English Pronunciation Issues Specific to Spanish-Speaking Learners: Common Mistakes and Popular Phrases
Becoming familiar with another language is a gradual process that includes learning the sound of certain letters and then learning how those letters sound when put together. There are a lot of strange rules in the English language, which can confuse native Spanish speakers.
Last summer, I was on a flight across Europe when I got to experience this first hand. While flying on the Spanish airline Vueling, I had the opportunity to help the flight attendants with pronunciation issues that are specific to Spanish speakers. That experience gave me a lot of inspiration to write this post about English pronunciation for Spanish speakers and to talk more about common English mispronunciations.
What are the difficulties with English pronunciation for Spanish speakers?
Pronunciation is the sound each letter makes when put together to form a word. In Spanish, there are specific ways of pronouncing letters and letter combinations, which are noticeably different than the English language. Most problems with pronunciation come from the different ways that vowels are pronounced in Spanish versus English.
If you are new to English or you have known English for a while but want to improve your skills, then these are some of the difficulties you might be running into when trying to improve your pronunciation:
Greater number of vowel sound positions in English versus Spanish, causing mispronunciations of both long and short vowel sounds.
Mispronunciation of words with weak vowels because Spanish speakers are used to stressing every syllable.
Tapping or rolling the letter /r/ in Spanish is quite common, but in American English this letter is smooth and soft.
In Spanish, pronunciation of the letter /v/ involves both lips, causing it to sound more like the English pronunciation of /b/.
Letters /p/, /t/, and /k/ are not aspirated in Spanish, but they are in English.
What are common English words and phrases that are mispronounced by Spanish speakers?
There are a lot of unique phrases and words that are difficult for Spanish speakers who are in the process of learning English. Based on some of those common difficulties above, below you will find specific examples of phrases that you might have to use:
Distinguishing between the sound that is made when someone says pull versus pool, is difficult for a lot of Spanish speakers. In the latter, you will want to pronounce the word with much tighter lips and more emphasis on the central vowels.
These two words confuse a fair number of Spanish speakers because Spanish often uses an short /i/ rather than an elongated /i/ sound. Both words are important because they give meaning to objects in different ways. The first word means a small portion and the latter word to strike or defeat.
It is common for Spanish speakers to add an /e/ before the /s/ at the beginning of a word in combinations such /st/ and /sp/. Instead of mispronouncing words that start with /s/, try repeating these words back to yourself until there is no /e/ at the beginning.
In Spanish, the letter /j/ is usually pronounced the same way English speakers pronounce the letter /y/. It is important to get the letter /j/ right, because you might just end up meaning something other than what you intended. For example, if you mispronounce joke using the /y/ sound, then people might think you are talking about the yellow part of an egg and have a difficult time understanding what you said.
Mastering the English /th/ sound, which requires moving your tongue between your teeth or hitting the back of your front teeth, takes time. Spanish speakers often mispronounce /thief/ by replacing the /th/ sound with a mid or final /d/. Here, the focus should be put on grasping the difference between the initial /th/ and the initial /d/.
Sing versus Thing
The distinction between the /s/ in sing and the /th/ in thing only causes problems for some Spanish speakers depending on the type of Spanish they speak. For this distinction, put the tip of your tongue up at the front roof of your mouth for the /s/ sound and softly behind your teeth for the /th/ sound.
Other popular mispronunciations include beach/b*tch, ship/sheep, and bit/beet.
Does perfect English pronunciation matter?
When it comes to pronunciation, having a little bit of an accent is totally fine. Everyone has an accent, even native speakers. That is normal. Still, improving your English pronunciation is important especially in the U.S. where you rarely encounter people used to non-standard English. Spanish speakers have some specific issues with pronouncing English words, which you can take care of through practice.
This list is a roundup of common English pronunciation problems for Spanish speakers, but not representative of all issues. In fact, other vowels may also cause problems such as the distinction between sounds like "cat" and "cut".
The trick here is to shift the pronunciation of the Spanish sound "e" backwards towards your throat while, simultaneously, elongating the familiar sound.
Practice that with the word "black". The vowel here is dynamic and longer than a classic phonetic "a" which is often how Spanish-speaking English learners pronounce the sound. Keep in mind the first vowel sounds in "mustard" and in "black" are very different.
Another problem might be the "o" sounds in English words like "not", "boat" but also "rose" and "bought". Also, the unstressed first vowel sound, or as linguists call it "schwa", in "computer" does not have an equivalent in Spanish. That’s also true for the dynamic sounds in "her", "hair" “purple”, and "fur".
Regardless of which English word you are having trouble pronouncing, make sure to say it out loud. The only way you will learn to overcome some of these English pronunciation issues is to practice and allow other people to help you improve your English along the way!
My advice is to use the U.S. State Department's Color Vowel Chart here: http://elts.solutions/color-vowel-chart/explore/
To practice vowel pronunciation in American English, here’s another great resource: http://www.soundsofenglish.org