Pronunciation for Spanish speakers
By Ethan Mansur
English pronunciation can be challenging for learners from all language backgrounds, but it is particularly difficult for Spanish speakers because of the lack of equivalency in their respective sound systems. The aim of this article is to help teachers working with Spanish learners better anticipate the common problems Spanish learners have with individual sounds, word stress and spelling pronunciation when learning to pronounce new vocabulary, as well as offering some ideas for practical classroom activities.
Before we dive in, please complete the following task. Here is a list of vocabulary from a B1 coursebook. Look at the list and answer the questions:
- Which of these words do you think would be particularly hard for Spanish speakers to pronounce?
- Why did you choose these words?
- How could you help students pronounce these words better?
dress, top, skirt, belt, T-shirt, suit, coat, tie,
scarf, tracksuit, jacket, hat, cap, blouse,
pajamas, trousers, jeans, shorts, shoes,
boots, trainers, socks, tights, gloves, mittens
While reading the article, keep these words in mind and then check your answers at the end.
Now let’s look at some issues with individual sounds that can negatively affect Spanish speakers’ intelligibility in English, starting with consonants.
Sounds like /v/ that don’t exist in Spanish are always tricky. To further complicate things, the Spanish alphabet contains both the letters “b” and “v”, which a few centuries ago represented two different sounds, but today both are pronounced as the same phoneme. Consequently, Spanish speakers tend to produce the Spanish /b/ sound for both letters. For example, my students often say /beri/ for “very.” I agree with (Walker 2001) that problems with /v/ seem to persist even at higher levels, when Spanish learners have already mastered other difficult aspects of English pronunciation.
In general, consonants are easier to teach and correct than vowels, because we can talk about parts of the mouth and throat which touch and how the airflow is stopped or interrupted. This is particularly true of sounds like /v/ that are made in the front of the mouth. In class, you can have your students look at themselves in a mirror or their mobile phone. Have them exaggerate the difference in articulation between /b/, which requires you to close your lips, and /v/, where you put your upper teeth on your lower lip. To practice, students could write dialogues using a minimum number of words containing /v/, and then read them aloud to the class. Extra points for making your classmates laugh! Another idea is to have students dictate sentences containing /v/ to each other.
Second language learners tend to transfer their own sound system to the new language. For Spanish speakers, a good example is the English /r/ sound, which is often substituted by either the tapped or trilled Spanish /r/ sounds. In my experience, students will get to grips with /r/ at the beginning of words at lower levels, but at higher levels they still have trouble with it in consonant clusters, such as /dr/ in “drink.”
The big difference between the tapped or trilled Spanish /r/ and the English /r/ is that in Spanish the tip of your tongue makes contact with the tooth ridge on the top of your mouth. In English, it doesn’t. For consonants like /r/, which are articulated farther back in the mouth, visual diagrams can be very useful. A picture showing the mouth from the side is adequate, but studies have shown that animated video is even better (Rogerson-Revell 2011). Check out the wonderful app called Sounds of Speech created by the University of Iowa. To practice /r/, one fun activity is to have students write their own tongue twisters and then get them to practice saying them aloud.
/j/ and / ʤ/
/j/ is the sound we make at the beginning of “you;” /ʤ/, the sound we make at the beginning of “jazz.” To English speakers, these are completely separate sounds, but in Spanish they are allophones, which means they are perceived as two versions of the same sound. This means that Spanish learners are bound to not only have trouble producing /j/ and / ʤ/ but may struggle at first to actually hear the difference between them.
One good resource in this case is minimal pairs—that is, two words in which a single sound creates a difference in meaning, for example, “jet” and “yet.” There are many self-study pronunciation books, such as Ship or Sheep? (Baker 2006), that make extensive use of minimal pairs, following the common order of listening, imitation, production. For years, I’ve used a yellowing, dogeared copy of an ancient book I found in a used bookstore in Boston called English Pronunciation for Spanish Speakers (Dale and Poms 1986). The lists of minimal pairs in this type of book can be brought to life in the classroom in innumerable ways: getting the students to stand up and move to the right or left side of the room, snapping when they hear one sound, clapping for the other. Google “minimal pairs activities” for dozens of others.
Note: one danger with minimal pairs is to focus solely on the sounds and ignore the actual meaning and use of the words themselves. One nice activity is to have students write sentences that actually make sense containing both items in a minimal pair, e.g. “Jam is sweet, but ham is savory,” and then practice saying them aloud.
/s/ + consonant in word initial position
In Spanish, there are no words that start with /s/ plus another consonant, but in English this consonant cluster is very common: “start,” “school,” “Spanish,” etc. At least in Spain, where I teach, students seem to invariably insert a vowel at the beginning of these words.
In my experience, my students are quite capable of pronouncing a word like “start” correctly when drilled in isolation, but it’s a great deal harder in combination with other words. So I’ve started to drill these words in full sentences, e.g. “When do you start school?” That way students get more used to the /s/ plus consonant combination when it comes into contact with other words. I’ve also had students sing along to snippets of songs containing this type of word.
Now we will turn our attention to vowel sounds. In general, these are harder to teach than consonants, because we can’t refer to any specific points of contact where the sounds are articulated in the mouth. English vowels are particularly troublesome for Spanish speakers, because Spanish, like Japanese and other languages, has only five pure vowel sounds, whereas English can have as many as 12, depending on your accent. Due to this lack of equivalency, at least two English vowels will often share the phonetic space of one Spanish vowel (Swan and Smith, 2001).
Tense vs lax vowels
Most pronunciation books describe /ɪ/ and /i:/ as short and long vowel sounds, but I prefer the terms “lax” and “tense,” because I think they describe the difference more clearly (Avery and Ehrlich, 2012). (In reality, the length of vowel sound depends a lot on whether or not it’s in a stressed position.) For tense vowels like /u:/, the muscles of the lips and the tongue tighten; for lax vowels like /ʊ/, the mouth is more relaxed. This distinction is invariably hard for Spanish learners, who tend to produce vowels that are between the tense and lax vowels of English. To show students the difference, I follow the advice of Underhill (2005) and relax my face and body in an exaggerated way for lax vowels, and for tense vowels use my fingers to stretch an imaginary elastic band when making the sound. To practice these sounds, minimal pair activities are a must.
In general, vowels are a bit of a minefield for Spanish learners. Many English vowels, including mid vowels /ɜ:/ or /ə/, and open vowels /æ/ /ʌ/ and /ɑ:/, have no equivalent in Spanish. As a result, learners have the tendency to either replace these with a strong pronunciation of the written vowel, pronouncing “today” /tu’deɪ/ instead of /tə’deɪ/, or replace the vowel sound with the closest sounding one in Spanish.
To practice vowel sounds, teaching the students the full phonemic chart is of course very useful, but over the years I’ve come to think that it’s not completely necessary, given how quick and easy it is to find a word’s pronunciation via the internet. That said, I still think it’s vital to teach students the symbols for the individual sounds they struggle most with. It makes it easier to revisit the sounds in later lessons and do activities like creating mind maps in their notebooks with a symbol in the middle, which can be added to over the course of the year. One activity with vowels that my students have enjoyed over the years is to assign problematic vowel sounds to students in pairs or small groups and have them decide on an emotion to associate with it, e.g. “/æ/ is a funny sound.” Then give them some time with a word list from the coursebook, which usually include phonemic transcription, to find a few words that confirm or contradict this association.
A quick note on diphthongs. Interestingly, these are less problematic for Spanish learners than the pure vowels (Walker 2001). In fact, Spanish has four that are very similar to English: /aʊ/, /eɪ/, /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/. That said, problems can still arise due to spelling interference, which we’ll look at now.
As those of you who have studied the language will know, Spanish is wonderfully phonetical. With a few exceptions, almost every word is pronounced the way it’s written. However, this good fortune turns into a bit of a handicap when learning English, because when Spanish learners are met with a new word they have an urge to pronounce every written letter, like the “s” in island and the “b” in doubt. In class, we need to make Spanish learners aware of any silent letters by highlighting them in a different color on the board/PowerPoint whenever possible.
When teaching Spanish learners, pronunciation work should ideally be paired with attention to spelling. In English, a single vowel sound is often represented with two letters (suit), while a diphthong is often represented with one letter (try). This is very confusing and frustrating for Spanish learners. For example, my students often want to produce a diphthong in words like suit—which is completely understandable, when you look at how the word is written. If you look in the back of many popular coursebooks, there’s often a page with the consonant and vowel symbols that includes common spellings for each phoneme. To be honest, I had completely ignored this information until recently, but now when I focus on a problematic sound with my students, such as /u:/ in suit, I make sure to raise awareness of other words spelled the same way: juice, fruit, etc.
Unlike in English, word stress in Spanish is quite regular. There are three simple rules that Spanish speakers follow to correctly pronounce words in their own language—and which, in my experience, they will very often apply to new words they encounter in English:
- For words ending in a vowel, or n or s, the second to last syllable is stressed.
- For words ending in a consonant other than n or s, the word stress falls on the last syllable.
- For any exceptions to the above two rules, the stressed syllable is indicated with an accent mark
These rules are so easy and straightforward that they are worth committing to memory for any teacher of Spanish learners. They often help explain why Spanish learners misplace word stress—and, more importantly, help teachers anticipate which new words students will be most likely to mispronounce. In class, make sure to elicit the word stress for words like breakfast, which Spanish students may be tempted to stress on the last syllable, following rule 2 above. In general, it’s a good idea to indicate the primary and secondary word stress on any new words with a dot or square, but it’s particularly important to do so with English words that don’t follow the above rules for Spanish word stress.
Now that we have looked at some of the pronunciation challenges specific to Spanish learners, go ahead and check your answers to the task at the beginning of the article.
/r/: dress, trainers, trousers, tracksuit
/j/ and / ʤ/: jeans
/s/ + consonant in word initial position: skirt, scarf
Tense and lax vowels: mittens, shoes, boots
Other vowels: jacket, pajamas
Spelling pronunciation: suit, tracksuit, jeans, shoes
Word stress: tracksuit, trousers
Hopefully, this article has succeeded in clarifying some of your initial choices, and I hope it will be useful next time you sit down to plan a vocabulary lesson for a group of Spanish learners. It’s worth taking a little extra time to anticipate any pronunciation issues your students might have with a group of new words. Your students will appreciate the extra effort. For me, pronunciation teaching in particular is a time for the teacher to shine. Focusing on pronunciation issues specific to your learners is something that really only you, the teacher, can provide. The coursebook can’t do it for you. Coursebooks from major publishers are written for a global market, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to focus on challenges faced by learners from a single language background. It’s up to us to fill this gap.
Avery, Peter, and Susan Ehrlich (2012) Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Baker, Ann (2006) Ship or Sheep? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dale, Paulette, and Lillian Poms (1986) English Pronunciation for Spanish Speakers. New York: Pearson Education.
Swan, Michael, and Bernard Smith (2001) Learner English. 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rogerson-Revell, Pamela (2011) English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. London: Bloomsberry Academic.
Underhill, Adrian (2005) Sound Foundations. London: Macmillan Education Spanish.
Walker, Robin (2001) ‘Pronunciation priorities, the Lingua Franca Core, and monolingual groups’ Speak Out! Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group 28(1) 4-9.
Author's bio: Ethan Mansur has worked in ELT since 2006. He currently teaches at International House Madrid, where he participates in the professional development program. In addition to contributing regularly to ELT magazines, he has written online and print materials for Oxford University Press and the Spanish Ministry of Education. He holds the Cambridge Delta diploma and an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.