Are you a native Spanish speaker who:
- worries that they'll mispronounce words like sheet, beach, and peach because you sometimes pronounce those words like curse words in English?
- switches the B and V consonants, so the words very and berry sometimes sound the same?
- is confused about when to pronounce a letter "s" like an S or a Z in English words?
American English Pronunciation for Spanish Speakers: Top 5 Pronunciation Challenges
If you are a native speaker of Spanish and you struggle with American English pronunciation, then this resource is for you. Here you’ll learn 5 of the most common pronunciation challenges that native speakers of Spanish experience when speaking English, and you’ll learn how to improve your pronunciation of American English.
Read about the top 5 pronunciation areas below, and then watch the free English pronunciation video lessons to learn how to pronounce each sound. Don’t forget to click here to download your free Guidebook to the Sounds of American English, too!
Spanish Challenge #1: The EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ vowels
Nearly every native speaker of Spanish struggles with these two vowels in English. The long, tense EE /i/ vowel like in the word seat also exists in Spanish, so this one isn’t typically challenging. However, the short, lax IH /ɪ/ vowel like in the word sit does not exist in Spanish, and here is where native Spanish speakers struggle.
It’s common for native Spanish speakers to substitute the EE /i/ vowel in words that contain the IH /ɪ/ vowel, so a word like sit may sound like seat. This vowel substitution can create misunderstandings with your communication partner because the words seat and sit are both real words in English, so you may have intended to say seat, but your communication partner heard you say sit, and this can completely change the meaning of your message.
These two vowels are also important because if you use the wrong vowel, you may end up saying a cuss word in English. The word sheet contains the long, tense EE /i/ vowel, but if you mispronounce it and accidentally use the short IH /ɪ/ vowel, you will end up saying the cuss word shit. This can be very embarrassing for native Spanish speakers and other non-native speakers of English as well.
How to Pronounce the EE /i/ and IH /ɪ/ vowels in English
To pronounce the IH /ɪ/ vowel, you’ll need to relax your face and tongue and say the vowel for a shorter duration than EE /i/. Watch the videos below to learn more about how to pronounce the EE /i/ as in beat and IH /ɪ/ as in bit vowels. You can also read more about their pronunciation by clicking here: How to Pronounce the EE /i/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the IH /ɪ/ Vowel.
Spanish Challenge #2: The UH /ʌ/ and AH /ɑ/ Vowels
The most common substitution that I hear from native Spanish speakers is that they'll often use the AH /ɑ/ as in father vowel in place of the UH /ʌ/ as in butter vowel, or they'll use a vowel similar to AH /ɑ/, like this vowel /a/, which is included in the Spanish language.
This type of substitution causes the word bug to sound like bog, and mother to sound like "mahther". This vowel substitution can also create misunderstandings with your communication partner because the words bug and bog are both real words in English, so you may have intended to say bug, but your communication partner heard you say bog, and this can completely change the meaning of your message.
How to Pronounce the UH /ʌ/ and AH /ɑ/ Vowels in American English
The UH /ʌ/ and the AH /ɑ/ vowels sound very similar to each other, but there are two things that make them different: jaw opening and tongue position. To make the UH /ʌ/ vowel, the jaw should be open to only mid level, and the tongue should be neutral. The AH /ɑ/ vowel, on the other hand, has an open jaw, and the tongue is low in the mouth and tense. Watch the videos below to learn how to pronounce the UH /ʌ/ and AH /ɑ/ vowels in English. You can also read about their pronunciation by clicking here: How to Pronounce the UH /ʌ/ Vowel; How to Pronounce the AH /ɑ/ Vowel.
Spanish Challenge #3: Final Consonant Endings
It’s common in Spanish to sometimes drop the final consonant sound in a word, especially in a conversation. This happens in English as well, but the rules of when you can drop a final consonant are much more strict in English.
Spanish speakers tend to drop the final consonant too often in English and in places where it’s not allowed or likely to occur. For example, the word played ends in a /d/ sound: /pleɪd/. Native Spanish speakers may sometimes drop that final /d/ sound in a sentence like, “I played the game”, and this results in played sounding like play.
In English, you can delete a final consonant from the pronunciation, but only when the Rule of Three can be applied: When three or more consonants line up next to each other, the middle consonant is often dropped from the pronunciation (but not always!). This happens in a word like friends, which has the /ndz/ consonants in a row. In this word, the /d/ is dropped from the pronunciation.
To learn about the Rule of Three, the -ed ending, and when you can drop final consonants in English pronunciation, watch the videos below. You can also read about the pronunciation by clicking here: The Rule of Three; Pronounce the Past Tense Like a Native Speaker; The Rule of Three and “asked”.
Spanish Challenge #4: S and Z consonants; B and V Consonants
Most varieties of Spanish don’t have the Z /z/ consonant, like in the English word zoo. So when a native Spanish speaker pronounces an English word that contains /z/, they usually substitute an S /s/ sound instead. This means a word like zoo is pronounced like Sue.
This type of pronunciation challenge is made even more difficult due to the spelling of English words. Oftentimes, words in English are spelled with the letter “s” but that letter is pronounced like /z/, not /s/. This happens a lot when a word ends in “s”, like in the words houses, these, and is.
Native Spanish speakers may also confuse B /b/ and V /v/ in English words. In English, B /b/ and V /v/ are separate and distinct sounds, so the words very and berry sound different and have different meanings. But in Spanish, the B /b/ and V /v/ represent the same sound, so you can use either /b/ or /v/ in Spanish pronunciation. This is not the case in English, however.
How to Pronounce the S/Z and B/V Consonants
The difference between S /s/ and Z /z/ is vocal cord vibration: S /s/ is voiceless (no vocal cord vibration) and Z /z/ is voiced (the vocal cords vibrate). The B /b/ and V /v/ consonants differ by placement (B is made with the lips; V is made with the teeth and lips) and manner (B is a stop consonant; V is a fricative). Watch the videos below to learn how to pronounce the S /s/ and Z /z/ consonants, and the B /b/ and V /v/ consonants. You can also read about their pronunciation by clicking here: How to Pronounce the S /s/ and Z /z/ Consonants; How to Pronounce the B /b/ and P /p/ Consonants; How to Pronounce the F /f/ and V /v/ Consonants.
Spanish Challenge #5: Intonation
Most varieties of Spanish are spoken with strong inflections in the voice (also called intonation), but the patterns of intonation used in Spanish are very different than the intonation patterns used in English.
For example, consider the typical Spanish intonation of the sentence, “Quiero comer álgo”, where the intonation of the voice rises on the final word, álgo. In English, this translates to, “I want to eat something.” Native Spanish speakers may apply that same intonation pattern to the English translation like this: “I want to eat something”, but this type of intonation pattern wouldn’t be considered typical in American English.
How to Pronounce American English Intonation
Instead, native speakers of American English would place the highest intonation on the word eat: “I want to eat something.” Using the Spanish intonation here would change the meaning of the sentence in English to mean that the speaker is willing to settle for less than usual, or the speaker is contrasting it with the possibility of nothing.
To learn more about American English intonation patterns, watch the videos below. Or you can read about American English intonation by clicking here: American English Intonation of Statements and Questions, Sound Natural and Native with Intonation Templates, 3 Powerful Techniques to Boost your Intonation.