Confusing consonants in Spanish
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:
Pronunciation of ‘Y’
Placement: At the beginning or in the middle of a word
Sound: Same as the Spanish ‘ll’ or the English ‘j’
Example: Yema, Leyó
Pronunciation: (jay-mah) (lay-joh)
Placement: At the end of a word
Sound: Same as ‘ee’ in English (eerie)
Example: Hoy, Caray
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’
|B (bay)||V (oo-vay)|
|B alta (bay ahl-tah)||V baja (oo-vay bah-ha)|
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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