Sunday, June 21, 2009


C 2009 by Leonore H. Dvorkin


For background information, please see About this blog.

This is a slightly altered and condensed version of the first part of the first handout that I wrote in the summer of 2008 for elementary Spanish classes I was teaching. To receive the complete Alphabet, Spelling, and Pronunciation Handout via email, 8 pages when printed out, send me $2.00 via PayPal:

In the book Spanish the Easy Way, see pp. xiii-xiv for examples of words and tips on pronunciation. In Spanish Now, those are on pp. xi and xii. 
The dictionary I recommend most highly, Harper Collins Spanish Concise Dictionary, Third Edition, HarperCollins Publishers 2004, $15.00 pbk., gives pronunciation guidelines on pp. x-xi.

The verb book I recommend is 501 Spanish Verbs, 6th Edition, published by Barron’s 2007, $16.99 pbk.


General remarks on the Spanish alphabet, spelling, and pronunciation

To hear Spanish from native speakers, rent Spanish movies, tune in to Spanish language radio or TV stations, or buy or rent instructional tapes or CDs.  I like the inexpensive Learn in Your Car series (CDs plus booklets), as well as the various sets from HUGO and Berlitz, such as the Berlitz set Spanish in 30 Days. I have heard good things about Behind the Wheel Spanish and the interactive Rosetta Stone series, but Rosetta Stone is expensive. There are dozens of choices in any large bookstore, such as Barnes and Noble. Start with something simple and inexpensive, or rent instructional materials from libraries.

1) Spanish is a phonetic language. That is, every letter (except H) is sounded. The various letters and combinations of letters have highly predictable sounds. Once you learn the basic sounds of the various vowels, consonants, and combined vowels, it is relatively easy to sound out any new word that you read.

2) The vowels (A, E, I, O, U) have relatively pure sounds in Spanish, with almost no variation. This makes both spelling and pronunciation easier than in English.  In Spanish, A, E, I, O, U sound more or less like “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo.”  Y by itself also sounds like “ee.”    y = and

3) The only silent letter is H.   CH sounds like English CH, as in chocolate.

4) The LL combination usually has a Y sound, as in llamar (“yah-MAR”), to call. 
However, there are a lot of regional variations in the pronunciation of LL.

5) The RR combination is strongly trilled. 
Examples: perro (dog), ferrocarril (railroad)

6) The letter R is also strongly trilled when it starts a word.
Examples: radio (radio), reciente (recent), Roma (Rome), ruso (Russian)

7) Inside a word or at the end of a word, a single R is sounded with a single soft tap of the tongue. It can sound almost like a soft D.
Examples:  pero (but), tomar (to take or drink), torpe (clumsy), un traje (a suit)

8) The letter Ñ  (N with a tilde) sounds like “EN-yay.”
Inside a word, it sounds like the NI in “onion.”
Examples: mañana (tomorrow) = “mahn-YA-nah”  /  año (year) = “AHN-yo”

9) Unlike English, Spanish has very few double consonants.
The only ones are CC, LL, RR and (much more rarely) NN.
Examples: acción (action), una parrilla (a grill), perro (dog), innato (innate)

10) B and V usually sound the same when they start words. 
Examples: boca (mouth), vaca (cow)

11) In most of the Spanish-speaking world, the letter C before E or I, the letter S, and the letter Z tend to sound much alike, like the English S in Sam.
Examples: cero (zero), cinco (five), sopa (soup), zapato (shoe)

12) Spanish syllables tend to be rather short in sound and even in length, vs. drawn out, like some English syllables. 

13) Spanish has a fixed system of voiced stress on certain syllables, which will be discussed in more detail later. One thing you can be sure of:  If you see a written accent mark over a vowel, that syllable is stressed.

14) In Spanish, unlike in English, days of the week, months of the year, names of languages, and adjectives of nationality are not capitalized. Examples:
lunes (Monday), marzo (March), chino (Chinese), un coche alemán (a German car)


My next post will give examples of common words starting with each letter of the alphabet. 


  1. Soy interesado, pero mi español no es muy bueno! :)

    In regards to number 4, in Puerto Rico the ll (and y in a word like "yo") is pronounced "zh", kind of like the common mispronunciation of the J in Beijing. In Argentina, the ll or y (or sometimes g) is pronounced like "sh" in English.

    A proposito, no es cortés de decir, pero es muy útil hablar español al comunicarse con el departamento de limpieza del hotel. :)

  2. No estoy de acuerdo sobre el numero diéz. El "b" y el "v" tienen sonidos diferentes, pero la diferencia es muy difícil oír si no habla muy bien español.

  3. Thanks a lot, TGirsch. Your Spanish is obviously well beyond the level of what I will be posting here, so not to worry! :-)
    1)Yes, the LL combination has many different possible sounds, and that's basically what I say in #4. However, I find that most beginners have trouble pronouncing this as anything other than the Y sound in English, and elementary textbooks say to pronounce the combo that way. I do try to give my students some idea of the variations that they might encounter in people's regional accents.
    2) According to all my textbooks and the phonetic alphabet representation of the sound in the dictionary entries, the B and the V at the BEGINNING of words do indeed have the same (b) sound, although it is not as explosive as the English B. It's when the B or the V is somewhere inside a word that it changes its sound -- again to something that most beginners have trouble hearing and reproducing.
    3)Note that Spanish speakers, when they are spelling words that start with B or V, need to distinguish the letters as "B de burro" and "V de vaca," or "B de Barcelona" and "B de Valencia," or "B grande" and "B chica," because they sound the same. / Stay tuned!

  4. 1) Agreed, and understood; I was just giving specific examples.
    2) I respectfully disagree. That's probably close enough for government work (and certainly for a beginner), but in practice it's much more complicated than that. For example, listening to a native Spanish speaker, and the V in "a veces" sounds a lot more like an English V than an English B. Basically, what you say is usually (but not always) true, and you're right that it can be challenging even for Spanish speakers. :) It also seems to vary depending on where in the Spanish-speaking world you are, much like ll. And it's worth noting that the David Dvorkins of the Spanish-speaking world (that is, the linguistic purists) argue that the sounds are and ought to be different, but that most people pronounce them the same, and hence should be banished from whatever the Spanish-speaking equivalent of Anglophonia is. ;)
    3) Similarly, I've seen "b larga" and "v corta," or there was another one that I can't remember.

  5. Oh, and I should add that I got about 85% of the Spanish I wrote correct on my own; the remaining 15% I had to hit dictionaries and Google Translate. :)

  6. Ack! I thought I had posted a LONG comment back to you, Tom, but it does not seem to have appeared. Darn. Well, the gist of it was that yes, there are lots of regional pronunciations in all languages. None of them is "right," and none of them is "wrong"; they are just different from one another. Pick any one, and you will please some native speakers and annoy others. I think "a veces" sounds the way it does because it sounds run on, like one word, vs. "una vaca," where the V is much more like a B. I also commented that I have been told by native speakers of Spanish that I have an "international accent," one that would be understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world. That pleases me a great deal. Maybe it's because I did not learn my Spanish in any one Spanish-speaking country, but here in Denver, from a variety of teachers from a variety of places, and from lots of tapes and CDs. I know my accent is not absolutely native sounding, but I've been told that it's quite good, and that's good enough for me. For purposes of teaching, working on building my vocabulary and always trying to learn more grammar are more important. It's all one huge, lifelong learning adventure! :-)

  7. None of them is "right," and none of them is "wrong"; they are just different from one another.

    Unless we're talking about English, in which case your husband would disagree vehemently. ;)

    I also commented that I have been told by native speakers of Spanish that I have an "international accent," one that would be understood throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

    I've also been told that my pronunciation and accent are quite good, which gets me into trouble, because it leads Spanish speakers to believe that I speak much more fluently than I actually do.

    Maybe it's because I did not learn my Spanish in any one Spanish-speaking country, but here in Denver, from a variety of teachers from a variety of places

    I've been fortunate enough to have had a similar experience. I've learned from and spoken to Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Argentinians, Cubans, a Honduran, an El Salvadoran, a Colombian, and primarily a Venezuelan.

  8. Another part of my other post that got lost was that I am a longtime member of a very large Spanish conversation group here in Denver, the Denver Free Spanish Network. I host the group once a month except in July and August. Most members are native speakers of English who are passionate about Spanish, and many speak very well, having studied and traveled extensively. But we also have the benefit of having several native speakers of Spanish as members. It's rather amusing to hear them argue about what is "correct" or not, all based on what they learned in their native lands, of course.
    Early on in my studies of Spanish, more than 15 years ago, I had the huge advantage of longterm lessons with a friend from Ecuador who is also a high school teacher of Spanish and French. Her pronunciation is very precise, crystal clear, something that I have since learned is fairly typical of Ecuadorians. And she is a teacher, which helps still more, as she is used to speaking very clearly to her students. Also, she is well able to explain any grammar point.
    Still today, what I have the most trouble with is the SPEED with which most native speakers of Spanish talk. If they will slow down a little for me, I'm fine. If not, I'm in trouble, or even miss the message entirely. But I assume it is the same for almost any foreigner listening to English. That's why I try to speak relatively slowly and very clearly when conversing with foreigners -- unless, of course, I can tell right away that their English is very fluent.

  9. My favorite trait of Spanish speakers is how they disparage the Spanish spoken in other countries, especially Mexico. A common utterance is something along the lines of "In Mexico, they say 'X,' but in Spanish, we say 'Y.'" The rivalries are amusing to me.

    I've also decided that no two Spanish-speaking countries have the same word for "straw." (Like a drinking straw.) In Mexico, they use "un popote." In Puerto Rico, it's "un sorbete." in Venezuela, it's "un pitillo." In Argentina and Honduras, they use "una pajita" and "una pajilla," but I forget which is which. I've also heard that some places use "un canuto." So I've made "What do you call a straw" a sort of litmus test. ;)

    And I agree about speed Spanish. Por eso, lo hablo mejor que lo entiendo.

  10. Creo que todo el mundo entiende un idioma mejor que lo habla. I try to encourage my beginning and intermediate students by assuring them that this pattern persists no matter how good they may get. That is, you can always understand more, especially when you read, than you can produce in writing or speaking, no matter how advanced you get. I've known some students of German in which the difference between the skills was astonishing. They could read and even write quite well, and knew grammar well, but were absolutely tongue-tied when trying to speak. I think that must be the fault of their teachers, who did not make the students speak enough. That's why I try hard to foster all aspects of language learning: reading, grammar, writing, listening, and speaking. I love giving -- and used to love getting -- writing assignments, because writing tests everything but your pronunciation: vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, originality of thought, and organization. It's really very hard.

  11. Go back and re-read what I wrote. For me, it's precisely the opposite of what you state. I actually have an easier time speaking it than understanding when someone else speaks it. For reading and writing, however, it works as you suggest.

    Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch, aber es ist sehr schlecht! Einmal bier, bitte! I took four years of it in middle and high school, but scarcely remember any of it, because I blew the classes off, and because I never really had the opportunity to use it. Contrast this against Spanish, where I have barely over a year of formal education (spread out over several years), but where I speak and understand the language much better than I ever did with German, primarily because I get to USE it.

    I agree about writing assignments. I also like to read children's books, as I find that's very helpful.

    There are two things in Spanish I'm firmly convinced I will never, ever, ever get right: reflexive verbs, and the subjunctive mood. And I'm withholding judgment on whether I'll ever figure out whether to use the imperfect or the preterite.

    (Then again, in my native ENGLISH I'll never understand why we call it the "present perfect" when we use it exclusively to describe things that happened in the PAST...)

  12. Ah, if you want to get a good, inexpensive book that will really help you understand reflexive verbs and the subjunctive, get Dorothy Richmond's book SPANISH VERB TENSES. It's only about $11, and the answers are in the back. It's very popular with my students. I agree that the preterite vs. the imperfect is tough, but if you do enough exercises with the two in enough different books, it begins to fall into place.
    I especially like the verbs that change their meanings depending on whether they are in the preterite or the imperfect! Example: yo sabía = I knew; yo supe = I found out. No quería = I didn't want to; no quise = I refused to. Etc.
    In English grammar, the term "perfect" always refers to the past, due to the Latin derivation of the word. If I am not mistaken, perfectus means something like completed or finished. This is a very unsophisticated mnemonic, but I tell my students that they can remember how to form this tense because the helping verb, the "have" part, is in the present tense. So it's the helping verb in the present + the past participle of the main verb in every language that uses that tense. I have bought = ich habe gekauft, (yo) he comprado, j'ai acheté, etc. In both French and German, they use to helping verbs here: both to have and to be, but the uses are different. It's very interesting to me, too, that in Spain they use the present perfect in many cases where Latin Americans prefer the preterite. I love comparing languages and their little grammatical quirks!
    Sorry I have not yet posted another part of a handout. I'll try to do that soon.

  13. Whoops. Typo above. That should be "two helping verbs," of course.

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