Pronunciation Problems For Spanish-Speaking Learners Of English

Pronunciation problems and solutions for all speakers of Spanish.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

Although a strong Spanish accent is usually easier to understand than a similarly strong French or Portuguese one, the pronunciation can cause considerable strain for the listener and seem somewhat harsh and flat. More importantly, Spanish speakers often have listening comprehension far below their other skills.

School English lessons in most Spanish-speaking countries also tend to focus much more on reading and grammar than speaking and listening, and so pronunciation work will both help redress the balance and be considered worthwhile by students.

This article will focus mainly on pronunciation problems that cause miscomprehension, including some attempt to prioritise the entries in each section. The sections themselves are arranged more traditionally, starting with individual sounds.

Points That Spanish-Speaking Learners Of English Find Difficult

Vowels

Short and long vowel pairs

Perhaps the single biggest pronunciation problem for Spanish speakers is that their language does not have a distinction between short and long vowels. They often stretch all vowel sounds out too much and confuse pairs of short and long English vowel sounds like “ship” and “sheep” both in comprehension and speaking. Relevant pairs include:

  • bit/beat
  • not/note and not/nought
  • batter/barter
  • pull/pool

As the pairs above are all pronounced with different mouth positions as well as different lengths, focusing on that can help students distinguish between the minimal pairs above even if they don’t fully get the hang of vowel length.

Other vowels

In common with most learners, Spanish speakers find the distinction between the very similar sounds in “cat” and “cut” difficult to notice and produce. Perhaps more importantly, they can also have problems with the two closest sounds to an “o” sound in “not” mentioned above, making “boat” and “bought” difficult to distinguish. The unstressed schwa “er” sound in “computer” does not exist in Spanish, and neither do the closest long sounds in “fur” and “her”. Spanish speakers tend to find it much more difficult to recognise not rhotic versions of vowel sounds.

Consonants

Words written with “b” and “v” are mostly pronounced identically, making this perhaps the most common spelling mistake in Spanish. There is also no distinction between the first sounds in “yacht” and “jot” in Spanish and which of those two sounds is perceived by English speakers tends to depend on the variety of Spanish spoken (this being one of the easiest ways of spotting an Argentinean accent, for example). There may also be some confusion between the first sound in “jeep” and its unvoiced equivalent in “cheap” (a common sound in Spanish).

The “ch” in “cheese” may also be confused with the “sh” in “she’s”, as the latter sound does not exist in Spanish. The difference is similar to that between “yacht” and “jot” mentioned above, being between a smooth sound (sh) and a more explosive one (ch), so the distinction can usefully be taught as a more general point. Alternatively, the “sh” in “sheep” may come out sounding more like “s” in “seep”, in which case it is mouth shape that needs to be worked on.

Spanish words never start with an “s” sound, and words which are similar to English tend to have an initial “es” sound instead, as in escuela/school. This is very common in Spanish speakers’ pronunciation of English as well, leading to pronunciations like “I am from Espain”. Spanish speakers have no problem producing a hissing sound, so the secret is to have them make the word directly after that “ssss” and then practise reducing the length of that down to a short initial “s”.

Unlike most languages, the “th” sounds in “thing” and “bathe” do exist in Spanish. The problem with “bathe” is that the sound is just a variation on mid or final “d” for Spanish speakers and so some work on understanding the distinction between initial “d” and initial “th” is usually needed before it can be understood and produced in an initial position – in fact making the amount of work needed not much less than for speakers of languages entirely without this sound. The problem with “thing” and “sing” is different as it is a distinction that exists in some varieties of Spanish and not others, meaning that again for some speakers practice will need to start basically from zero.

Some speakers also pronounce a final “d” similar to an unvoiced “th”. “d” and “t” can also be a problem at the end of words, as can “thing”/“think” and sometimes “thing”/“thin” or even “ring” and “rim”. In general, Spanish consonant sounds vary more by position than English consonants do.

Although a “w” sound exists in Spanish, it is spelt “gu” and can be pronounced “gw”, sometimes making it difficult to work out if a “g” or “w” is what is meant.

As a “z” is pronounced as “s” or “th” (depending on the speaker, as in the two pronunciations of “Barcelona”), a “z” sound does not exist in Spanish. However, perhaps because not so much air is produced in a Spanish “s” I find that this version rarely produces comprehension problems.

Although a Spanish “r” is different from most English ones, it rarely causes comprehension problems. However, the English “r” can seem so soft to Spanish speakers that it is sometimes perceived as “w”.

The Spanish “j” in José (similar to the Scottish “ch” in “loch”) and the English “h” in “hope” rarely if ever cause communication problems, but is perhaps the main thing to work on if students are interested in accent reduction. An English “h” is like breathing air onto your glasses so you can polish them, and students can actually practise doing that to help.

Spanish doesn’t have the soft, French-sounding sound from the middle of “television” and “pleasure”, but this rarely if ever causes comprehension problems.

Number of syllables

Particularly when it comes to final consonant clusters in English, Spanish-speakers can suffer both from adding extra syllables (e.g. three syllables for “advanced” with the final “e” pronounced) and swallowing sounds to make it match the desired number of syllables (e.g. “fifths” sounding like “fiss”). With words that are similar in Spanish and English, they can also often try to make the English word match the Spanish number of syllables.

Word stress

Trying to make Latinate words in English match Spanish pronunciation is also true for word stress. There is also a more general problem that Spanish, unlike English, has a pretty regular system of word stress.

Sentence stress

Spanish is sometimes described as a “syllable-timed” language, basically meaning that each syllable takes up about the same amount of time. This means that the English idea of unstressed syllables and weak forms being squashed in between stressed syllables doesn’t really exist in Spanish. This can make it difficult for Spanish speakers to pick out and point out the important words in a sentence.

Intonation

Spanish speakers, especially males, can sound quite flat in English, and this can cause problems in formal situations and other times when polite language is needed (especially as Spanish speakers also have other problems with polite language such as over-use of the verb “give”).

Alphabet

The names and pronunciations of the letters of the alphabet in Spanish can cause confusions between these pairs in both listening and speaking, e.g.

  • A/E
  • A/R
  • E/I
  • C/K
  • G/J
Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
July 2012 | Filed under Teacher Technique
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.