If your mother tongue is Spanish, you may find learning and pronouncing some English words and phrases very challenging. Since many of our Accent Softening clients are Spanish speakers, we thought it would be helpful to explore specific challenges Spanish speakers face – from pronunciation problems to intonation - and what you can do to overcome them.
What are the main challenges of speaking English for Spanish speakers?
English is an unusual language. It takes inspiration from Latin, Germanic and even old Nordic languages . As a result, the rules of the language are a bit of a mess. Even native-born British people make mistakes while speaking and writing English, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that others, such as Spanish natives, find it hard.
Many of the challenges in speaking English are to do with pronunciation. And while mispronunciation isn’t necessarily a barrier to being understood, it can make it harder to integrate into the workplace. We find this is often the case for ambitious, non-native speakers who are keen to climb the career ladder.
There are tricks to mastering the English language that are often overlooked by Spanish-speakers. Once you understand what they are, the language becomes less confusing. And, in time, the peculiarities of English can become second nature.
Let’s look at some examples...
Different languages encourage us to place our tongues in different positions to make the correct sounds. There are a number of sounds present in English that don’t even exist in Spanish. For example, there are only twelve vowel sound positions in Spanish versus nineteen in English. These sounds are the building blocks or foundations of each language. Every language has them, and they’re always different, but unless these can be mastered, it is very difficult to achieve true fluency.
Many vowel sounds can confuse the Spanish ear as they look and sound very similar but might require the tongue to be placed in a different position or for the sound to be elongated:
I love Sam’s fast car – three ‘a’s and each of them sounds a little bit different. The lesson here is that English vowels on the page are different to vowels spoken. Don’t worry much about it though. Ask a Northern English person to say this phrase and they’ll pronounce it totally differently to a Southerner!
The book was full of food – the ‘oo’ spelling can produce two different sounds in English, both of which are different to the Spanish pronunciation of this sound. The first ‘oo’ sounds like a caveman grunt, the second like an audience booing an evil character on a stage.
Don’t burn the shirt – ‘ur’ as in turn, ‘ir’ as in bird, ’ear’ as in earth and ‘or’ as in worth all spell the same vowel sound - hard to believe right? Sometimes English spellings don’t make any sense at all, even to English people! Focusing on the meaning of the word, rather than the spelling, can make things easier.
Two pesky little sounds that tend to confuse Spanish speakers and have a lot to answer for are ‘i’ and ’ee’ - where we have two sounds in English - the difference between ship and sheep - many languages, including Spanish have just one. It’s tricky to get the hang of, but with practice, you’ll soon have confidence in hearing the difference between pitch and peach, sit and seat.
How you say your vowels in English has a profound impact on your accent. Read more on the relationship between vowels and accent.
Consonants too can cause pronunciation problems for Spanish speakers, thanks to the way sounds are used in the two languages:
Confusing V and B: In English, we use the teeth and bottom lip to create the ‘v’ sound, but as this sound doesn’t feature in the Spanish language, a Spanish learner will often replace it with a ‘b’ or similar sound created using both lips.
Words finishing with the D, B or V sound, such as ‘bad’,’ job’ or ‘have’: In English we would not tend to enunciate the consonant sound at the end of these words, however in Spanish the tendency is to tense the vocal cords resulting in the ‘d’ sound becoming an over-pronounced ‘t’ sound, the ‘b’ sound a ‘p’ and the ‘ve’ resembling an ‘f’.
B and P: Whereas in English, the ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds are sounded through an aspiration of air, in Spanish, they would not be.
Other challenges for Spanish speakers
In Spanish, all letters are pronounced. In English, we like to throw in extra letters for no apparent reason at all. You don’t hear them; they only seem to exist on paper. You can find examples of these ninja silent letters in plumBer, psyCHology and touGH.
Another challenge is intonation: Spanish speakers stress a syllable in every word, but we don’t do this in English. If every syllable of English is stressed, it sounds stilted and choppy and loses its energy. One of the lovely things about the English language is the melody and flow, so see if you can relax into it.
If your mother tongue is Spanish, it may feel at times like written English is a secret code that is almost impossible to crack – our 5 tips on dealing with crazy English spelling may help. If you can get to grips with spelling anomalies and practise specific problem sounds, you’ll soon find you’re able to speak with confidence, express your ideas fluently and, if you feel it’s something that has been holding you back, you will quickly enjoy a huge sense of relief.
“Language is your friend - not an exclusive club you don’t have entry to.” - LSW founder Emma Serlin.
Accent Softening in practice: a case study
A senior Spanish finance executive approached us for help to work on clarifying a few elements of his English pronunciation. He had an extensive team under him and felt uncomfortable when he noticed that people’s faces would sometimes cloud over when he spoke. He could tell they had difficulty understanding every word, and he felt it was having an impact on his ability to lead. Of course, no one ever mentioned it to him – he was the boss after all!
What we did
We worked with him over multiple Accent Softening sessions establishing that the main challenge for him was intonation. In Spanish, it’s not as important for speech to have a good melody, the syllables are uttered in a more uniform manner and therefore it sounds ‘flatter’. We worked with him to increase the expression and emphasis in his speech to mirror the more melodic intonation of a native English speaker.
We soon realised that he felt uncomfortable speaking in this more melodic way; it was outside of his comfort zone – he felt the melody sounded too much and didn’t have the confidence to follow through with it outside the sessions.
We used recording and listening back in his sessions to help him gain confidence in the way he spoke and demonstrate that he wasn’t overdoing it. The penny really dropped when we used this exercise, and it proved to him how much emphasis affected the meaning of a sentence.
Say the sentence ‘I never said you stole my hat’ out loud emphasising the word in capitals each time:
I NEVER said you stole me hat….Jack said you did
I never SAID you stole my hat…...I wrote that you did
I never said YOU stole my hat…..I said Tom did
I never said you STOLE my hat…..I know you borrowed it
I never said you stole MY hat….I said you took someone else’s
I never said you stole my HAT….I said you stole my gloves
We found this was a great way to clearly demonstrate the importance of the correct intonation and it did wonders for our client’s confidence too.
Could we help you?
There are tricky parts to the English language - even a few silly aspects. But there are simple ways to learn the peculiarities. Most importantly, when you speak with energy and confidence, most people will remember this rather than any mispronunciations. But if the tricky parts of the language are affecting your confidence, we’ll be glad to help.
If you're a native Spanish speaker and you'd like to learn to communicate more clearly and confidently in English, take a look at our Accent Softening Course.
Or if you’d like to read more, try Why you shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to reduce your native accent.