Spanish alphabet - how do letters sound
This is a simple set of rules to read Spanish, but for a more precise description on how to accurately pronounce each sound, scroll down to "DETAILED VERSION".
• In Spanish, all letters are pronounced all the time, except the h, which is always silent in Spanish words.
• Spanish vowels are completely different from English vowels in isolation, except maybe for the "u", which is like the sound of "oo" in "food", but shorter. The sound of the other four vowels need to be learnt very carefully, for nothing in English resembles their sound. The advantage of the Spanish vowels is that each one always sounds exactly the same, no matter what other vowels or consonants it has nearby. Even if you read vowel by vowel, you always get the right sound.
• The letters f, k, l, m, n, p, qu, s, w, x and y are virtually identical in both English and Spanish.
• The letters b and g are similar sometimes, but in other cases there are significant differences worth learning. The letter d can be understood most of the time if pronounced like in English, but it is notably different in Spanish.
• The j is similar to an English "h".
• The r has the famous strong trilled sound that people find so difficult to pronounce, at the beginning of a word, or after "n", "l" or "s". In all other situations, it is similar to an American "d" (yes, a "d") in "caddy".
• The combination ch sounds like "ch" in "church", always.
• The combination ll is close to the initial sound of "use", but without the final "oos" sounds.
• The letter ñ should sound like in the climate pattern El Niño.
• The letter g sounds like an Spanish "j" before "e" or "i". If an extra "u" is inserted in these cases before the vowel and the "g", the sounds is like "g" in "game" (ie. "gue", "gui"), but the "u" is not pronounced at all. If the "u" is to be pronounced, it should be written with a diaeresis: "güe", "güi".
• In all other cases, the g sounds like "g" in "game".
• Accents over the words indicate where the stress should be placed (eg. "papá"). Latin American pronunciation of c and z.
• The z sounds like an "s".
• The c sounds like an "s" before "e" or "i", and like a "k" in all other cases. Spanish pronunciation of c and z.
• The z sounds like "th" in "thin".
• The c sounds like "th" in "thin" before "e" or "i", and like a "k" in all other cases.
a: This sound does not occur in English in isolation, but if you take a word like "my", which sounds like a fast "ma"+ "ee", and you omit the last "ee" sound, you get a pretty convincing Spanish "a". However, if you say "ma" alone in English, the sound is not the same.
b: This sound is quite different from the English “b”, actually. After a pause, "l", "m", or "n", it sounds pretty much like in English, but in all other cases, the lips never touch, producing a sound that is almost a whisper. This softer, “whispery” sound does not exist in English.
c: Before "e" or "i", it sounds like "th" in "thin" in most parts of Spain, but like an "s" everywhere else. In all other cases, it sounds like a "k" (see below). The combination ch always sounds like “ch” in “chart”, and never like “ch” in “chorus”.
d: This sound is quite different from English “d”, again. After a pause, "l", "m", or "n", it is not too different from English, except for the fact that you must touch your upper teeth with your tongue, and not your alveolar ridge. Touching the alveolar ridge, which is the English way of saying the "d", results in a sound that is virtually a Spanish "r" (especially in American English), so you have to be careful. If the "d" is not after a pause, "m", or "n", the tip of the tongue does not touch anything, producing a “whispery” sound very close to the English "th" in "the".
e: This is reasonably close the sound of the “a” in “mate”, without the final “ee”, or the British “e” in “set”, but with the tongue slightly raised and moved forward, especially if you speak American English.
f: This sound is the same as the English “f”.
g: This sound is quite different from the English “g”. Before “e” or “i”, it sounds like a rather harsh English “h” (see how to pronounce the Spanish “j” below). In all other cases, its sound is more like the English “g” in “get”, but there is a crucial difference: after a pause, "l", “m”, or “n” (does this sound familiar?), the sound is practically like in English, but otherwise, the tongue never touches the soft palate, making a sound which is almost a whisper. This softer, “whispery” sound does not exist in English.
h: As a general rule, It is absolutely silent, and we keep it there only because it reminds us what the etymology (=origin) or the word is. However, in a few foreign words with foreign spelling and no equivalent in Spanish, the aspiration is maintained. Some of the few exceptions include some place names, such "Hong Kong", "Hollywood" or “Hawái” (but not many others like "Haití", "Hamburgo" or "Hungría"), and recently introduced words such as "hobby", "hácker", "haiku", "hall", "handling", "hándicap", "holding", "hansa", “hámster”, "hachís", "hardcore", "heavy (metal)" (pronounced as "jebi" in Spanish), "hip-hop", "hippy" (also, "jipi"), "hit", "hooligan". Most of these words are still written in italics (or any other way) to highlight their foreign origin. In theory, these words should have been re-written as "jáquer", "jaicu", "jol", "jandlin", "jándicap", "joldin", "jansa", "jámster", "jachís", "jar cor", "jevi", "jip jop", "jit" and "juligan", which is exactly how we pronounce them, but it has become more fashionable to keep the original spelling at the expense of making our spelling less consistent.
i: This sound is quite similar to “ee” in “see”, but not that long. Before the vowels “a”, “e” and “o”, its sound is similar to “y” in “yes”.
j: This letter is pronounced differently in different countries. The harshest version of it is like someone making a noise with the throat before spitting up. The softest one is slightly harder than the English “h”, but raising the middle part of the tongue against the palate.
k: This letter is only used in words that are not from Spanish origin. The sound is pretty similar to the English one, but there is no explosion after releasing the air.
l: Although it is not pronounced that differently from the English letter, with the Spanish “l” the tongue is raised and fairly close to the upper part of the roof of the mouth, whereas with the English “l” the tongue has a concave shape (like a dip), giving a lower pitched sound.
ll: This is not a letter, but it has its own distinct sound. Depending on the country, it can be pronounced in four different ways, but the most common one (except in Argentina and Uruguay) is a sound pretty close to the starting sound in “use” (without the final “oos”), but the tongue is moved forward. m: This sound is the same as the English one.
n: This sound is the same as the English one.
ñ: This is the 17th letter of the Spanish alphabet, and it is not a modified “n”, so when checking a dictionary, this letter is found between the “n” and the “o”. The closest sound to this in English is the combination of the sound “ni” in “onion”, but the tongue must press tightly the whole roof of the mouth.
o: This sound is similar to the “o” in “so”, but without the final “oo”. (“So” is pronounced like “so+oo”.)
p: This sound is similar to the English one, but without the explosion after opening the lips.
q: This letter sounds like a Spanish “k”. It is always followed by “u”, which is always silent.
r: After a pause, “l”, “n”, or “s”, or in the combination “rr”, it has a trilled sound that it is generally very difficult for non-Spanish speakers. The trick is to do with your tongue what you do when you say “brrrr” when you are cold, but using your tongue, not your lips. The tongue must be raised and widened so it touches the upper teeth, and it seals the mouth so that no air can escape. When you exhale, the air has no option but to push the tongue (as there are no gaps), and it makes it vibrate in the process. The tip of the tongue should not be as tense as the sides, which must remain in place, preventing the air from escaping through the teeth. In all other situations, the sound of the “r” is very similar to the American “dd” in “caddy”.
s: This sound is quite similar to the English one.
t: This letter has a few important differences from the English one: first, your tongue must touch your teeth (in English it doesn’t), and you must avoid the explosion after moving your tongue away, especially in words with “ti”.
u: It sounds like in “oo” in “food”, but shorter. Before the vowels “a”, “e” and “o”, it sounds like the initial sound in “one”, minus the “ah” sound.
v: It sounds exactly like a Spanish “b”. We cannot tell apart “b” from “v” when we hear words in Spanish.
w: This is not a Spanish letter, so it normally sounds like it does in English.
x: Between vowels or at the end of a word, it sounds like “ks”, as it does in English, although it is normal to relax the pronunciation, and make it sound like “gs”, and in Spain, sometimes like an “s”. This also happens in some English words, like “exam”. At the beginning of a word, it sounds like an “s”. In medieval Spanish, the “x” was used completely differently: instead of having a “ks” sound, it represented the sound of the modern Spanish “j”, and this can be seen in a few place names, like Mexico, Oaxaca or Texas, that in modern Spanish should have been written as “Méjico”, “Oajaca” and “Tejas”, but since the original spelling is part of their heritage, they keep spelling these with an “x” even though it is pronounced like a Spanish “j”.
y: At the end of a word, it is like a Spanish “i”. Otherwise, its sound is like the typical Spanish “ll” (see above). In a few areas in Latin America and Spain, "y" and "ll" are pronounced differently, but most people tend to pronounce them the same. Any textbook published in Spain will insist on differentiating between both sounds.
z: In most parts of Spain, it sounds like “th” in “thin”. Everywhere else, it is pronounced like a Spanish “s”.