This page contains hints so that you can easily learn Spanish pronunciation and how to say Spanish words online and for free. Anyone can use it – from a complete beginner to someone who is studying the language and wants to brush up on the details. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions please add them, or email me at [email protected]
Spanish is relatively easy to pronounce. It is a phonetic language which means that after you have mastered a couple of rules which always apply, you pronounce it as it is written – it doesn’t have the variables of French or English.
2. Where do you speak Spanish?
Spanish is spoken in Spain, and in South America, except for Brazil, where Portuguese is spoken.
3. Why does Spanish sound so different? The same word sounds different from one country to another.
The wide geographical location means that you are inevitably going to find variations in accent, which in many cases extend to the pronunciation of words. If all you have ever heard is Mexican Spanish, and you travel to Spain, you may be forgiven for thinking you have stumbled on another language altogether. Knowing what to look for makes the distinction much less daunting. In the database, I provide explanations and audio of words which sound different in different regions. See the next question for examples.
These differences also extend to the meanings of many words. At university, I studied mainly with South American lecturers. In my final year, I spent some time in Salamanca, in Spain, where accent aside, I came across words for basic things like ‘washing’, and ‘catching the bus’ which were quite different from what I’d been taught. I found out that the Spanish versions had very different connotations in South-America where these words were considered obscene.
4. What is the difference between South-American Spanish, and Spanish spoken in Spain?
When I refer to South-American Spanish, I am not referring to a separate language, but to Castilian/Spanish (see the next question) spoken with a Mexican or other South-American accent. When I refer to Spanish in Spain, I mean Spanish spoken with the accent used in Spain.
South-American Spanish – the kind you usually hear in movies, is the most straightforward to pronounce. Spanish, as spoken in Spain sounds very ‘lispy’, and is harder for the English speaker to master. The good news is that most of the variations in accent and pronunciation relate to the same letters. I deal with each of the letters in turn, with examples, in the questions that follow.
5. What is Castilian?
What we refer to as Spanish is more correctly known as Castilian. Castilian is the official language of Spain, as stipulated in the Spanish Constitution. Spanish or Castilian is not the only language spoken in Spain, nor the only language protected by the Spanish Constitution. Other official languages include Euskera, or Basque – a language which bears no resemblance to Spanish or any other modern language, Galician, which has elements of Castilian and Portuguese, Catalán, and Valencian. Castilian is also the language which is spoken in most of South-America, but it is commonly referred to as Spanish, which is the word I will use.
6. What is the Spanish ‘lisp’?
The so-called Spanish ‘lisp’ is particular to Spain, and not found in South-America. ‘Lisp’ is a misnomer, because when we refer to a lisp, we mean a mispronunciation of ‘s’ to a ‘th’ sound. In fact, the Spanish ‘s’ is not lisped at all – it sounds like the English ‘s’. The so-called ‘lisped’ letters are ‘z’, and ‘c’ when followed by an ‘i’, or ‘e’, and ‘d’ in some instances. In South-American Spanish, the ‘z’, and ‘c’, where followed by an ‘i’ or ‘e’ are pronounced like the ‘s’ in English. The softening of ‘d’ to a ‘th’ sound in certain instances is present in both Spanish, and South-American Spanish.
7. Can Italian help with Spanish pronunciation?
The biggest problem with English speakers who haven’t studied Spanish is the tendency to confuse Italian or French pronunciation with Spanish pronunciation. This is extremely prevalent in the UK, and much less of an issue in the United States where Spanish is more likely to be heard than Italian. A telling example is the way English speakers from the UK mispronounce ‘chorizo’, so it sounds like tchoh/REET/soh, which follows Italian rules on a Spanish word. In South Africa there is a tendency to apply a pseudo-French pronunciation to Spanish words – over here mispronouncing ‘Enrique’ to sound like ‘AhnReek’ (as in Iglesias) is very common.
You do find common ground between Spanish and Italian with most vowel sounds – the differences here are more related to accent than phonetic pronunciation, and because the two languages share the common ancestor of Latin many words are shared in recognisable form.
For a simplified explanation of the similarities and differences between Spanish and Italian please read the answer to Question 16.
8. How do you say ‘b’ ins Spanish? How do you say ‘v’s in Spanish words?
The rules for pronouncing ‘b’s and ‘v’s apply to both Mexican Spanish and Spanish from Spain. These two letters sound the same in Spanish : At the beginning of a word, or after an ‘m’ or ‘n’ you pronounce them both like the English ‘b’.
In all other cases these 2 letters are pronounced somewhere between a ‘v’ and a ‘b’– listen to the Spanish First Language Speaker sound files in this regard. If that sounds mind-numbingly complicated, you are not alone. I remember battling with this when I first learnt Spanish.
Unless you are studying Spanish to learn how to speak it correctly, not just how to say the odd word, round these letters off to the nearest equivalent and pronounce them as you would in English. The Spanish ‘midway between a b and a v’ sound does not exist in English, and a casual speaker is unlikely to get it right without practice.
English speakers tend to confuse the Spanish and the Italian ‘c’s.
In Spanish, a ‘c’ followed by an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ softens as it does in English – think of words such as ‘cinema’, ‘certain’, city etc. where the ‘c’ sound softens to an ‘s’ sound.
Depending on where you are, the ‘c’ modified by the ‘e’ or ‘i’ either sounds like an English ‘s’ (in South-America)
like the English ‘th’ sound in ‘thin’ (in Spain).
Geography is important – obviously if you are in the USA, you are more likely to use Mexican pronunciation, and in the UK Spanish (from Spain) pronunciation is more likely to be relevant.
In Italian, a ‘c’ followed by an ‘i’ or ‘e’ also softens, but to a completely different sound, the English ‘ch’ as in ‘catch‘. If you see a ‘ch’ followed by an ‘i’ or an ‘e’ in Italian then you pronounce it like the English ‘k’, or ‘c’ in ‘cut’, if you prefer. In Spanish, ‘ch’ is similar to the English ‘ch’ but sharper.
The Spanish ‘d’ is pronounced as in English after a pause; ‘n’; or ‘l’.
In all other cases, notably between vowels, it is pronounced with a softer ‘th’ sound in ‘the’. This applies across South-American and Spanish (from Spain) pronunciation.
Here are some examples of how the Spanish ‘d’ changes depending on where it is placed:
Dulce de leche – DOOL/seh theh LEH/tcheh (hard ‘d’ followed by a soft ‘d’)
desayuno- hard ‘d’ (breakfast)
crudo – soft ‘d’ – with a ‘th’ sound in ‘the’ because the ‘d’ is sandwiched between 2 vowels: ‘KROO/thoh’
caldo – hard ‘d‘ – follows an ‘l’
11. How do you pronounce ‘er’ in Spanish?
A common mistake English speakers tend to make with Spanish (and Italian and French for that matter) is to pronounce ‘er’ to rhyme with ‘her’ and ‘were’. The ‘er’ in these languages should be pronounced closest to ‘air’ and the ‘e’ sound in ‘where’.
The Spanish ‘g’ follows the basic trends of the English ‘g’. It sounds like the English ‘g’ in ‘gap’, unless it’s followed by an ‘i’ or ‘e’ when it softens to the ‘ch’ sound in ‘loch’. This modification of the ‘g’ happens in English too – think of words such as ‘aGEnt’, and ‘aGIle’, where the ‘g’ softens to a ‘j’ sound.
The Spanish ‘j’ sounds the same as the ‘g’ followed by an ‘i’ or ‘e’ – the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’.
It is perfectly acceptable for English speakers to ’round off’ this sound by substituting an ‘h’ for the softened ‘g’ and for the Spanish ‘j’ in words like ‘mojito’ (moh/HEE/toh). Remember that there is no ‘h’ sound in Spanish – the ‘h’ is always silent.
In Spanish ‘qu-’ always sounds like the English ‘k’. A good reminder is ‘mosquito’ (a loan word from Spanish). ‘Que’ sounds like ‘keh’, and ‘qui’ sounds like ‘kee’. French follows Spanish in this regard, but Italian is different – the sound there is ‘kweh’, and ‘kwee’ – think of the English words ‘question’ and ‘quit’.
14. How do you say ‘ll’ in Spanish?
In Spanish ‘ll’ and ‘y’ are both pronounced like the ‘y’ in ‘yes’. The Spanish ‘ll’ is not pronounced like an English ‘l’ in any Spanish dialect or accent. Be careful – if you see ‘y’ by itself in Spanish, it means ‘and’ and has a long ‘i’ sound like in ‘Tina’ and ‘machine’.
There are many places, particularly in South America where both the ‘y’ and the ‘ll’, or one or the other, are pronounced like the English ‘j’, or the English ‘s’ in ‘treasure’.
When it comes to ‘ll’ make sure the word you are saying is Spanish – this rule does not hold in Italian, where ‘ll’ is pronounced exactly as in English. You will also find the ‘ll’ in many French words sounds like the English ‘y’ in ‘yes’.
You should pronounce the Spanish ‘ll’ correctly – there is an equivalent sound in English – the ‘y’ in ‘yes’, and it is always applicable. This is not a sound to ’round off’.
15. How do you say ‘z’ in Spanish?
There is a clear difference in the way that ‘z’s, and ‘c’s followed by ‘i’ or ‘e’ are pronounced in Spain, and in South America.
In South America they are all pronounced like the ‘s’ in ‘set’.
In Spain they are lisped, and sound like the ‘th’ in ‘thin’.
Don’t confuse the Spanish ‘z’ with the Italian ‘z’, which has a ‘ts/ds’ sound as in ‘pizza’. One word which is often mispronounced because the user confuses Italian and Spanish pronunciation, is ‘chorizo’.
Tourists who have been to ‘Ibiza’ know all about this, and often go out of their way to correct other English speakers who say ‘Ibiza’ with an ‘s’ sound. Although they are, of course, correct, this is not the way you would pronounce this word in South American Spanish. If this you, then at least make sure your knowledge extends to every other word containing a ‘z’ in Spanish, so you don’t find yourself saying ‘I ate choritso in Ibitha’.
16. What do stress and accents mean in Spanish?
Spanish words are usually stressed on the penultimate syllable (the second to last syllable), and this is indicated by the use of capitals in my phonetic spelling of each word. Examples are
‘chorizo’ is phonetically spelled ’tchoh/REE/thoh’
‘mojito’ is ’moh/XEE/toh’
’amigo’ is ’ah/MEE/goh’.
In a word which has only 2 syllables, the first syllable is accented.
Accents in Spanish and Italian do not have the same effect as accents in French. A French accent will usually change the sound of the letter it relates to, whereas in Spanish and Italian, the accent will change the stress in a word. An example is ‘Atlántico’. Normally the stress would fall on the penultimate syllable, so you say aht/lahn/TEE/koh, but the accent puts the stress on the second syllable ‘aht/LAHN/tee/koh.
Another example is ‘café’. Because it’s a two syllable word you would normally say it ‘KAH/feh’, but the accent changes the stress so that you say ‘kah/FEH‘.
17. The difference between Italian and Spanish
It can be difficult for someone who hasn’t studied either language to distinguish between foreign languages when they are spoken. What I can say is that spoken Italian has a very sing-song sound, which Spanish does not have – it tends to sound brusquer. I did a summer course in Spain with a lot of Italian speakers, and you could hear them from a mile away when they spoke Spanish, even with perfect grammar and pronunciation, because they could not lose the sing-song affect to their speech. Spanish from Spain gives itself away more readily with the so-called ‘lisp’. Paying attention every time you hear a language will go a long way to you being able to recognise it.
If you are dealing with the written language, then it’s much easier to distinguish Italian from Spanish – just look out for double letters, particularly ‘c’s, ‘z’s, and ‘t’s – as a rule, you do not find them in Spanish. For example:
café caffè (coffee)
fruta frutta (fruit)
sofrito soffritto (browned onions)
Another clue is words ending in ‘i’ – these are usually Italian, and indicate a plural. Spanish plurals end in an ‘s’. For example:
dulces dolci (sweets)
Spanish words are often spelled with a ‘d’ whereas the Italian equivalent is spelled with a ‘t’. For example:
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