“At last, a post about Spanish!”
I hear you cry. “Oh wait, it’s really really basic stuff...”
But do not despair. Whilst this topic is aimed at the beginner. Even if you consider yourself at a more advanced level, this subject is worth recapping. Getting this right from the start will save you an enormous amount of time later on. And if you’ve already formed bad habits, I’d argue it’s even more important to correct those habits as soon as possible. So, let’s begin by discussing the pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet and why it’s important to get this right from the start.
Believe it or not, even if today is your first foray into learning Spanish, you already know hundreds of Spanish words. Why? Because English and Spanish have a huge number of words in common that are spelt EXACTLY the same. Furthermore, there are even more words that, whilst aren’t identical, are so similar you could guess their meaning. This is great news, right? Well yes, but before we conclude we’ve already made a great head start on things, it’s important to realise that those identical or similar words may only be such in the written. How they are said, could be quite different.
Mispronunciation of letters and words in general is, in my opinion, the single biggest barrier to understanding and being understood when starting out with Spanish. Even amongst my English and Spanish speaking friends with very good levels of proficiency and fluency, exactly this problem occurs time and time again. The problem with words we already know or find familiar is, we tend to gloss over them, and our brains just assume we already know how to say them. Luckily this is relatively easy to address early on, providing we focus on pronunciation now. I’d much rather someone reading this comes away not learning a single new Spanish word but be able to say what they know correctly, than learn 10 new words said badly.
The pronunciation of Spanish letters is fairly straightforward in comparison to English. By that I mean: overall, Spanish only observes a few rules for pronunciation, and generally speaking, once you know the rules, you should be able work out how a word is spelt just by hearing it. This is not the case in English, where spelling is a law unto itself. In English you need to learn both how a word is spelt AND pronounced.
Spanish has the same 26 letters from A to Z, as found in English. In addition to this there are 4 extra characters, not found in English (more about those in a moment). You may also have noticed that Spanish vowels can have accents over them in some cases. I’m going to deal with accents in another blog entry, as their function are so important they deserve a post in their own right. But we can simply summarise and say: Any vowel with an accent above it, doesn’t in fact change its sound in any way. Instead this tells you where to put stress in the word.
In addition to A to Z, in Spanish, ch, ll, rr and ñ are also considered to be letters from the alphabet. Of course, in English, a double-r, ch or double-l, are not considered seperate letters, but in Spanish they are.
So, what are the rules of letter pronunciation in Spanish? Well, this is where things start to feel easier, compared to English. Unlike English, where spelling, more often than not, seems to break every rule under the sun. Spanish on the other hand, has very few rules and modifiers. For example, in English, the sound of a vowel changes depending if it’s grouped together with other vowels and most notably, depending if the word ends in an e or not. In Spanish vowels are not modified based on other letters in the word.
The following list goes through each letter of the Spanish alphabet giving some pronunciation tips and audio examples to help you perfect your Spanish lilt. It's worth checking the audio clips several times to fully appreciate how each letter sounds within real Spanish words. Remember if you can make a conscious effort to get this right today, you will find you will be understood much more readily from the start. A | la a
The letter A sound is pronounced in Spanish words rather like the short interjection sound ah
used in English. For example: “Ah, yes you’re right.”
alto, antes, África B | la be
Pronounced much like the English B sound. Note: The letters B and V are considered phonetically the same in Spanish, they both have a sound like the English B, not the V.
bailar, burro, trabajo C | la ce
The letter C sound follows a very similar rule to English in its pronunciation. Usually C has a sound like an English K as in “car, coat, carry, cup”
. But when the C is followed by either an E or I, the sound changes to be either like the English C sound in “centre, city, cinema, cellar”
or the th
sound from ”thick, this, thin”
. This depends on the part of the Spanish speaking world you find yourself.
cien, centro, cama, color Ch | la che
Sounds exactly as you’d expect. Think of the ch
sound in the English words “chat, chess, cheese, chew”
It seems hard to understand why this special character was introduced. But I believe it stems from how the H is treated as a silent letter, always. This special character was created as an exception to an otherwise hard and fast rule for H.
champú, chico, chorizo D | la de
Pronounced as a soft English D sound.
de, dolor, día E | la e
The letter E sounds like the interjection sound eh
used in English to convey confusion. For example: “Eh? What?”
entrada, esposa, este F | la efe
Exactly as the English F sound.
familia, flores, fuego G | la ge
Usually G has a sound like an English G as in “gate, grin, get, got”
. But when the G is followed by either an E or I, the sounds changes to be more like a stronger English H from words like “how, hope, harrow”.
In this case the sound is more like the Spanish J.
Notice that the G actually has the same rule as the C in Spanish. In that it changes its sound if followed by an E or I.
gafas, gordo, gema, jengibre H | la hache
The letter H in Spanish is silent. Always. If you hear a word where its said like an English H, the chances are it’s simple an English word that’s crept into the vocabulary. Brand names are good examples and are rife.
hasta, helado, alcohol I | la i
Pronounced like the ee
sound in the English words “bee, see, tree, glee”
. It's ee
and never eye
Ibiza, iglesia, iris J | la jota
The Spanish J sound is very much like the English H sound. It is never said like an English J. For many newcomers, this is one of hardest habits to break. To reprogram your mind to sound an H instead of a J.
José, jamón, Japón, jarra K | la ka
Exactly as the English K sound.
kilogramo, koala, karate L | la ele
Pronounced like the English L sound.
limón, león, letras Ll | la elle
Pronounced how an English Y sound would be. Like the y
sound in the words “yes, yelling, yikes”
llaves, ella, bocadillo M | la eme
Pronounced like the English M sound.
madre mia, menos, microscopio N | la ene
Pronounced like the English N sound.
naranja, negro, niños Ñ | la eñe
This letter sounds like an English N and Y in combination. You may even see used NY as alternative spelling for Ñ, although strictly speaking it’s not correct. It should be pronounced much like the
ny sound from ”canyon”
niña, señor, ñame O | la o
The Spanish O sound is very much like the English O. Think of the o
sound from ”top, stop, operate”
Remember, when 2 Os are side by side in Spanish that does NOT make an oo
sound as in English. You just sound out each letter individually.
ocho, ola, cooperar P | la pe
Pronounced much like as you would the English P sound in words.
padres, papá, piano Q | la cu
The Spanish letter Q is always followed by U. In combination they take on the sound of the English K.
quiero, queso, quizá R | la ere
The Spanish letter R when is used inside a word is fairly close to a standard English R sound. However, there is a rule change if the R is the first letter of the word. In this case it takes on the more drawn out and rolled sound of the Spanish rr letter. See below for more details.
rápido, red, pero rr | la doble ere
rr or the double R is probably one of the hardest letters for non-Spanish speakers to master. Often referred to as the Spanish Trill, or a rolled R. However you want to call it, it’s a tricky one to master. I could do an entire blog post on this subject alone, and probably will do in the near future. But don’t get too bogged down if you can’t do it immediately, most people can’t. Just be aware there is a big difference in Spanish between R and rr. To many English speakers there really is no appreciable difference, but always try to remember there is one even if you can’t master it yet. It will come. Because any word starting with an R automatically takes on the sound of rr, no Spainish word can start with rr.
perro, burro, Roberto S | la ese
Exactly as the English S sound.
sábado, sí, sucios T | la te
Sounds as the English T sound.
triste, tomate, tortilla U | la u
As the English ue
sound found in words like ”glue, sue, blue, true”
. In addition to this, there are some subtle but important rules with U. In Spanish, the U becomes completely silent if between G and E or G and I. For example in the Spanish word ”guitarra”
, the U makes no sound. It is also silent between Q and E and Q and I. Examples being "que, queso, quiero"
agua, Juan, último, uno V | la uve
As mentioned above: in Spanish the letters B and V are considered phonetically the same. The V is often referred to as the soft B. I think for the purposes of this list, it perfectly fine to continue to treat the Spanish V sound much like an English B. How soft you feel you need to make it, is up to you. But don’t get bogged down by this. It’s a B.
vale, vaca, vehículo W| la doble uve
Sounds as the English W sound. However, there are no natively Spanish words using the letter W.
el wok X | la equis
In most cases X will be preceded by an E to make words beginning with ex. This is pronounced much like English words beginning with ex. Other times you’ll see X used in Spanish is likely to be names and there will be a lot of regional difference. A topic for another post.
extinto, excitó, contexto, mixto Y | la i griega
Sounds as the English Y sound in most cases. However, when finishing a word it can sound more like a Spanish I.
yo, yema, guay Z | la zeta
This is another one where regional accents will come into play. A nice way to describe this is, as sounding like anywhere between the th
sound from the words ”thick, both, thin”
to simply a normal English S sound. Depending where you are in the Spanish speaking world will put you somewhere along that scale. But the sound is more s
zanahoria, zorro, zona, zarzamora