How to Sound Like a Native Spanish Speaker
When you learn a language like Spanish, you may be hypersensitive to how different your accent sounds from a native Spanish speaker. Even though the pronunciation is fairly easy to learn compared to English, some small things may give you away when talking with a native Spanish speaker. So, how can you sound more like a native?
You can improve your accent and speech! You don’t have to be labeled a gringo for life. With the following eight tips, you’ll be sounding like a native Spanish speaker in no time!
8 Tips for Success
Before we dive in, take note of some things to keep in mind.
- There is no guaranteed method of speaking Spanish like a native. The following tips are a guide to help direct you on the right path.
- It takes a lot of time and concentration to perfect an accent, so be patient.
- Listen to as much native Spanish as possible to get a feel for the language.
- Try to imitate what you hear!
- Step out of your English box. Spanish is a much more fluid language, and the sooner you embrace, that the sooner you’ll sound like a native.
Are you ready to start speaking authentic Spanish?
1. Drop the Pronouns
You might have learned already that subject pronouns are optional in Spanish, especially yo. However, native English speakers tend to continue using the pronouns because they are used to the subject-verb sentence order. Let’s be honest; it feels a bit weird at first to drop the pronouns.
However, if you include the subject pronoun in every one of your sentences, it may be a glaring sign that you’re not a native speaker. While both using and not using the subject pronouns are grammatically acceptable, it is more common to drop them when the subject is understood by the verb conjugation or by previous context clues.
Since the yo conjugations are usually unique, you can easily remove the pronoun and still be understood. The other pronouns that share conjugations, like usted, él, and ella may need to stay in the sentence unless it’s clear who you are talking about.
Instead of: Yo quiero comer tacos.
Say: Quiero comer tacos.
Instead of: Sarah va a llegar tarde. Ella está con su familia.
Say: Sarah va a llegar tarde. Está con su familia.
Instead of: Nosotros hemos ahorrado para el viaje.
Say: Hemos ahorrado para el viaje.
Now, you don’t always need to drop the pronouns. This is where listening to native Spanish speakers comes into play. Pay close attention to when they use a subject pronoun and when they don’t. They are most often used for emphasis on the person or for clarity.
2. Focus on Pronunciation
Spanish pronunciation is straightforward. Each letter has one sound, and it is always that sound! Simple, right?
In theory, Spanish pronunciation is easy, but it is hard to think of letters—especially vowels—sounding any different than what you’ve been saying for years in English.
In the Spanish alphabet, several letters have an obvious and unique pronunciation, like the H and J. However, the letters that give away a US accent are usually much more subtle.
Since the Spanish R has such a different formation (pronounced completely with the tongue) than the English one, it is difficult to move your tongue in the right way. If you need some extra practice on rolling your Rs, check out our video!
Even once you’ve learned to roll your Rs, this letter can still separate the non-native from the native Spanish speakers. There are actually two pronunciations of the R: a hard and a soft roll. While the difference may be subtle to those of us learning Spanish, it makes a huge difference in the pronunciation.
For example, pronouncing caro (expensive) with a hard R instead of a soft one will change the meaning to carro (car). To learn more about each sound, check out our Spanish R blog post!
This tricky letter looks and sounds the same in English and Spanish, right? Well, almost. At the beginning of words, the Spanish D has a hard pronunciation just like in English. However, when it is in the middle or at the end of a word, it has a soft, th-like pronunciation.
Listening to native Spanish speakers and repeating their pronunciation will show you this distinction. Pay attention to words that end in –idad and listen to how soft the sound is.
Instead of: dedo – (day-doh)
Say: dedo – (day – tho)
Instead of: oportunidad – (oh-pohr-toon-ee-dad)
Say: oportunidad – (oh-pohr-toon-ee-thath)
The Spanish vowels were probably one of the first things you learned in class. However, since there are 20 English vowel sounds that we are so accustomed to, it can actually be quite difficult to stick to the five Spanish vowels.
For example, words that end in vowels in English are long, extended, and have varying intonation. The word “no” has an extended “o” sound, and your voice may go up and down as you pronounce it. In Spanish, it is the opposite. The vowels are short and never change (except for diphthongs and triphthongs, of course!).
Also, English vowels like O and U have multiple pronunciations depending on the location of the vowel in the word. Since we’re accustomed to these pronunciations, it can be hard to switch to the uniform Spanish vowels, especially in words that look like English words.
Let’s look at oportunidad. In English, the beginning O is pronounced more like an A. However, the Spanish O is always oh.
Instead of: oportunidad – (ah-pohr-tyoon-ee-dahd)
Say: oportunidad – (oh-pohr-toon-ee-dahd)
Instead of: no – (nooo)
Say: no – (noh)
3. Intonation is Key
Once you have some Spanish skills under your belt, listen to the way native Spanish speakers talk. Do they use a neutral tone or do their sentences go up and down?
In general, native Spanish speakers are expressive and their conversations are full of musical intonation. What may be a simple, monotonous sentence in English is an exciting sentence full of intonation variations in Spanish.
While this way of talking can’t be taught directly, pay attention to how native Spanish speakers express themselves. Compare how you would say a sentence to how native speakers express it. Try mimicking the intonation on your own, then once you feel comfortable, include it in conversation!
4. Watch out for False Cognates
One of the greatest things about learning Spanish is the abundance of similar words, or cognates. The two languages share Latin roots, so it can be easy to relate Spanish words to their English counterparts.
However, the problem comes with false cognates, or words that look and sound the same but do not have the same meaning. For example, actual in Spanish does not mean “actual” in English. Even if you have flawless grammar, misusing this false cognate can give away that you’re not a native Spanish speaker. For an extensive list of false cognates, check out our blog post. In the meantime, watch out for the following words.
Spanish meaning – current (NOT actual)
Spanish meaning – to do, carry out (NOT to realize)
Spanish meaning – factory (NOT fabric)
5. Use Some New Filler Words
When we speak our native language, our sentences don’t always come out flawlessly. We need time to think, take a pause, or reorganize what we are saying. This is completely natural. However, if you don’t know the key Spanish transition words to use, these natural pauses can sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Some of the most common transition words that trip up even experienced Spanish speakers are “I mean…,” “alright,” and “well.” These English words are so ingrained into our minds that they may slip out naturally without a second thought. By learning their Spanish counterparts, you can ensure your conversations sound as fluent as possible.
These transition words are even great for beginning Spanish learners to study to give them some time to think about the correct conjugations and vocabulary. For a complete list of transition words, check out our blog post. You can also start with the few words listed below.
I mean… – digo
In other words… – osea
Okay – vale
Alright – bueno
Well – pues
6. Switch up Your Sentence Order
We’ve already talked about how the subject pronouns are optional, but that’s not the only structural difference between English and Spanish.
The English language has a strict structure. There is even a correct order to list adjectives! Spanish, on the other hand, is fluid. While there are rules, the overall structure of the sentence can change. To say one simple phrase, there are several ways of organizing the sentence, and each one makes sense grammatically.
Understanding the acceptable order of words and feeling comfortable using them takes time. Remember, pay close attention to how native Spanish speakers order their sentences. There is no set rule that states the subject follows the verb in certain situations. You can actually choose how to word your sentences based on what you want to emphasize.
There are some phrases that have a common structure, like digo yo. You will probably never hear a native Spanish speaker say yo digo without following it with more information. These are unspoken rules and nuances of the language. However, in most circumstances, the sentence order is up to you and how you would like to express yourself.
Take some time to listen intently to native speakers and don’t worry about sentence fluidity until you’re ready. This is a fun aspect of the language but requires a certain level of confidence and understanding.
To get started, look at the different ways you can say the sentence below.
Yo te voy a amar para siempre.
Te voy a amar para siempre.
Voy a amarte para siempre.
Voy a amarte yo para siempre.
(I am going to love you forever.)
Yo estoy estudiando el documento.
Estoy estudiando el documento.
Estoy estudiando el documento yo.
El documento estoy estudiando.
(I am studying the document.)
7. Practice Contractions
The English language is full of contractions like “it’s” and “doesn’t.” While Spanish contractions aren’t part of the official grammar rules, native Spanish speakers use them a lot in fast speech. They are more like shortening of words (for example: “goin’”) than official contractions.
These contractions may be difficult to catch when listening to native speech because they make the Spanish language sound completely different. However, when you know what you’re listening for, you’ll be able to spot Spanish contractions.
These contractions are most commonly used in the Caribbean, but you can hear them throughout all of Latin America. Some of the common ones are listed below.
Para – pa’
Voy pa’ la tienda.
Todos – to’
Estudio español to’ los días
Está – ‘tá
Ya ‘tá listo.
Vas a hacer – va’cer
¿Qué va’cer pa’ la cena?
Qué es – Qué’s
¿Qué’s esa cosa?
Vámanos – Ámanos
8. Slang, Slang, and More Slang!
Speaking of slang, what better way to sound like a native than by learning local slang? However, this may be more complicated than it seems because there are numerous countries that speak Spanish in Latin America. Each country—each city, even!—has its own slang.
So, where do you start?
If you already have the opportunity to talk to native Spanish speakers, ask them where they are from, and learn the slang from their country. If you are hoping to travel abroad, research what Spanish slang the country you want to visit uses.
Keep in mind, though, that a slang word for one country could be a vulgar term for another country. For example, the word coger is commonly used in South America to mean “to grab,” but it is a vulgar term in Central America.
Always do your research and don’t be afraid to ask native Spanish speakers some questions. They’ll probably feel honored to share their language with you!
Start Talking like a Native Spanish Speaker Today!
The journey to sounding like a native Spanish speaker may be long, but it is definitely worth the effort! You now have a great list of tips to get you started, but if you are looking for a native Spanish speaker to talk with and practice your new skills with, try a free trial class with one of our native Spanish speakers today! They will answer all your questions and expose you to true Spanish.
Want to learn more about Spanish pronunciation? Check out our latest posts!
- Latin American Food: 15 Must-Try National Dishes of Latin America - January 2, 2021
- The Ultimate Guide to Subjunctive Conjugation in Spanish - December 27, 2020
- Estar Subjunctive: Present and Past Tense Subjunctive - December 23, 2020