When I was just starting to learn Spanish, I remember that my Spanish teacher told me that each letter has only one sound, and you always pronounce every letter in a word. That was incredibly reassuring when I was just starting to learn the language. However, when I immersed myself in the language, I discovered that when pronouncing some words, you do not enunciate each individual letter. This, of course, was confusing to me since it contradicted what my first Spanish teacher had said. Once I learned about diphthongs, triphthongs, and hiatus, though, it made much more sense!
Don’t panic – these words may seem very complicated (they’re sure difficult to spell with all those ‘h’s!), but they are much simpler than you think. Each of these terms refers to a combination of vowels. Do you remember how to say the vowels in Spanish? Let’s review:
I hope that refreshed your memory! Let’s delve into the first group of vowel combinations: diphthongs
Do you remember how to say ‘grandfather’ in Spanish? If you need help, refer to our family blog!
Yes! It’s abuelo. Now, how do you pronounce it? Would you say ah-boo-ay-loh? Or maybe ah-bway-loh?
If you said the second pronunciation, you are correct! We don’t pronounce every single vowel separately in this word but make a new sound with two of the vowels. Instead of oo-ay we say way for the vowel combination ‘ue.’ This is called a diphthong.
The Real Academia de Español defines a diphthong, or diptongo, as:
Secuencia de dos vocales diferentes que se pronuncian en una sola sílaba.
A sequence of two different vowels that are pronounced in just on syllable.
Keep in mind that just because there are two vowels together does NOT mean that they are pronounced in one syllabus, and therefore means that they are NOT always diphthongs (we’ll explore more on this topic in a bit). So, how do you know when to pronounce vowel combinations as one syllabus? Well…
In Spanish, we have hard and soft vowels.
Hard vowels: A E O
Soft vowels: I U
You can think of the hard vowels as dominant in the pronunciation. Let’s go back to our previous example: abuelo. What vowel sound to you hear most in the ‘ue’ combination? Exactly! The ‘e.’ We hear the ‘e’ more because it is a hard vowel, or more dominant.
Hard Vowel + Soft Vowel
Whenever you see a hard and soft vowel together, it is called a diphthong. Basically, the hard vowel dominates the combination and makes the two vowels have only one sound. Let’s look at some examples:
Abuelo – (ah-bway-loh)
Bailar – (bai–lahr)
Huevo – (way-boh)
Hielo – (yay-loh)
Oigo – (oi-goh)
If you look at the pronunciations, you can see bits of both vowels in the new singular sound, but the hard vowel has the emphasis. It is also very interesting to note that when the ‘u’ is the first vowel in the combination, it has a ‘w’ sound; likewise, when the ‘i’ is the first letter in the combination, it has a ‘y’ sound. Finally, it does not matter if the hard vowel comes first (like in bailar) or second (like in hielo), it is always the dominant sound.
Before we move on, check out this chart with all the diphthongs made up with a hard and soft vowel and an example of each one:
Soft Vowel + Soft Vowel
Now, the combination of a hard and soft vowel is not the only combination classified as a diphthong. Whenever there are there soft vowels together, it is also called a diphthong! But which one has the dominant sound if they are both soft vowels? Great question! Unlike in our previous group of diphthongs where the order didn’t matter, here it does. When two soft vowels form a diphthong, there is an emphasis on the second one. Of course, since there are only two soft vowels, we only have two options for combinations. Do you remember which vowels are soft?
Exactly! I and U. So, we can have the combination ‘iu’ or ‘ui.’ Let’s check out some examples!
These words have very similar spellings, but because of their unique diphthongs, the pronunciations are distinct. Remember that when an ‘i’ is the first letter, it sounds like ‘y,’ and when ‘u’ is the first letter it sounds like ‘w.’ However, the second letter in each combination still carries the emphasis.
Alright – those are a lot of diphthongs! However, what if two hard vowels are paired together? What happens then? It is called a hiatus.
So, we established that diphthongs, or diptongos, are when two vowels come together to make one sound. If you remember, though, not all vowel combinations are diphthongs. Sometimes when there are two vowels together, they have two distinct syllabi – which is called a hiatus, or hiato. The Real Academia de Español puts it this way:
Secuencia de dos vocales que se pronuncian en sílabas distintas.
Sequence of two vowels that are pronounced in separate syllables.
To ensure that each vowel is pronounced in separate syllabi, both must be hard vowels – a, e, or o.
Let’s take the word real, for example. In English, this word is one syllable, and the vowels actually form a diphthong. However, the pronunciation in Spanish is ray-ahl with two syllables because ‘a’ and ‘e’ are both hard vowels. Interestingly, if we had double vowels in a word, whether they are hard or soft, they are a hiatus!
Here are all the possible forms of hiatos with some examples:
Before we move onto our last group, we need to talk about some exceptions to these rules. Yes, yes, I know – the last thing you want to hear about are exceptions. These, however, and pretty simple and you are probably already putting them into practice without even knowing it!
As you’ve probably noticed by now, Spanish utilizes a lot of accent marks! They are what mark the difference between llamo (I call) and llamó (he/she/it called) as they show where the syllabic emphasis is. Accent marks are needed when the accent of the word goes against general spelling and pronunciation rules. So, it makes sense then that when an accent mark is over a vowel combination, our rules about diphthongs and hiatuses go out the window; the accent mark takes precedence. Let’s look at an example:
If we follow our rules for diphthongs, we would pronounce the ‘ia’ as the single sound ‘ya.’ However, the accent mark over the ‘a’ breaks up that diphthong. We, therefore, pronounce this word as: ah-see-ah-tee-coh, where the ‘i’ and ‘a’ are in separate syllables.
The bottom line is, if there is an accent mark over one of the letters in a diphthong, it is no longer a diphthong! The vowel sounds are in separate syllabi.
The Tricky ‘u’
If you remember from our vowel blog, we talked about hard and soft Gs and Cs. These two letters’ pronunciation changes based on the vowel that follows them. There are several instances in Spanish were the spelling is adapted to match the pronunciation. For example, to conjugate the verb llegar in the simple past tense of yo, it would be llegé according to the rules of conjugating regular verbs. However, that would make the pronunciation yay-hay, not yay-gay as it should be. So, to correct the spelling, we add a ‘u’ to form llegué. In these instances where a ‘u’ is added to match the spelling to the pronunciation, the diphthong rules do not apply. The letter ‘u’ is just a filler and does not need to be pronounced at all – it’s silent!
Alright, are you ready for our last vowel combination? Don’t worry, it’s not too hard because it’s not quite as common as diphthongs! So far, we have only looked at instances where two vowels come together. There are words, though, that have more vowels together!
Just like a diphthong is when two vowels make one sound, a triphthong is when three vowels make one sound. The Real Academy de Español says:
Secuencia de tres vocales que se pronuncian en una sola sílaba.
Sequence of three vowels that are pronounced in just one syllable.
In order for three vowels to make one sound, they must be in the following order: soft vowel + hard vowel + soft vowel. It’s like a soft vowel sandwich! Let’s look at some examples:
Paraguay – (pahr-ah-gwai)
(here, the ‘y’ acts a vowel just like in hoy and estoy)
Guau – (gwow)
Confiéis – (cohn-fyays)
This last example is a conjugation of confiar in the vosotros form. A lot (NOT all) of the vosotros conjugations end in triphthongs! If you plan on visiting Spain, it would be good to practice the triphthongs more because vosotros is used very commonly there.
Practice Makes Perfect
That was a lot to take in! If you are a beginner Spanish learner, I would recommend you do not try to memorize all these rules at once. Instead, practice the 5 main vowels and look at the examples throughout this blog. If you get the pronunciation of these examples down, you will recognize the patterns in other words you see throughout your Spanish learning journey. These rules are important but don’t get caught up in them as you work towards fluency. Spanish vowels are much easier and straightforward in their pronunciation than the vowels in English.
For more practice on how to pronounce diptongos, watch our video below! With this tool, you’ll be on your way to a pronunciación perfecta in no time! ¡Tú puedes!Read More
Splash, thud, vroom, zap! What is going on in here!? It sounds like a bunch of superheroes are starting to battle it out at a pool party. Herein lies the wonder of onomatopoeia, or words that imitate a particular sound. Now, read those four words at the beginning one more time. What images do you see when you read them? These words have the ability to evoke an image or sensation in your mind, rendering the communication that much more effective. When we are young, we learn many of these words casually through socializing and watching movies or cartoons. For parents who are teaching Spanish to their preschoolers, be sure to include a rich variety of books and sounds! As a Spanish learner, using onomatopoeia will enhance the creativity of your speech and writing. Your understanding will improve now that you know even more useful vocabulary. What’s more, you can better convey your personality and strengthen the impact of your descriptions of people, things, and their actions. Since onomatopoeia is a word form of a sound, it is a word form of movement. As such, we have three categories of things that move and make noise while doing it: people, animals, and objects. These movements can express themselves as sound effects or they can function as verbs, which is a distinction we will explore below. Let’s check out the most popular and useful Spanish onomatopoeia for you to start using right away. ¡Zas!
Onomatopoeia as Sound Effects
If you are familiar with comic books or cartoons, you are no stranger to the value of sound effects. What would Batman have been without his staple ‘boom!’, ‘whack!’ and ‘pow!’ is a question we will never have to ask. The words we use to portray sound can enliven and enrich the scenes of a storyline and, if used correctly, it will do the same for your conversations! The following sound effects are divided into the three categories mentioned previously: people, animals, and objects. You will notice that some are similar or identical to English and that others can be used by any of the three categories.
Onomatopoeia as Verbs
In our native language, we are very likely to use onomatopoeia verb-forms, especially when we are trying to paint a picture with descriptive words. There is a big difference between “the dog made a mean sound” and “the dog growled.” In the latter example, you can practically hear the dog’s aggression and probably even picture him baring his teeth. Again, the power of onomatopoeia is all about creating images and sensations in the listener’s mind. Keep in mind that all three categories mentioned above – people, animals, and objects – can make use of these verbs. Here is a list of common onomatopoeia verbs that are useful when describing in detail the noise that something makes:
Practice Makes Perfect
By practicing these fun and useful onomatopoeia, you will improve your Spanish and boost the quality of your conversations! Try them out next time you have to write a descriptive essay in Spanish or plan to teach someone some entertaining vocabulary. Would you like someone to practice with? Check out our free online class that guarantees you’ll be speaking Spanish before it ends!
Whether you’re learning Spanish or already know how to speak the language, rolling your r’s is one of the milestones that will help you go from good to great! Some words, like carro and caro (car and expensive) require the speaker to roll their r’s correctly in order to distinguish one from the other.
So, how do you do it? Some people seem to be able to roll them right off the bat without a hitch, but, if you’re like me, it will take some practice. Don’t worry! We have some pro tips that will cut your practice time by a considerable amount.
When Should You Even Roll Your R’s in the First Place?
In Spanish, there are two different ways to pronounce the letter known as Soft r and Rolled r. So, the answer to this question is simple: you see two r’s, you roll your tongue. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule. You also roll your r if you see it at the beginning or end of any word, like reloj (clock) or nadar (swim), for example.
When you find a single r in the middle of any word, you’ll be using the soft ‘r’ sound.
A Quick Tip to Pronounce the Soft R
Say the word “better”. The placement of your tongue at the beginning of the second syllable “tter” is the place where you should place your tongue when pronouncing a soft r. A great way to practice this is to grab a Spanish word like crea (to create) and alternate between the two: better, crea, better, crea, and so forth.
How to Roll Your R’s
A common misconception that I’ve seen when it comes to rolling your r’s is that you have to actively move your tongue in order to do it. In reality, you have mastered the soft r, now it’s time to roll out! This exercise is a fairly simple one. Grab a word with a double ‘r,’ like corren (they run), and separate it right between the r’s. Below are some examples.
- Cor | ren
- Bar | ren
- Ar | riba
Then, say each section individually, briefly pausing in between. Practice this over and over until your tongue naturally rolls!
But what if the ‘r’ is at the beginning of the word? You can’t separate the r’s if there’s only one! I remember during my time living in Wisconsin as an exchange student, my host sister would try to pronounce my name (Rafael) correctly by rolling the r at the beginning. She was having a really hard time until she came with this funny and useful way to practice: She would add a ‘d’ before the r in order to give her a head start with the roll. We still joke about the time she would call me ‘Drafael’ constantly until she got it right (she still calls me Drafael as a joke, though). Below is a list of words that will help you practice with this technique. Remember to add a ‘d’ at the beginning!
Another great way to practice that is widely used in language learning is tongue twisters. Check out our article about tongue twisters to learn more about this method, or check out our instruction video to learn more about the topic. The key component to rolling your r’s is patience. A great opportunity to practice your r’s is during downtimes like driving a car or taking a shower. Make use of these little moments and remember to be patient, you’ll have better pronunciation before you know it!
Get confident, get talking!
Now that you have the tools necessary to be able to speak like a native, all you need to do is get out there and practice! If you need more practice, or if you’re more of an auditory learner, check out our video on YouTube about rolling your R’s.
For more tips on how to roll your R’s, check out our video!Read More
As a native Spanish speaker, I’ve had the pleasure to work with people from all over the world. One of the common themes that I see my coworkers struggling with is Spanish pronunciation. Now, this is not because it’s a hard language to speak, but because they can be a little shy about their accent. From my experience, most Latinoamericanos greatly appreciate when a person makes an effort to work on their pronunciation, even if it’s not perfect. The best way to improve your Spanish pronunciation is to talk, sing, and interact with people in the language. By reading the following guidelines, you’ll have the edge you need to skyrocket your pronunciation skills to a whole new level!
5 vowels, 5 sounds
Vowels in Spanish are one of the simplest concepts to learn, but when your native tongue has several ways to say the same letter, like those tricky English vowels, it can become confusing. To make things a bit easier, you’ll find a chart below with English words that contain the appropriate vowel sounds for Spanish:
The letter ‘u’ can be tricky. In English, the ‘u’ sounds like ‘you’, but in Spanish, the sound is more similar to ‘oo’. Think of “A spooky ghost saying boo!” as a fun phrase that will help you with pronunciation. Many Spanish learners struggle with the pronunciation of vowels. What helps them get better is to focus on the 5 basic sounds when speaking. A great word to practice with is murciélago (bat) because it has every single vowel in it! So if you want to practice, remember the pronunciation ‘moor-see-ay-lah-goh’. Once you master that, you’ll be ahead of the Spanish game!
These words give you a rough understanding of the sounds attributed to each vowel in Spanish. Now, how do you even start to polish these sounds? A well-known method that is also fun to do, is singing! You can try singing along to the Spanish version of “A Whole New World” sung by our Spanish experts, as well as the timeless classic Cri Cri, used to teach Spanish to kids all over Latinoamérica.
Let’s see the letter C
The letter ‘c’ in Spanish has 3 different pronunciations. Much like in English, there’s the soft ‘c’, the hard ‘c,’ and the ‘ch’ sound. The pronunciation for the soft ‘c’ is much like the ‘s’ in English, and the hard ‘c’ sounds a lot like a ‘k;’ the ‘ch’ sound is the same one as in English too. Below you’ll find a handy chart with examples for the different kinds of pronunciation!
The last sound in this chart, ’cu’, has a sound that is exactly the same as the ’kw’ in English. Words like ’clockwise’ and ’kwanza’ are good examples. The ‘ch’ sound is much like the English sound for those letters. Words like chalice, champion, and clutch all have the same ‘ch’ sound as the Spanish words chile, chocolate, and chicle (pepper, chocolate, and gum).
Did you know?
One of the first differences between Spanish and Latino accents is the way we pronounce our Cs? In Spain, they differentiate the ’c’ from the ‘s’, while in Latin America we use the same soft pronunciation for both! This is just an interesting nuance of the language in between continents and has no impact on understandability at all.
Pronouncing the letter “G”
When I was in middle school, I remember feeling overwhelmed when trying to learn the different ways the letter ‘g‘ is used. While it is not hard by any means, it does require some memory and practice before it becomes second nature. The basic rules for the ‘g’ are similar to the ‘c,’ so try mastering the ‘c’ pronunciation before this one to minimize the difficulty at the time of practicing.
There are two main sounds with this letter: the strong and soft ‘g.’
The strong ‘g’ is probably the easiest one to start with because it’s exactly the same as the ‘g’ used in English. The word ‘gulp’ is the perfect example of how the soft G should be pronounced. The soft ‘g’, on the other hand, is a sound that is not found in the English language by default. So, how does the soft ‘g’ even work? The fastest way to learn this is by hearing it in our detailed video about Spanish pronunciation! To give you an idea of what a strong ‘g’ sounds like, think about the letter ‘h’ in English. The soft ‘g’ is like a raspier version of it.
When to pronounce a soft or strong G?
Special use of G
Now we know when a ‘g’ should be strong or soft! Sometimes, however, you’ll encounter words that will sound like ‘ge’ and ‘gi’ but with a hard sound. Oh no! How can we tell the difference?
There’s actually a very easy way to tell when you need to use a strong ‘g’ on these occasions, and it has to do with the letter ‘u.’ When you find a ‘u’ between ‘ge’ or ‘gi,’ that’s when you’ll need to use a strong G, while the U itself stays silent.
Did you know?
The concepts of strong and soft g are inverted in English and Spanish? What native Spanish speakers consider a ‘soft g’ is actually a ‘strong g’ if you’re speaking English! Keep this tidbit in mind and you may surprise your Spanish professor in your next class.
The great thing about learning a language is that you can learn it by interacting with others and connect with them. If you wish to learn more, and practice with some expert teachers, check out our Spanish learning programs, and don’t forget: practice makes perfect!
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One of the more exciting aspects of learning a new language is finding out the unusual characters it contains, and Spanish is no exception. Not only do we have special characters like ‘ñ’, but also combined characters like ‘ll.’ There are also some letters that sound the same and others whose sound depends on its placement in a word.
Phew! All that can make your head spin if you take it all at once. In today’s blog, we’ll organize, simplify, and explain several of the tricky consonants that are found in the language. If you’re the kind of student that’s been speaking Spanish for a while, you’ll find these guides will help you perfect your understanding of the language. If you’re just starting out, these tips will serve as tools to jumpstart your Spanish career by helping you get ahead of the reading game! Remember that while these tips are useful, practice is the key to becoming a bilingual master. Let’s get started!
LL or Y – What’s the difference?
I remember that when I first began working with my new office mate from Costa Rica, she would make fun of me for not pronouncing the ‘ll’ and ‘y’ correctly in Spanish, as I would often use the ‘y’ sound for both. The truth is, I never really paid much attention to the differences between the two, and each culture has a different approach on how to pronounce these two letters. So, what’s the consensus on pronunciation?
For la doble l, the double l, the sound you make is the same sound that the letter ‘j’ does in a lot of English words. Juice, jade, June, and July are some examples of words that use the same pronunciation. You can then alternate words like juice and lluvia (rain) to practice!
For the letter ‘y’, it’s a bit more complex. Sometimes, you’ll use the same pronunciation as in la doble l, and sometimes you’ll use the same sound as the ‘ee’ in ‘eerie’. When should you use each one? The basic rules are as follows:
When the ‘y’ is found at the end of the word, it acts as a vowel, and its use is purely grammatical. Also, in some regions of Latinoamérica, people won’t change the way they pronounce the ‘y,’ having it act as a vowel all the time! It’s fun to learn how speech changes from one region to the next, your Spanish will improve faster if you talk with people from different countries.
B and V
Unlike the b and v in English, these letters are pronounced exactly the same in Spanish – the pronunciation is officially called a bilabial sonoro, or a bilabial sound. In other words, you use both of your lips, more like the English ‘b.’ The difference between the letters has been purely grammatical for over 100 years! While you may hear people in some regions pronounce them differently, the correct pronunciation that the majority of Spanish-speakers use is to not differentiate between the sounds.
Below you’ll find a chart with different ways to name these two letters. Bear in mind the names on the last row of the chart are very informal, and it’s best to avoid using them (especially in a business setting) but are important to know anyway.
Different names for ‘v’ and ‘b’
The letter H is like a spooky ghost!
It is probably the easiest letter you’ll ever learn how to say in Spanish, because you don’t say it at all! The ‘h’ is a silent letter. Much like how the English language has changed and been left with quirks and marks in writing, this letter is a vestige of the way we spoke some centuries ago. As the language became more sophisticated and evolved with time, the consonants became smoother. The ‘h’ actually became so smooth that people stopped pronouncing it all together; that doesn’t mean it’s completely useless, though! In some cases, the ‘h’ will guide the pronunciation of certain words like buho (owl) by separating the two vowels and making the word composed of two syllables as opposed to one, changing the way it’s said.
One noisy exception
As my preschool teacher used to say: “The ‘h’ is shy and doesn’t like to make noise, but if her best friend ‘c’ sits next to her, everyone will be able to hear them!” This was a neat way to let us know that our beloved ghost letter still holds some use in Spanish. If you’ve ever been to a mexican food restaurant you’ve probably ordered a ‘chimichanga’ or a ‘chalupa.’ These words are great because they tell us just how the letter ‘h’ combined with the ‘c’ sound. The examples I gave you, I believe, are a great way to remember when and how the ‘h’ makes a noise in Spanish. However, perhaps the easiest examples I can give you on how to pronounce these letters are words like chair, chimes, and cherry. It’s indeed charming how cheerful these letters sound together!
The deceitful D
It is not uncommon for native Spanish speakers to accommodate their speech to better communicate with someone who’s still learning. In fact, I believe that’s one of the beautiful aspects of learning a new language: people will make an effort to connect with you better, even if you’re not great at their native tongue. However, in situations like social gatherings, for example, there can be a group of Spanish speakers that all of a sudden start making no sense at all. How can you better understand what they’re saying when they don’t pull their punches?
Idioms aside, one of the letters that Spanish speakers skip the most (besides the ‘s’) is the ‘d.’ When saying words like nada (nothing), native Spanish speakers like myself will say ‘nah-ah’ instead, and that can easily throw you off the flow of conversation if you have to listen in an active manner, like all language learners must do. Some Americans do this too! In some areas of the States, people cut out the ‘t’ of words. For example, instead of saying ‘mountain,’ you may hear ‘moun-ain’ without the ‘t!’ Even though a letter is skipped, the audience still understands. In Latinoamérica we do the same!
Another important thing to note is that the ‘d’ sound is a lot softer in Spanish. The main difference lies in the position of the tongue when saying this letter. You might be tempted to say the ‘d’ the same as ‘th,’ but that will make words like oportunidad (opportunity) way harder to say. To simplify things, to the Spanish ‘d’ sound you just have to move your tongue behind your teeth rather than in between, making a ‘doh’ sound instead.
J is a funny letter
If you’ve ever interacted online with someone who’s a native Spanish speaker, you might come across a text message that looks like this: jajajaja ¡qué risa!
It might look like they missed the keyboard when they tried to type “hahaha, that’s funny!” but that’s because the ‘j’ sound is the same as the basic ‘h’ sound in English. There is a subtle difference though, and that is that the ‘j’ sound can be both identical to the ‘h,’ or have a more ragged, raspy feel to it. The difference is regional (Guatemala has a raspy ‘j’ while El Salvador is known for doing more of an ‘h’ sound), and it mostly affects your accent rather than your understandability, so you can stick with the basic ‘h’ sound no problem.
My N has a little hat!
One of the two extra letters you’ll find in Spanish and not in English is the ‘ñ.’ I have a little trick that will help you say this letter right, and it’s a very easy trick at that! The way to pronounce the ‘ñ’ in Spanish – eñe – is as simple as saying the word ‘lanyard’ while keeping your teeth together. The sound that will come when you say ‘nya’ is the sound that belongs to our friend the eñe. Below are some Spanish words to practice with.
Last but not least, the Z
This letter is tricky because it’s one of the main differences between España and Latinoamérica when it comes to pronunciation. For Latinoamérica there’s really no difference between ‘z’ and ‘s,’ but if you’re in Spain, you might want to consider the following:
To pronounce the ‘z’ as they do in Spain, just talk as if you had a lisp, changing the ‘z’ for a ‘th’ as in the word ‘thick.’ Some word that’ll help you practice the ‘z’ are cereza (cherry), zapatos (shoes), and Suiza (Switzerland).
Take it one step at a time
Consonants are often a milestone when learning a new language. They can be scary and confusing, so remember to tackle them one by one! We cover most of the letters in this blog in our video about confusing consonants on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to receive great content to improve your Spanish! Make sure you visit our website to receive a free Spanish class live with one of our teachers.
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