Spanish Pronunciation Guide - Part 1 (Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?)

Spanish Pronunciation Guide - Part 1 (Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?)


I have been working for some time to write a simple yet complete guide to Spanish pronunciation. I know many already exist. This site has two good references by Paralee and Lazarus. But I wanted to write one from the standpoint of an English speaker starting from 'scratch' trying to learn to pronounce Spanish words correctly. One that would not just explain what is pronounced but also how to do so and even with what to compare or contrast it in English. Maybe (to borrow a copyrighted term) this guide could be 'Spanish Pronunciation for Dummies.' cheese

Here is Part 1 of what I have come up with. I would really appreciate any comments or suggestions. From beginners, experts or native speakers, please. smile


In English, pronunciation of consonants is usually emphasized over vowels. Can you, for example understand this sentence: "Pls dnt wlk acrs th flr"? More than likely you can, even though it is missing all the vowels. Generally vowels are glided over quickly unless they are in the stressed syllable of a word. Notice at the end of the following words that the unstressed "A, E, I, O, U" all have a similar sound: dollar, trailer, crisis, sailor, minus. Something else to which English speakers are accustomed is that one vowel may have several sounds. Listen to the three distinct sounds of the letter ‘O’ as you pronounce "opposition". This simply doesn’t happen in Spanish. Really, this makes pronouncing words in Spanish much more logical than in English.

To speak Spanish accurately, pronunciation of vowels must receive more emphasis. This will require a deliberate effort to change how we think of pronouncing words. Vowels must always be pronounced clearly, with a pure, undiluted quality. Individual vowels are nearly always pronounced exactly the same, regardless of their position in a word. (See exception in ‘DIPHTHONGS’.)

Each vowel has only one sound as noted here:

A -- Similar to ‘a’ in ‘father’, ‘far’. Ex: anduvo, caso, mira.

E -- Similar to ‘e’ in ‘bet’, ‘web’. Ex: estado, peso, sirve.

I -- Similar to ‘i’ in ‘machine’. Ex: imagen, dice, dormí.

O -- Similar to ‘o’ in ‘obey’, ‘only’. Ex: ochenta, poder, tengo.

U -- Similar to ‘u’ in ‘nude’, ‘tube’. Ex: usted, buscar, tu.

The sound of each vowel is pure. It is cut short without adding any other sounds. In contrast, the long ‘A’ in English is more of a combination of two sounds: ‘gate’ is pronounced as if it were 'gayeet'. Long ‘O’ is oh-oo, as in ‘hello’ This may be hard for us English speakers to distinguish at first, but for a Hispanic it is unmistakable.

It helps to open one’s mouth wider than in English by having the lips more protruded or drawn back. At first, mouth and facial muscles may even get sore. But keep practicing! You will begin to hear the difference between saying o-po-si-ción and a-po-si-ción; de-lan-te and da-lan-te; na-ci-mien-to and na-sa-mien-to; oc-tu-bre and ac-tu-bre; de-cir and da-cir.

Once again, any and all comments, corrections, suggestions are welcome. I purposely chose the 'Let's Talk' category, because I want feed back, besides proofreading. This is a guide I will hand to my friends when they start to learn Spanish. I want to make this easy to understand and use. I don't expect a person reading this to pick up the accent of a native speaker. That will only come with practice and exposure to Hispanic cultures. Rather my goal is to help people speak Spanish clearly and accurately. So, please, what do you think of Part 1? (More to follow...)

updated ENE 13, 2010
edited by chaparrito
posted by chaparrito

9 Answers


Chaparri, good job on the killer thread, sorry, I did say I was not going to look at it...but Kattya got it so well...I thought it could hardly get any betterwink

Pero hablando de esto, una vez que hayas recopilado toda la información y has puesto todos los ejemplos, no será mala idea, componer un reference article.

Ya hablaremoswink

updated ENE 13, 2010
posted by 00494d19

I always understood the "e" to make a long "a" sound (per Lazarus). This goes waaaaay back to high school Spanish class. This will take some UNlearning!

updated ENE 13, 2010
posted by DR1960

HI chaparri, once you get this together, let's see if you write a reference article, I will post it for you or you might be able to do that yourself, I think 5k...., yes, 5k, so once you get this together, I will revise it, and then you can post it as a reference article, which I will then include in the articles on the reference sitegrin

updated ENE 13, 2010
posted by 00494d19
Whoa, hold on there. ;-) I hardly think this is reference worthy. I was thinking personal use, and am hoping to improve it with all the suggestions. - chaparrito, DIC 22, 2009

I like it, Chaparrito. My only question is to the pronunciation of the letter /e/.

I've often seen your examples, or examples like them, as in Paralee's examples of met and bed.

But if you look at Lazarus' example, he says the Spanish /e/ is "reasonably close the sound of the “a” in “mate”"

To me it goes both ways. In espero, the first e definitely sounds like the e in bet, but what about the second one?

And what about the word es? To me that word is pronounced more like ace than like ess. And thus the pronunciation of it agrees more with Lazarus' explanation than it does with Paralee's.

I've resolved this issue in my own mind by using the English word "egg" as my example. To me, that /e/ is in an in-between state- it can almost sound like a long /a/....aig..... or maybe not... ehg..? Admittedly, it depends on who is speaking as to how that /e/ is pronounced.

I realize that what I'm saying here is that there are two ways to pronounce the Spanish /e/, and that might not be good, but that is my observation.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of others.

updated DIC 24, 2009
edited by Goyo
posted by Goyo

Phonetics and phonology was one of my favourite subjects at university, so I'll try to explain everything as clearly as I can.

The idea sounds interesting. I think that if we could add the voice examples (in a form of hyperlinks or something like that) it would definitely help. Also, it would be nice if we presented the differences between various Spanish pronunciations of "c" and "z" (as /s/ and /?/).

I'd be careful with these examples, as they might be quite misleading:

U -- Similar to ‘u’ in ‘nude’, ‘tube’

One of the two pronunciations of "tube" is /tju?b/, and of "nude" - /nju?d/. I'd give "put" /p?t/or "look" /l?k/ as an example.

O -- Similar to ‘o’ in ‘obey’, ‘only’.

The pronunciation of "obey" is /????be?/, /???be?/, which is a lot different from Spanish "o"; but the British pronunciation of "lot" /l?t/ or "pot" /p?t/ shows some similarities to this sound. As for "only" - /???n.li/, /?o?n.li/, these are diphtongs and I know that some native English speakres have problems with this, they round their "os" too much and as a result it sounds like "ou".

I -- Similar to ‘i’ in ‘machine’.

This is a long English vowel, and the word is pronounced /m???i?n/. "Spotty" /?sp?t.i/ has the "i" sound which resembles the Spanish one.

Similar to ‘a’ in ‘father’, ‘far’.

Both these words /?f??.ð?(r)/ and /f??(r)/ contain a long vowel. Spanish "a" sound is closer to the strong form of the conjunction "but" /b?t/ or "mother" /?m?ð.?(r)/

In all the transcriptions I used the signs from the international phonetic alphabet; checked with Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.


Goyo, the Spanish "e" sound is most likely always the same. And it really resembles the "e" sound in the word "bed" /bed/, assuming that one pronounces it in a short manner. Check the pronunciation of "pero" in SpanishDict.

updated DIC 24, 2009
edited by Issabela
posted by Issabela
Actually the oo in mood, sounds closer to the Spanish u in my opinion. - BellaMargarita, DIC 22, 2009
'mood.' I like that. - chaparrito, DIC 22, 2009
It depends on how a person pronouces souds. But Spanish vowels are generally short, there are no such long vowels as in English. I can say this for sure, because I've got other languages to compare, which have vowels that soud like Spanish ones. - Issabela, DIC 23, 2009
Yes, Issa, but check the pronunciation of "esto". That's more of a long A sound. - Goyo, DIC 23, 2009
I'm not sure about that. I paid special attention when I listnened to native speakers and they don't sound long. But I think some regions an people speak in a different manner. - Issabela, DIC 24, 2009
When you listen to native Texans and New Yorkers speaking, you can also hear the difference. Not to mention the British and Australians. - Issabela, DIC 24, 2009

Goyo, the Spanish "e" sound is most likely always the same. And it really resembles the "e" sound in the word "bed" /bed/, assuming that one pronounces it in a short manner.

Ok, when Issa speaks, I listen. I respect what she says immensely. But this issue isn't settled for me this time!

First of all we have the statement of Lazarus, which is something that we can't just dismiss out of hand.

Now I have checked an old Spanish grammar, which says the following:

Spanish e has the open quality of English e in let, in all closed syllables, and also in all open syllables, when before ch, ll, rr, and when after u (él, vender, echar, ella, perro, bueno) In open syllables (except in the cases mentioned above) e has the sound of English e in they without the diphthongal glide. (le, debe, compré, tiene, ése) Note: A closed syllable is one ending in a consonant. An open syllable is one ending in a vowel or diphthong. Elementary Spanish Grammar- 1909- Aurelio Espinosa and Clifford G. Allen

So what do we really have here? Are there two versions of /e/ pronunciation rules in the Spanish speaking world? What is the definitive answer regarding the pronunciation of the Spanish /e/ ?

updated DIC 24, 2009
posted by Goyo
Oh, I didn't recognise you! A different photo :)) - Issabela, DIC 24, 2009
I appreciate the input! - chaparrito, DIC 24, 2009

Think of Lazarus' example word: 'mate'. Now try to say that without the final "ee" sound. To me that sounds more like the word 'met'.

And then think of how many Australians pronounce it; very similar to the way Americans pronounce "might". So, not only do you have to contend with the chaotic "spelling" of English but you also have the regional variations (and it is primarily the values of vowels that distinguish different accents among English speakers.

updated DIC 24, 2009
posted by samdie
Good pont! - chaparrito, DIC 24, 2009

Thanks for your comments Issabela! I can see you have a good foundation in this subject. Although they interest me, I have seriously studied neither phonetics nor phonology. So perhaps you can help me. As I've mentioned, I want a 'simple' guide to pronunciation for the average non-university-educated 'Joe'. And while there is no doubt in my mind that using international symbols can eliminate confusion and lead to a high degree of accuracy, they could be seen by many as completely foreign characters. Ergo, not 'simple'. smile

Here's what I've observed: All English dictionaries must use symbols or a key to explain pronunciation of each word. This is due to the variety of sounds that one English letter may have. However I have yet to see a Spanish dictionary with pronunciation symbols for each word. (Not that such doesn't exist, but, well, is there one?) This tells me that once a person learns the one or two sounds that each Spanish letter makes then that serves as the guide for every new word.

Further, I find that learning something new is best achieved if it can be related to something we already know. So I am trying to show that, for the most part, we already make similar sounds with our mouth. It is just a matter of identifying when we make them, and relating that sound to a Spanish letter. To further simplify this relation, I want to choose words that use a matching letter from English to Spanish.

Could you help me with the examples you thought were misleading? Issabela wrote:

One of the two pronunciations of "tube" is ...

That's a good point. I believe the symbols you listed would also make the sound in the word 'mute'. Is this the British pronunciation? Because in the U.S. the words 'too' and 'tube' have the same vowel sound. Is there a better word containing "U" that I could use? Or would it help to change the way I introduce it? Perhaps: "U -- Similar to the long 'u' sound made in 'nude', 'tube'."

The pronunciation of "obey" is ... a lot different from Spanish "o"

Is this another example of British pronunciation? Because the way I pronounce the "O" in 'obey' sounds like the "O" in Spanish. Whereas to me, the examples you give of 'lot' and 'pot' sound more like the Spanish "A". I agree with you about some who "round their "os" too much". But I believe I address this issue in general in my guide. What if I were to use the word 'okay'?

I -- Similar to ‘i’ in ‘machine’.

This is a long English vowel, and the word is pronounced...

By this were you agreeing or disagreeing on the appropriateness of using 'machine'?

Spanish "a" sound is closer to the strong form of the conjunction "but" or "mother"

Perhaps this is another 'British' pronunciation issue. The sound made by U.S. English speakers in 'but' and 'mother' is a short 'uh' also made in 'up' and 'luck', which is not that close to the sound that I hear from native speakers or what Lazarus described:

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".

To my ear his example is closer to the 'a' sound in 'father' and 'far', albeit not exactly the same.

I sincerely appreciate the comments. It is certainly helping me grasp the subject better. And the better one understands a thing, the better one can explain it to another. wink I hope you have time to respond to my questions. Anyone else is welcome to jump in as well. grin

updated DIC 27, 2009
posted by chaparrito

Hey Goyo! I do agree with you that the pronunciation of the Spanish "E" is difficult to equate to an English letter. I think Lazarus sums it up best in what he called his 'Simplified Version':

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.

My goal is to have a 'Guide' that is accurate, yet simple, but not one that covers all the phonetically precise nuances heard from a native speaker. smile Of course, trying to keep any 'foreign concept' simple for a beginner may perhaps come across as 'over-simplified' to some people. I'm trying to strike a balance, but lean toward simple.

So here's what I think about the "E" situation. I think that in American English the letter "A" does not best represent the sound of the Spanish "E". This is because it is almost always drawn out. This seems to agree with the comment in the 1909 Grammar book you mentioned:

e has the sound of English e in they without the diphthongal glide.

According to this, the 'diphthongal glide' (or the drawn out sound of "ee") needs to be cut off, in order to sound like the Spanish "E". This agrees with Lazarus' comment about how to pronounce "E" in Spanish:

This is reasonably close the sound of the “a” in “mate”, without the final “ee”

It is because of this 'final "ee"' sound typically pronounced with the English "A" that I feel it is best for beginners to avoid associating the Spanish "E" with the English "A". Think of Lazarus' example word: 'mate'. Now try to say that without the final "ee" sound. To me that sounds more like the word 'met'. He even used as a second example the word 'set'. I think you're use of 'egg' is good, but the short sound, never the long sound.

And with regard to "E" having different sounds depending on where they are in a Spanish word, once again Lazarus stated:

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 the two examples in the 1909 book are difficult to differentiate: "let" and "they (w/o the diphthongal glide)". When I say 'let' and then try to say 'they' without the gliding 'ee' sound, it sounds the same to me. Of course, in real-world usage, it may be possible to pick up on slight differences in pronunciation and nuances of the letter "E" even in a word spoken by a native speaker. But to me, this is something that is best to learn by exposure and experience. For the first many years of learning, I think it best to try to make each vowel always sound the same.

Hmmm... This turned out much lengthier than I intended. But it was an interesting topic. grin

updated DIC 24, 2009
posted by chaparrito
Well, I appreciate your additional consideration, and you've given me something to think about. In the end, that probably means Issa was correct after all. And that never surprises me. jeje - Goyo, DIC 24, 2009
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