15 Feb Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Spanish Speakers
The Speech Sound Rules of Spanish often Influence How Spanish Speakers Pronounce English
English and Spanish are two of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. Many English speech sounds and rules aren’t found in the Spanish language. In particular, Spanish speakers may find it challenging to adjust to English’s often irregular spelling, the “lazy”, central vowels found in British English, letters that correspond to different phonemes (such as “y” and “j”), and different phoneme restrictions, as well as the particular cadence of English (intonation).
1. Not making /v/ and /b/ contrastive
In Spanish, the letters b and v are not usually contrastive, which can cause confusion when native Spanish speakers encounter English words like love or seven, where the “v” letter is pronounced with the top teeth on the bottom lip among British speakers.
To avoid pronouncing /v/ as /b/ and turning seven into seben, practice softly biting the lower lip and vibrating the air with the voice turned on to make a buzzy sensation. When British speakers pronounce /b/, we close our lips together, hold the air, and explode the air, but for /v/ we want to press our upper teeth against our bottom lip while blowing air out in a buzzy way.
verb, beverage, movable, vocabulary
2. Rolled (or trilled) /r/
Spanish tends to realise the letter “r” as a trilled sound with the tongue striking the roof of the mouth, while Received Pronunciation in the UK typically uses a more vowel-like mouth shape to articulate “r” before vowel phones. While a rolled /r/ is made by tapping your upper palate with the tip of your tongue, RP speakers pronounce /r/ by raising the tongue and adding muscle tension without the tongue tip touching anything.
Practise pronouncing /r/ as part of different consonant clusters (tr, str, pr) and in different positions within words (at the beginning and the middle of words). If you want to speak with a Received Pronunciation accent like mine, try pronouncing /r/ only when a vowel phoneme follows. Mouth positioning animations can help you visualise the different tongue positions for the English /r/: practise the /r/ sound alone before pronouncing it as part of entire words
red, grain, garage, worry, break, train
3. “y” and “j” may merge when they should be distinct in English
Depending on the country or region they come from, some native Spanish speakers think of the letters “j” and “y” as representing variations of the same sound.
This may result in words like yes and yellow merging with Jess and Jello when Spanish speakers speak English.
When first becoming familiar with IPA, there may also be confusion as the phoneme symbol /j/ doesn’t correspond to the English letter “j”.
Rather, the semivowel transcribed /j/ usually corresponds with the English letter “y”.
In English, the letter “y” will never be pronounced as /dʒ/. The /dʒ/ phoneme is found when words are spelled with “j”, “gi-”, or “ge-”. In this case, the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth in English.
Jane, jester, June, register, ageing, edge
When the letter y occurs syllable initial in a word in English, it will be pronounced similarly to the vowel /i/. This semivowel is very similar to /i/ but it is articulated with more energy. The semivowel spelled “y” generally appears at syllable boundaries.
yesterday, yet, young, yourself, yoghurt
4. Phoneticism (or lack thereof)
While Spanish is a relatively phonetic language, English does not have quite such a direct relationship between spelling and sound. You have most likely already noticed that simply knowing a word’s written form isn’t enough to be able to say it accurately in English. Consider the silent letters in knee, subtle, or climb.
The best way to become accustomed to irregular English spelling is to expose yourself to both the written and spoken language by reading and listening. It can also be useful to use a spelling to sound guide like this one. By familiarising yourself with IPA and by using a pronunciation dictionary like this one, you will be able to quickly and accurately confirm the phonemic pronunciation of a wide range of spellings.
5. Words Beginning with /s/ + Consonant
Adjusting to different phoneme restrictions can be challenging. In Spanish, no words begin with the phoneme /s/ plus consonant, while this is a common occurrence in English. As a result, native Spanish speakers may insert an /e/ before /st/, /sp/, and /sc/ in consonant initial words, making snowy or stray sound like esnowy or estray.
Since this interference crops up most frequently when these /s/ + consonant words are spoken in full sentences, practise pronouncing word-initial /s/ (hissing with a flat tongue near the upper teeth) with other words around it (ideally one also ending in /s/).
Your /s/ should sound like this:
Once it becomes easier to follow one word with another (non-problematic) s-initial word, focus on shortening the /s/ sound and experiment with /s/ in different positions, including before s + consonant words.
hot stone, went smoothly, jet ski
stone, smoothly, ski
6. Struggling with word endings
Some speakers, especially those from southern Spain, struggle to pronounce the ends of words, including words ending in “d” and those ending with nasal consonants and /z/.
husband, fun, played, plays
my husband has fun whenever he plays squash
7. Using a single vowel for both “u” and “a” in English
The Spanish centre-back, unrounded vowel /a/ may be used for both /ʌ/ and /æ/ in British English. Put the tongue forward for /æ/ and make the face lazy for /ʌ/.
hum /hʌm/, ham /hæm/
8. Interference from Spanish when Pronouncing “WOR”
Words beginning with “wor” can be especially hard to pronounce for Spanish speakers. Pronounce the “w” by making an “u” position and then make the vowel unrounded and quite relaxed. Be careful not to accidentally make tongue contact at the back of the throat for the /w/. Some Spanish speakers accidentally pronounce a /g/ before /w/. Make sure that the /w/ sounds like a high-energy /u/ sound and then for the vowel, totally relax the mouth in received pronunciation (/ɜː/ sounds like a drawn-out schwa). You don’t need rounded lips for the vowel here.
world /wɜː(r)ld/, worse /wɜː(r)s/
9. Adding the correct amount of voice for /z/
Spanish speakers often struggle with the English voiced /z/. It needs to be a buzzy, vibrating sound, like /s/ but with the voice turned on. When /z/ comes in the final position of a phrase, you will notice that the intensity of the voicing eases a little.
zip, zap, please, phase
10. Mixing up English’s “sh” and “s”
Spanish speakers often mix up /ʃ/ and /s/ in English. /ʃ/ needs to be pronounced with protruding lips while the sides of the tongue come into contact with the lateral gums, whereas /s/ needs to be pronounced with a flat tongue, like in Spanish.
Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from Spanish or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.