy muy adinerado." (I am very wealthy.)
The story here is the same. The pronunciation of oo in English is more prolonged than it is in Spanish. Be sure to keep the sound very short and crisp.
The exception is when the u is preceded by a q or g, in which case it is silent. An example is que.
For u's that are preceded by a g, one must look at the following letter. If it is an e or i, one does not sound the u. Examples are guisado and guerra. However, a word like guardar would retain the pronunciation of the u.
The exception to the exception is when there is a diaeresis above the u. The word bilingüe retains the oo pronunciation of the u.
Fuego (fire), Bueno (good), Lío (mess), Escuela (school)
"Mi hermana y yo somos buenos jugadores de basketball." (My sister and I are good basketball players.)
"Su papá está en su casa. Él está en la escuela." (His father's at home. He's at school.)
In general, combinations of vowels in Spanish do not change the individual pronunciation of vowels. All Spanish vowels are pronounced the exact same independent of their surrounding vowels. An A is and A no matter which part of the word it occupies. An E is and E, An O an O, and so on.
There are few exceptions to the rule. One of them, mentioned earlier, is the silencing of the u sound in certain words.
Another exception is that when spoken at normal speeds, some pairs of vowels will blend together in to the w sound. For example, fuego becomes fwe-go and bueno becomes bwe-no.
Common Spanish Vowel Mistake #1: Buenohhhhhh, Tengohhhhh, etc.
Real words: Bueno, Tengo
I'm going to drive this point home. In Spanish, it's of absolutely crucial importance to keep your vowels short and crisp.
In English, it's common to glide the o sound towards the u at the end of a word, or the e sound towards the i. In Spanish, one must cut that gliding motion out.
Common Spanish Vowel Mistake #2: Uh-buela, ehhm-posible, etc.
Real words: Abuela, Imposible
The uh and ehm, while frequently used in English words such as about (in American English) and impossible, does not appear in their Spanish equivalents.
If anything the ehm construction happens more in Spanish words beginning the "em" than "im". Empresa and imprescindible start with a completely different sound. (Follow the pronunciation of the "e" and "i"). While in English, the pronunciation is frequently the same. Take emission and important as an example.
The takeaway here is to avoid the temptation to follow patterns in English and isolate the pronunciation of the vowels instead.
Common Spanish Vowel Mistake #3: You-sar, you-til
Real words: Usar, Útil
Finally, a common thing to do in English is to curl the lips when producing the vowel u. One would begin to say the word utilize by saying you.
Taking the Spanish word utilizar as an example, one would not begin to say the word with a you, but rather isolate the u vowel and start the word with and oo sound. This would be similar to a word like ooze in English.
How to Pronounce Consonants
The good news here is that aside from a few irregularities, the vast majority of Spanish consonants sound very similar or even identical to those in English.
Let's get started with all the vowels in order.
b - Like a Very Soft 'b' in 'Bay'
Bueno (good), Bajo (short), Abuela (grandmother)
"¿En qué trabajas?" (What's your job?)
The b in Spanish is not as hard as it is in English. It sounds somewhere between a b and v, and a very light one. Native speakers accomplish this sound by closing their lips for only a very short time, and very lightly emitting the sound. To practice this, biting the lower lip can help.
Ask many native speakers, and they often replace the b and v sounds, because they are nearly identical in Spanish. The difference is much more pronounced in English, and this distinction should be removed.
c - Either Like the 'c' in 'Cent' or 'Can'
Gracias (thanks), Con (with), Cerca (close)
"Francia no está en Asia." (France is not in Asia.)
In Latin American Spanish, the C with a trailing 'e' or 'i' is pronounced just like a soft C (or s) in English. In Castilian Spanish, it is pronounced like the th sound in English.
Otherwise, the c forms a hard C (or k) sound in English.
ch - Like the 'ch' in 'Chocolate'
Chica (girl), Chico (boy), Chorizo (sausage)
"Derek e Irine estaban en la tienda comprando mantequilla, leche y huevos." (Derek and Irine were at the grocery store buying butter, milk, and eggs.
This sound is pronounced just like the 'ch' in English.
d - Like the 'd' in 'Day'
Día (day), Domingo (Saturday), De (of)
"Nos levantamos después de las cinco y media de la mañana (5.30)" (We got up after five-thirty a.m. (5:30).)
This consonant has a minor detail that is often overlooked by English speakers. In English, the d sound is pronounced with the tongue within the mouth, a little bit pointing upwards of the teeth.
In Spanish, however, the sound should be produced with the tongue almost between the teeth. Not quite the 'th' sound in 'think', but somewhere between that sound and the usual 'd' sound.
f - Like the 'f' in 'Food'
Fuego (fire), Flores (flowers), Familia (family)
"Deseo ser famoso. ¿Y ella? ¿Ella desea ser famosa?" (I wish to be famous. How about her? Does she wish to be famous?)
This sound is pronounced just like the 'f' in English.
g - Either Like the 'g' in 'Good' or the 'h' in 'Hello'
Gente (people), Generalmente (generally), Gato (cat)
"Nosotros jugamos tres deportes." (We play three sports.)
"¿Eres ingeniero?" (Are you an engineer?)
If the 'g' is followed by and e or i, it is pronounced just like the English 'h'.
Otherwise, it is pronounced like the english hard G.
The sounds are identical to those in English.
h - Pure Silence
Hola (hello), Hambre (hunger), Hijo (son)
Unless part of a "ch", the "h" in Spanish is never pronounced. Under no circumstances should one say the "h" sound in English.
That is reserved for the next letter.
j - Like the 'h' in 'Hello'
Juego (game), Jugo (juice), Jamón (ham)
"¿Cuántas medallas ganó Estados Unidos en los Juegos Olímpicos?" (How many medals has the United States won in the Olympic Games?)
This letter is exactly like the letter 'h' in English in words like hello, he, and him. Never pronounce this word like the 'j' in English.
k - Like the 'c' in 'Cat'
Kiwi (kiwi), Koala (Koala), KO (knockout)
This letter is pronounced just like the letter K in English, as all words using this letter are of borrowed origin.
l - Like the 'l' in 'Love'
Lo (it), La (the), Levantar (to lift)
"Los diamantes son muy caros." (Diamonds are very expensive.)
This sound, in most cases is pronounced just like the 'l' in English. Occasionally, words in English have a variation on the 'l' , like in the word "sailed". It is important to pronounce the 'l' fully in Spanish always, using words like 'love in English as an example.
ll - Like the 'y' in 'Yes'
Llamar (to call), Silla (chair), Pantalla (screen)
"Está soleado hoy. No está lloviendo." (The weather's sunny today. It's not raining.)
In most cases, the letter 'll' follows the 'y' sound in English fully. In certain regions, this may be pronounced like the 'j' sound in a word like 'vision'.
m - Like the 'm' in 'Melt'
Más (more), Mi (my), Mostrar (to show)
["Alguien está nadando en el lago." (Somebody is swimming in the lake.)](https://speechling.com/how-to/how-to-say-my-favorite-color-is-red-in-spanish-9
The pronunciation of 'm' is identical in Spanish and English.
n - Like the 'n' in 'Sing', 'Interesting', or 'Night'
Nada (nothing), Noche (night), Nadar (to swim)
"Tengo treinta y nueve (39) años." (I'm thirty nine (39) years old.)
"Mis hijos están haciendo su tarea." (My children are doing their homework.)
"Mi color favorito es el rojo." (My favorite color is red.)
There are three cases here:
- Before the letter 'g', like in the word inglés, the 'n' is pronounced just like the -ing ending in English.
- When preceded by a vowel, generally use the English pronunciation. In words starting with 'in', like 'imposible' or 'incapaz', be sure to sound the 'i' as an isolated vowel, and not to say the ehn and ehm versions.
The 'n' is pronounced with the blade of the tongue right behind the teeth.
- In all other cases, including when the word begins with 'n', use the English pronunciation.
ñ - Like the 'ny' in 'canyon'
Cañón (cannon), Pequeño (small), Niño (boy)
"¿Cuántos años tienes?" (How old are you?)
The pronunciation is identical to that of the english words onion and canyon.
p - Like the 'p' in 'Pay'
Perro (dog), Pero (but), Puro (pure)
"Rusia es un país muy grande." (Russia is a very big country.)
This letter is pronounced just like one would in English.
q - Like the 'k' in 'Kangaroo'
Que (that), Quién (who), Querer (to want)
"Está nevando. No me quiero congelar en la nieve." (It's snowing. I don't want to freeze in the snow.)
This letter is pronounced just like the letter 'k' in English.
r - Requires Special Attention
Pero (but), Faro (lighthouse), Parar (to stop)
"En la parada de camiones." (At the bus stop.)
There is no equivalent sound in English to the Spanish 'r' when appearing in the middle of a word. Pronouncing it using only sounds from the English toolbox will lead nowhere. It is easily, along with the trilled 'rr', the most difficult sound to master.
So how does it sound? The closest description to the 'r' is to say the quickest and lightest 'd' possible.
Words like "bitter" and "butter" in American English are close. The 'tt' sounds in those words more and more closely resemble the long Spanish 'r' as they become d's and later approach but never reach r's.
Somewhere between the 'd' and the 'r' lies the sound that you are looking for. Getting it exactly right takes a fair amount of practice. The best way to do so is to listen to many native speakers and imitate their accent.
When located at the beginning of a word, however, the lone Spanish 'r' follows the pronunciation of 'rr', discussed below.
rr - Requires Special Attention
There are two groups with the same sound here - words that start with 'R' and words that have 'rr' in them.
Romper (to break), Recámara (bedroom), Reír (to laugh) Perro (dog), Carro (car), Fierro (iron)
"La biblioteca cierra a las cuatro (4:00) de la tarde." (The library closes at four (4:00) in the afternoon.)
This sound is strongly trilled in Spanish. Because it has no natural equivalent in English, one should listen to it many times.
There are many resources for drilling and perfecting the pronunciation of this sound. I found this video on YouTube very helpful.
Similar to the 'r', this one requires substantial practice to get right. The only way to get it fully right is through hours of dedicated practice mimicking native speakers.
s - Like the 's' in 'see'
Sé (I know), Sí (yes), Ser (to be)
"¿Ya te vas a ir?" (Are you about to leave?)
Back to normality. The 's' is identical to that of English.
Frequently, native Speakers will drop the 's' in certain words, just like speakers in American english frequently shorten phrases like 'going to' to 'gonna'. This, too, is something to practice in order to process well.
t - Like the 't' in 'Tea'
Tú (you), Tener (to have), Té (tea)
"Connor fue a la cocina, se sirvió algo de tomar y se sentó en el sillón." (Connor stepped into the kitchen, poured a drink, and sat on the couch.)
Like the 'd' sound, the Spanish 't' is much more quiet and reserved than the equivalent sound in English. It is somewhere between a hard 't' and a 'th' sound. When pronounced correctly, the tongue should be between the teeth.
Unlike the 'b' and 'v' sounds, the Spanish 't' and 'd' are fully distinct.
v - Like the 'b' You Already Learned
Vaca (cow), Ver (to see), Venir (to come)
"¿Sí viene el tren?" (Is the train coming?)
There is no meaningful difference between the 'b' and 'v' sounds in Spanish and they are frequently interchangeable.
w - Like the 'w' in 'Whisky'
Whiski (whisky), Walkman (walkman), Western (western)
This letter is just like the 'w' in English. It only appears in words of foreign origin.
x - Like the 'x' in 'Fax'
Éxito (success), extrañar (to miss), exclusivo (exclusive)
"¿Ella quiere pasar el examen?" (Does she want to pass the test?)
The 'x' is identical to the sound in English, with the hard ks sound.
y - Like the 'ee' in 'Tree' or the 'y' in 'Yes'
Y (y), Yo (I), Ya (already)
"Él está enfermo y en cama." (He's sick and in bed.)
"Es verdad. Yo lo creo." (It's true. I believe it.)
When by itself, it is pronounced just like the letter i in Spanish (remember: short, crisp, EE sound).
Otherwise, it is pronounced just like the letter 'y' in English.
Similar to the 'll' sound, in certain dialects, the 'y' is pronounced like the 'si' in vision.
z - Like the 's' You Already Learned
Zapato (shoe), Zoológico (zoo), Haz (do)
"Estos zapatos están bonitos. ¿Cuánto cuestan?" (These shoes are nice. How much are they?)
In Latin American Spanish, the 'z' sound in Spanish is identical to the 's' sound.
In Castilian Spanish, it follows the 'th' pattern, identical to the 'ce' and 'ci' sounds.
Common Spanish Consonant Mistake #1: Hole-a, Hah-blo
Real words: hola, hablo.
One of the most common mistakes in Spanish is to pronounce the letter 'h' exactly as they would in English. It's quite easy to do so since certain words like habitación resemble words like habitation in English.
Resist this urge. One of the fastest ways to sound like you don know what youŕe doing is to pronounce the "h" in hola.
NEVER sound the 'h' in Spanish.
Common Spanish Consonant Mistake #2: Roh-sah, rah-zon
Real words: rosa, razón
Another very common mistake is to pronounce the lone 'R' in the beginning of a word as a 'r' in English. This is wrong, almost to the point of incomprehension.
Instead, one must always roll the R when it comes at the beginning of a word.
Common Spanish Consonant Mistake #3: Lah-moh, Siluh
Real words: llamo, silla
Well, we all know in English what the word for the animal 'llama' sounds like, right? What about words like 'kill' and 'bill'?
Unfortunately, the double 'll' is never sounded like the single 'l' in English.
Common Spanish Consonant Mistake #4: Informashun, Participashun
Real words: información, participación
Words with 'ion' endings are very common in Spanish. Because they are pronounced as "shun" in English, the temptation is to carry it over in Spanish. Instead, pronounce the Spanish vowels individually. First the 'ee' as in feet, then the 'o' as in 'no', and finally the consonant n. All in quick succession.
How to Speak Spanish on the Word Level
The next section leaves the alphabet behind and focuses on how to speak Spanish on the level of individual words. We will focus on the interplay between individual letters, how to develop an intuitive feel for how a word is pronounced from it's spelling, and how to speak individual words accurately and fluidly.
How Not to Call your Father a Potato
Let's start with a powerful idea: even if you pronounce all the letters perfectly, you can still be misunderstood.
Stress is important, as it can sometimes be the only way to distinguish two words. It’s the difference between insult, the verb, and insult the noun. While the neither the word has changed nor the pronunciation of its individual letters, whether the stress falls on the first syllable or the second makes a huge difference.
The same thing happens in Spanish frequently. The word papa means potato. You may have heard papas fritas for chips or fries. The accent falls on the first "pa", so like "PAH-pah".
On the other hand, the Spanish word for dad
is papá. Here, the accent falls on the second syllable, for "pah-PAH".
So how can we tell? And what exactly do accents do in Spanish?
Let's get right into it.
Where does the stress on each word go?
Once you have all of your sounds categorized in your head, knowing where to put the stress is the next step. Thankfully, there is no guesswork involved in where the accent goes in Spanish words.
Unlike in English, where spelling bees are much in vogue for every prodigious elementary schooler, spelling and pronunciation is entirely formulaic in Spanish. To date, I don't know anyone who has attended a serious Spanish spelling bee.
There are only 4 categories of stress in Spanish, two of which count for almost 90% of all Spanish words. For trivia, I'm including the four names here.
Aguda: Words with a stress on the last syllable.
Grave (Llana): Words with a stress on the 2nd to last syllable.
Esdrújula: Words with a stress on the 3rd to last syllable.
Sobresdrújula: Words with a stress before that.
Words ending in -mente have two stresses (one in the adjective, and another in -mente).
In order to figure out which category words belong, there are two very simple rules.
The Only Two Spanish Rules on Word Stress
There are two accent rules in Spanish that tell us where to put the stress on a word. Once you learn two simple rules, stress and word-level intonation will make a lot more sense.
Only when we break the rules do we need to add accents.
Spanish Accent Rule #1: Words ending in n, s, or a vowel have a stress on the second last syllable.
This rule is very straightforward. The only gotcha is that it only applies to words without accents. Ask yourself, does the word end with one of these letters:
a, e, i, o, u, n, s
If so, and the word does not have any accents, then the stress falls on the second to last syllable.
Here are some examples with where the accent falls, as well as English translations:
cuenta (CUEN-ta), "the bill (restaurant)" problema (pro-BLE-ma), "problem" prueba (PRUE-ba), "test"
Spanish Accent Rule #2: All other unaccented words have the stress on the last syllable.
For words that end in all other consonants (not n or s), the stress falls on the last syllable. Again, this only applies to words that do not have an accent.
Interestingly, almost all verbs in Spanish fall under this category. In the infinitive form, it is almost certainly a mistake to not accent the final syllable. Here are some examples:
hablar (ha-BLAR) "to speak" comer (co-MER) "to eat" vivir (vi-VIR) "to live" ciudad (ciu-DAD) "city"
When to add Spanish accent marks
First let’s cover our basics. Spanish accents (tildes) can only be written over the five vowels (a, e, i, o, u), and the accent is written from lower left to upper right: á, é, í, ó, ú.
As mentioned before, accented letters do not count as separate letters in the alphabet.
For many Spanish learners, accents can be daunting because they do not exist in English. However, they are quite simple. Spanish accents, unlike French accents, follow a regular pattern with very regular rules.
We add accent marks to Spanish words when the stress breaks either of those two rules.
Let’s look at one example in detail first, the word from my vocabulary test: los exámenes. The word ends in an “s”, so according to the first rule, the stress should fall on the next to last syllable: ex-am-en-es. But it doesn’t.
Rather, the word keeps the same stress as its singular form, on what is now the third to last syllable, so we add an accent mark: exámenes (e-xa-me-nes).
All words that have have an accent on the 3rd to last syllable (Esdrújula) or before (Sobresdrújula) must have an accent on their stressed syllable. The other cases are enumerated below.
Examples of Accented Words Because They Break Rule #1
Canción (song), También (also), Jamás (never)
These are words that end with 'n', 's', or a vowel, and have an accent on the final syllable. Usually, these words would have a stress on the second to last syllable.
Examples of Accented Words Because They Break Rule #2
Árbol (tree), Cárcel (prison), Débil (weak)
These are words that do not end with 'n', 's', or a vowel, and have an accent on the second to last syllable. Generally, these words would have a stress on the last syllable.
Examples of Accented Words Because They Are Homonyms
él (he), sé (I know), sí (yes)
Homonyms are words with the same sound.
These accents highlight the stress on a word, but not because they break a rule. Instead, they are used to differentiate, in writing only, words with identical pronunciation.
In the examples above, their unaccented counterparts are:
el (the), se (reflexive pronoun), si (if)
Examples of Accented Words Because They Are Question Words
Quién (who), Qué (what), Dónde (where), Cuándo (when), Cómo (how), Cuál (which), Cuánto (how much)
In special cases, with the majority of words listed above, words are accented because they pertain to questions. Some of them (like que and como) are also used to differentiate homonyms.
Examples of Accented Words because They Are Demonstrative Pronouns
Éste (this), Ése (that), Ésos (those)
This is mostly for trivia and completeness, since this is an article focused on speaking. A full rundown of this case can be found here.
How to Speak Spanish on the Sentence Level
The next level up from words is the sentence level. Needless to say, there is a lot of nuance in this layer. Take the following sentence in English, for example:
I never said she stole my money.
Depending on which word you emphasize, the sentence has a different meaning.
- Emphasizing the I would imply that someone else said that she stole my money, but I never did.
- Emphasizing the she would imply that I never said that she stole my money, but that someone else did.
- Emphasizing the my would imply that she stole someone else's money.
I'll leave it to the reader to figure out the others. Needless to say, sentence-level pronunciation elements are important. Emphasizing the wrong words leads to being misunderstood, and having poor intonation can lead to, among other things, people thinking that you are asking a question when you are really not.
Spanish is spoken much more quickly than other languages, including English.
What does this mean? Surely, Spanish films don't breeze by in half the time as their English counterparts. It turns out, the great equalizer is the information content in a sentence. It takes more syllables in Spanish to express the same ideas, so people must speak faster to get the point across in the same amount of time.
There are a few takeaways from this observation that will help you speak Spanish better.
Takeaway #1: Omitting Subject Pronouns
In Spanish, omitting the subject pronoun is not only allowed, but it is often preferred. The sentence:
Yo tengo treinta años.
means the same thing as
Tengo treinta años.
The second sentence, however sounds substantially less verbose than the first. In fact, if you were to emphasize the yo in the first sentence, it would have the same emphasis effects as the "I never said she stole my money" example.
The general rule is to use omissions whenever possible, save for when there is ambiguity. When talking to a group of older people, asking "¿Cómo se llama?", could lead to "Yo?", because the omitted pronoun could either by usted (you) or él/ella (he/she). To avoid confusion, it is common to add the usted afterwards, for
¿Cómo se llama usted?
A more in-depth discussion on question asking will come up later.
Takeaway #2: Not All Syllables Are Equally Important.
Another way Spanish speakers increase their talking speed is to blend syllables into each other or to take them out altogether. Here's an example of when you can link two adjacent words in Spanish:
"Normalmente cenamos a las siete y media (7:30)." (Normally, we eat at seven thirty.)
When the first letter of the word is the same as the last letter of the word before, you can often blend the two words. For example, the words "las" and "siete" would sound like "lasiete" in conversational Spanish.
Here's another case:
"¿Isaac y Kurt estan aquí? -- No, todavía no llegan."(Are Isaac or Kurt here? -- No, they've yet to arrive.)
When the last letter of a word is a consonant and the next word starts with a vowel, one can often blend them. In the example "están" and "aquí" can be combined into "estánaquí".
Finally, we arrive at a challenging one:
"Él ha estado en Portugal una vez." (He's been to Portugal once.)
When a word ends with a vowel, and the following word also begins with a vowel, a long string of connections can happen. From a native speaker, the sentence above's "ha", "estado", and "en", would sound something like "haestadoen".
It doesn't stop here. Spanish speakers, depending on the dialect and situation often will drop out consonants entirely. "Para" is shortened to pa', -ado endings sound like -ao, and oftentimes the 's' sounds are even removed. Enumerating all the cases is too difficulty here, but it is something you should be aware of.
Mastering Sentence Intonation
Generally, in Spanish, sentences follow a standard pattern. However, it's not very well known.
If the sentence does not start with a stress, it will sound like this:
- Start low.
- On the first stressed syllable (co-LOR), raise the pitch.
- On the last stressed syllable (RO-jo), drop the pitch.
- End the sentence low.
You can omit (1) on sentences that start with a stress. These sentences are much easier; you just need to be sure to start high and end low, to avoid the sentence sounding like a questions.
Besides this general rule, there examples of deviations in intonation because of specific ideas. There is an in-depth discussion here of the various reasons that are enumerated below:
- Expressing Emotions and Attitudes: When saying something like "¡Muchísimas Gracias!", or "Thanks a lot!", you can emphasize the excitement or gratitude by adding more empasis and higher pitch on the "CHÍ" sound. It is very common to express emotions and attitudes this way.
- Expressing a Question: This is covered later. A sentence like "Él está en la casa", or "He's in the house" can be turned into "¿Él está en la casa?", asking "Is he in the house?", simply by raising one's pitch at the end of the sentence.
- Expressing Focus: If one asks "¿...pero dónde está ÉL?", it has the same effect as asking "But where is HE?" in English. It places the focus on a particular word in a sentence, and often changes the meaning slightly.
- Expressing Parentheticals: One tends to drop the pitch during a parenthetical phrase, just like en English.
There are plenty of other examples. You can use intonation to express identity, for example, or for grouping certain objects into a sentence for clarity. Learning the nuances of intonation in Spanish takes lots and lots of practice and hard work.
Deep Dive Into Asking Questions in Spanish
We've mentioned it twice already, so let's give this commonly-asked topic an in-depth look. There are three ways to ask a question in Spanish.
Not all of them are applicable in every situation, or appropriate. But first, here are the ways:
Method #1: Intonation
Most of the time, you can change a sentence in Spanish directly from a statement into a question by raising the pitch at the end, just like one would in English. This isn't so common in English.
"You went to the store yesterday?" isn't nearly as common as "Did you go to the store yesterday?", as an example.
However, in Spanish, all it takes is a change in intonation. Take the phrase "Es nueva" from the following two sentences:
"Tu camisa esta bonita. ¿Es nueva?" (Your shirt is nice. Is it new?)
The only difference is the way one says "Es nueva", and the context and order of the sentences.
In fact, it is a common mistake to raise your voice in the middle of a sentence and have it sound like a question. It's especially a problem with English speakers, because it is fairly common and not harmful to raise the pitch at the end of a sentence in English. Avoid making statements sound like questions by dropping the pitch at the end always.
Method #2: Word Choice
This is a grammatical point, so I will cover it lightly. It is common, as well, to change the order of words in Spanish when asking a question. The statement:
Él tiene sed. (He's thirsty.)
Can be directly change into:
¿Él tiene sed? (Is he thirsty?)
¿Tiene él sed? (Is he thirsty?)
However, the rise in pitch at the end of a sentence is still necessary.
Method #3: Adding a Question Word
This one's simple. Just like one can add "Right?" at the end of an English sentence to make it into a question, all one needs to do in Spanish is to say a sentence with statement intonation, and ask "¿Verdad?" in order to make it a question.
When saying "¿Verdad?", it is important to ask it with proper question intonation.
How to Speak Spanish in Conversations
The defining moment for most people learning Spanish is to use it in real life. After hours of grueling pronunciation drills and memorizing vocabulary lists, you must face the moment of truth: am I actually getting understood?
If practicing words and sentences are homework, speaking in real life is the test. It is a rewarding and magical experience when you can finally hold your own in a Spanish conversation without assistance.
This last section delves into the motivation behind getting real-life practice and tips and tricks to maximize that experience.
Why should I have conversations in real life?
This one's simple. You don't get better at riding a bike without riding a bike. So why should you expect Spanish to be different?
Having conversations should be part of your practice routing from the very beginning. The feedback is invaluable, and the relationships you build will keep you going more than any textbook.
Here are a number of reasons to seek ways to practice Spanish in the real world:
Reason #1: Motivation
In the beginning, talking in a foreign language is tough, even if with a friend. Not only will you have trouble expressing basic ideas, if you're like me, you'll spend a good part of the conversation stalling for words.
This is all part of the process. All it takes it to look back on a few weeks of practice to see how far you've come.
For many, speaking with friends and the constant progress and improvement keeps them going. It gives a concrete reason to practice pronunciation during the week and learn new words. Being able to apply the new words in a conversation setting is invaluable to retaining the words into long term memory.
Reason #2: Listening Comprehension
A key part of speaking is learning to listen, being able to comprehend what is being said, and saying meaningful words in response.
You can only go so far listening to TV shows and podcasts, because for the most part, a lot of the material is not how people speak in real life. There is no substitute to having real life conversation with a wide variety of people.
Reason #3: Non-Verbal Communication
There's more to language than words. You can't practice facial expressions, hand gestures, or body language by practicing in front of a computer screen. In fact, body language accounts for between 60 and 80 percent of all communication.
Because there are substantial differences for non-verbal communication across cultures, having conversations with native speakers is the only way to mastering this crucial aspect of language learning.
How to Find Conversation Practice
Now that we've established clear reasons to engage in conversation practice, how does one find it?
For many it might seem like a daunting task. How does someone in Iceland learn to speak Spanish? What if you live in the middle of nowhere?
The good news is that no matter where you are, all it takes is a solid internet connection and flexing some extroversion muscles to find a quality language buddy.
Here are some tried and true ways:
Method #1: Websites and Skype
The first step is to install a video chat service. The most popular ones are Skype, and Google Hangouts.
Then, we're off to finding a person.
Some of the best sites, from personal experience are iTalki and Craigslist. You can also Google "Language Exchange" and see a number of niche sites for learning Spanish.
Send a friendly but short message to the virtual prospective language partner:
Hi, my name is _____. I'm interested in practicing my Spanish. I'm available between _________ to _________ on ________, _______, and _________. Are you available to practice? My Skype ID is ________.
If they say yes, you've got yourself a language buddy!
Method #2: Tandem
Tandem is a relatively new App for finding language partners if you have a smartphone. They have a nice messaging interface and built-in video chat.
People are screened from the platform and removed for abuse frequently, so this is popular new option for many people. There are plenty of Spanish speakers looking to learn English on the platform, so finding someone should not be difficult.
Method #3: In Person
This one's a given. If you have or can make friends in real life, all the better. A popular website for finding large group events for language practice is Meetup.
So, you've found yourself a language partner. How do you maximize the experience?
Mastering the Art of Language Exchange
The first language exchange can be daunting. Mine sure was. After all, you might barely know your hello's and goodbye's. What on earth are you going to do to fill the time?
Fortunately, there's not a whole lot to worry about. Your partner is probably thinking the same thing. Here are some tips to make the process smooth.
Tip #1: Make Mistakes
This isn't a test. You're actively looking to make mistakes, so you can get them corrected. There's no points in being conservative.
If you say something wrong, remember that it's way better to make a mistake in a friendly setting like a language exchange than somewhere where the stakes are higher. You should actively ask for corrections from your language partners, as it is very difficult to get corrections in normal day-to-day settings.
Tip #2: Have a Regular Schedule
Aside from the obvious timezone differences, rescheduling too often can strain the relationship of a language buddy. One of the most commonly reported complaints about the process is no-shows and frequent reschedules.
Having a regular schedule is good for study too. If you do a half hour meeting once every month, chances are, you will forget most of what happened last meeting. On the other hand, you'll easily pick up on conversation threads and learn much more if you stick to a frequent, regular schedule.
Tip #3: Take Notes and Practice
You don't learn nearly as much if you don't practice at home. I recommend bringing a smartphone or notebook and jotting down notes sporadically during a language exchange. Then, in the comfort of your own home, practice the things with which you had the most difficulty.
Then, come back and impress your partner with your newfound pronunciation skills. It's fun and rewarding at the same time.
Hopefully from reading the article, you realize that learning to speak Spanish is not as daunting as it sounds. From letters to words, sentences to conversations, nearly everything follows very clear, defined rules.
This article should help you understand the rules. Mastering the rules is another thing. If being understood in Spanish is like serving a ball over the net, we've just taught you basic tennis technique.
Now it's your turn to hit the courts.