Have you ever tried to speak with a Spanish native only to have them look back at you strangely? As you start to speak, you may notice them lean in, tilt their head to one side, and squint.
Everything about their body language is telling you they’re trying hard to understand you but they don’t really know what you are saying.
Whenever you see this type of body language, it’s a good sign you have a problem with your Spanish pronunciation.
There is good news though.
The likely cause of the problem is only a few specific Spanish sounds.
And these aren’t the foreign sounds that we tend to focus on when we first start learning Spanish.
Sounds such as ‘ll’, the throaty ‘g’, or the rolling double ‘r’ are fun and intriguing in the beginning. But these sounds won’t cause natives to misunderstand you if you botch their pronunciation.
Instead, it is the more familiar vowel sounds that will get you into trouble.
In this article, you’ll learn how to improve your Spanish pronunciation by specifically focusing on the most important sounds for native English speakers to practice: the Spanish vowels.
But, before we get to the vowels, the first thing you need to consider is how training your Spanish pronunciation requires a different approach to other components of your Spanish.
The philosophy of training your pronunciation
If you want to improve your pronunciation, you first have to come to an important realisation: training pronunciation is unlike other aspects of language learning.
Most components of language acquisition happen in the mind: grammar, vocabulary, phrases, and colloquial expressions.
In contrast, training your pronunciation is not a mental activity, it is physical.
A good parallel, to training pronunciation, would be learning how to dance or play a musical instrument.
Years ago I went to a dance class to learn how to do the Charleston.
I remember how challenging and unfamiliar the moves felt.
I have to do what with my knee? My foot has to spin in which direction? What exactly am I supposed to do with my hands? (Actually, can I just worry about my hands later?)
After spending some time working on each movement in insolation, you then have to coordinate all of the foot, ankle, knee, hip, and hands together in concert.
Along the way, you may also get tips that aren’t obvious from watching someone else do it such as keeping a low centre of gravity and leaning forward.
What I discovered is learning how to dance is not something you can look at, think about, and then do. Dancing requires you to coordinate movements of the body, make mistakes, get feedback, and then adjust.
Pronunciation is the same.
If you want to improve your pronunciation you need to think about how you are using your tongue, lips, teeth, mouth, lungs, and throat in harmony.
And like the awkward shimmy and shake of a new dance move, when you first try to voice an unfamiliar sound, it is going to feel weird and uncomfortable at the start.
Sometimes you have to open your mouth wider. At other times, you may need to touch your tongue to the top of your mouth, or back of your teeth.
Then, once you get a sound right, you need to repeat it until it feels natural and you don’t have to think about it anymore.
So, what are the right sounds to focus on? Let’s talk about this next.
The 5 sounds you need to learn to develop your Spanish pronunciation
I mentioned earlier, the area where you are most likely to get into trouble with pronunciation is the Spanish vowels.
The main problem is there are 14 to 21 vowel phonemes in English (depending on your accent), but in Spanish, there are only 5 vowel phonemes, one for each of the 5 vowels.
What this means is despite both languages having the same set of vowels, the way you pronounce a vowel in a certain English word could be completely unfamiliar to a Spanish native.
For example, a Spanish native will likely find the ‘a’ sound in ‘car’ almost completely indistinguishable to the ‘a’ sound in ‘cat’. In most English accents, these sounds are different.
For this reason, a Spanish person will struggle to pronounce these sounds when they are learning English, but more importantly, they will also struggle to hear them if you pronounce them in a Spanish word.
So, to avoid unfamiliar vowel sounds creeping into your Spanish pronunciation, first, you’ll need to learn the Spanish vowel sounds (I’ll cover that next), then you need to make sure you always use these 5 sounds and only these 5 sounds whenever you pronounce a Spanish word.
The Spanish Vowels
In this section, listen to the Spanish vowels and they try to mimic the sound as best you can.
In general, Spanish vowels are shorter than English vowels and the sounds are made at more exaggerated tongue positions than English.
For example, to make the Spanish ‘a’ sound, start with the English ‘a’ sound in ‘father’. Firstly notice how open your mouth is, then to make the Spanish ‘a’ open your mouth wider and shorten the sound.
1. The Spanish ‘a’
The Spanish ‘a’ is similar to the ‘a’ in ‘father’, ‘far’, and ‘pass’.
But, even better (and maybe strangely), the English word ‘bus’ is very close to the Spanish word ‘vas’. So, we can also think of the English ‘u’ sound in ‘bus’, ‘fuss’, ‘cut’, ‘but’ etc. as a good approximately for the Spanish ‘a’.
2. The Spanish ‘e’
The Spanish ‘e’ is similar to the ‘e’ in ‘bed’, ‘fed’, and ‘led’.
3. The Spanish ‘i’
The Spanish ‘i’ is similar to the ‘e’ in ‘be’, or the ee in ‘see’, and ‘free’.
4. The Spanish ‘o’
The Spanish ‘o’ is similar to the ‘o’ in ‘more’.
5. The Spanish ‘u’
The Spanish ‘u’ is similar to the ‘oo’ in ‘too’, or the ‘o’ in ‘do’.
Here are the 5 Spanish vowels together. Listen and then repeat, repeat, repeat:
Repeat these sounds as often as you can, 10 times a day for 2 weeks at least! You want to get to a point where you can make the sounds automatically without thinking about it.
How do you know you have pronounced something correctly?
The short answer to this question is to find a Spanish native or a teacher to practice with.
Another option for getting feedback on your accent is our live Spanish classes.
Ideally, you want to find someone you feel comfortable with so that you can handle critical feedback, and you aren’t afraid to make mistakes in front of them.
It is important that you try to get feedback from another person but there are some things you can do on your own. To work on your pronunciation on your own, you can consider using music, melody and rhymes to help you hit the right sounds.
Did you know someone’s accent disappears when they sing? This is a fascinating effect. The reason you lose your accent when you sing is that your native accent has melody and intonation that can’t coexist when you are following the melody of a song.
You can use this effect to assist in developing your Spanish accent.
Find a Spanish pop song that you like (Here are a few Spanish songs I like.). Then simply sing along.
Pay close attention to the lyrics that rhyme. You need to sing along and nail the rhyming sounds.
Another great genre to pop is rap music. Rap music doesn’t always have a neutral accent because it doesn’t always follow a melody, but there is lots of rhyming. If you can find a rapper with an accent you can follow, it can be a fun way to practice.
One more tip, if you do find a rapper that raps too quickly, you can use a media player like VLC player to simply slow the song down (and repeat short sections to learn the song in chunks).
As always, I encourage you to go out and practice what you have learnt in a Spanish conversation. But, this is even more essential for improving your pronunciation.
Just like you can’t learn the Charleston by thinking about it, you have to put your vocal cords into action to have a more accurate accent.
Ideally, you want to find someone that can give you feedback. But, if you can’t find someone to give you feedback, trying singing along with your favourite Spanish pop song.
How else can you improve your Spanish pronunciation?