Common Spanish Pronunciation Mistakes You Should Avoid

Sounds Don't Alway Align With Those of English

zoo for article on Spanish pronunciation
¡Vamos al zoo! (Let's go to the zoo!). Mariacecita/Creative Commons.

Few things are more frustrating for someone learning a foreign language than to not be understood by a native speaker. If you want to make a good impression when speaking Spanish, here are seven common pronunciation mistakes English speakers make that you can avoid. Follow these simple guidelines, and your Spanish-speaking hosts will know that at least you're making an effort.

Turning the R Into Mush

Let's get the most difficult letter for English speakers out of the way first!

Here's the basic rule: Never pronounce the Spanish r as if it were English. Think of it as a different letter of the alphabet that just happens to be written the same as the English one.

Spanish has two r sounds. The simple r sound, which you'll hear more often, is close to the "dd" sound in "paddle" or the "tt" in "little." So the common word mero (mere) sounds much like "meadow," not "marrow."

That wasn't hard, was it? The other r sound, often called the rr sound because rr was once considered a separate letter of the alphabet, is used for rr and when r appears at the beginning of a sentence or a word by itself. The rr sound is a brief trill and does take some effort to master. You might think of it as the front of your tongue flapping against the roof of the mouth in a strong breeze, or perhaps the sounds of a cat purring or a motorboat revving. Once you figure it out, it can be a fun sound to make.

Turning the U Into a Different Vowel

The u sound is never like the "u" in "fuse," "but" or "push." When it doesn't come in combination with another vowel, it's like the "oo" sound in "moo," which appropriately is spelled mu in Spanish. So uno (one) sounds something like "OO-noh" and uniforme (uniform) sounds something like "oo-nee-FOR-meh".

Like the other Spanish vowels, u has a pure and distinct sound.

When the u comes before another vowel, the u glides into the following vowel and ends up sounding something like the English "w." Thus cuenta (account) sounds something like "KWEN-tah," and cuota sounds fairly close to the cognate "quota."

And that brings up another point: After the q, the u is silent. Thus quince (the number 15) sounds like "KEEN-seh."

Giving the G and J Their Sound in 'Judge'

In English, the "g" generally has the "j" sound when "g" is followed by "e" or "i." The same is true in Spanish, but the j sound also used in the ge and gi combinations is much different. English speakers usually approximate it with the English "h" sound, although native Spanish speakers in most regions often give it a harsher, more guttural sound. You'll be perfectly understandable if you pronounce gente as "HEN-teh" and jugo (juice) as "HOO-goh."

Buzzing the Z

The z of Spanish isn't pronounced with the "z" sound of words such as "buzz " and "zoo." In Latin America, it generally sounds like the English "s," while in most of Spain it's like the "th" in "thin." So if you're headed to the zoo, think "soh" in Latin America and "thoh" in Spain.

Pronouncing the B and V as Different Letters

Once upon a time, Spanish had distinct sounds for the B and V. But no more — they sound exactly the same and thus often pose a spelling challenge for native speakers. The sound is something like a buzzing sound with the two lips when b or v comes between two vowels and something like a soft English "b" at other times. You may look at words such as tubo (tube) and tuvo (a form of tener) and think of them as sounding different, but in fact they sound alike.

Sounding Out the H

How do you pronounce the h? In a word, don't. Except in a very few words of foreign origin such as hámster and hockey, the h is silent.

Failing To Keep the L Distinct

Listen carefully, and you may notice that the first "l" of "little" has a different sound than the second "l." The first is formed with the tongue against the roof of the palate, while the second one isn't.

The key rule in pronouncing the Spanish l is that it has sound of the first "l" in "little." Thus the l has the same sound in mal as it does in malo and mala (all of them meaning "bad"). In other words, mal does not sound like "mall."

The doubled l or ll used to be considered a separate letter of the alphabet. Although its pronunciation varies with region, you won't go wrong to give it the sound of the "y" in "yet." Thus calle (street) sounds similar to "KAH-yeh."