Pronunciation Problems

A common complaint from native Spanish people in their attempts to learn English is the various difficulties that come up when trying to pronounce certain words correctly. One of the main causes of this problem is the general focus in Spanish schools towards grammar and reading, and the neglect of oral and listening skills. Here we have a look at some common problems faced by Spaniards with regard to their pronunciation.

Vowels

Perhaps the single biggest pronunciation problem for Spanish speakers is that their language does not have a distinction between short and long vowels. They often stretch all vowel sounds out too much and confuse pairs of short and long English vowel sounds like “ship” and “sheep” both in comprehension and speaking. Relevant pairs include:

  • bit/beat
  • not/note and not/nought
  • batter/barter
  • pull/pool

As the pairs above are all pronounced with different mouth positions as well as different lengths, focusing on that can help students distinguish between the minimal pairs above even if they don’t fully get the hang of vowel length.

Consonants

Words written with “b” and “v” are mostly pronounced identically, making this perhaps the most common spelling mistake in Spanish. There is also no distinction between the first sounds in “yacht” and “jot” in Spanish and which of those two sounds is perceived by English speakers tends to depend on the variety of Spanish spoken (this being one of the easiest ways of spotting an Argentinean accent, for example). There may also be some confusion between the first sound in “jeep” and its unvoiced equivalent in “cheap” (a common sound in Spanish).

Spanish words never start with an “s” sound, and words which are similar to English tend to have an initial “es” sound instead, as in escuela/school. This is very common in Spanish speakers’ pronunciation of English as well, leading to pronunciations like “I am from Espain”. Spanish speakers have no problem producing a hissing sound, so the secret is to have them make the word directly after that “ssss” and then practise reducing the length of that down to a short initial “s”.

Some speakers also pronounce a final “d” similar to an unvoiced “th”. “d” and “t” can also be a problem at the end of words, as can “thing”/“think” and sometimes “thing”/“thin” or even “ring” and “rim”. In general, Spanish consonant sounds vary more by position than English consonants do.

The Spanish “j” in José (similar to the Scottish “ch” in “loch”) and the English “h” in “hope” rarely if ever cause communication problems, but is perhaps the main thing to work on if students are interested in accent reduction. An English “h” is like breathing air onto your glasses so you can polish them, and students can actually practise doing that to help.

Number of syllables

Particularly when it comes to final consonant clusters in English, Spanish-speakers can suffer both from adding extra syllables (e.g. three syllables for “advanced” with the final “e” pronounced) and swallowing sounds to make it match the desired number of syllables (e.g. “fifths” sounding like “fiss”). With words that are similar in Spanish and English, they can also often try to make the English word match the Spanish number of syllables.

Sentence stress

Spanish is sometimes described as a “syllable-timed” language, basically meaning that each syllable takes up about the same amount of time. This means that the English idea of unstressed syllables and weak forms being squashed in between stressed syllables doesn’t really exist in Spanish. This can make it difficult for Spanish speakers to pick out and point out the important words in a sentence.

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