Pronouncing the Difficult Consonants of Spanish

These letters often trip up Spanish students

Hospital sign in Spain.
Both the first and last letters of the Spanish word "hospital" are pronounced differently in Spanish than in English. This photo was taken in Pontevedra, Spain.

 

Luis Diaz Devesa / Getty Images

While many of the Spanish consonants have sounds that are similar to those in English, many are distinctly different and have become the bane of many a Spanish student.

Persons learning Spanish who see a familiar letter are tempted to give it the pronunciation they already know—but more often than not that won't get it exactly right. Even though Spanish is highly phonetic, some letters have more than one pronunciation, and still others are simply different than what might be expected.

Consonants With More Than One Sound

C, at least in most of Latin America, is pronounced like the "c" in "cereal" when it comes before an e or an i, and like the "c" in "car" when it is other positions. Examples: complacer, hacer, ácido, carro, acabar, crimen. Note: Although you will be understood if you use the Latin American pronunciation, in parts of Spain the c sounds like the "th" in "thin" when it comes before an e or i. Learn more details in the lesson on pronouncing the C.

D generally is pronounced somewhat like the "d" in "diet," although often the tongue touches the bottom of the teeth instead of the top. But when d comes between vowels, it has a much softer sound, kind of like the "th" in "that." Examples: derecho, helado, diablo. See our lesson on pronouncing the D for more details.

G is pronounced much like the English "g" in "go," although softer, except when it precedes an i or e. In those cases, it is pronounced like the Spanish j. Examples: gordo, gritar, gigante, mágico. See the lesson on pronouncing the G.

N usually has the sound of the "n" in "nice." If it is followed by a b, v, f or p, it has the sound of "m" in "empathy." Examples: no, en, en vez de, andar. Learn more in our lesson on the N.

X varies in sound, depending on the origin of the word. It is often pronounced like the "x" in "example" or "exit," but it also may be pronounced like the s or the Spanish j. In words of Mayan origin it can even have the English "sh" sound. Examples: éxito, experiencia, México, Xela. See also our explanation of the Spanish X.

Consonants That Markedly Differ from English

B and V are pronounced exactly the same. In fact, one of the few spelling problems that many Spanish speakers have is with these two letters, because they don't distinguish them at all from their sound. Generally, the b and v are pronounced like the "b" in "beach." When either of the letters is between two vowels, the sound is formed kind of like the English "v," except that the sound is made by touching the lips together instead of the upper teeth and lower lip. See our lesson on pronouncing the B and V for more details and a brief audio lesson.

H is always silent. Examples: hermano, hacer, deshacer. See also the lesson on the silent H.

J (and the g when before an e or i) can be difficult, as its sound, that of the German ch, is absent in English except for a few foreign words where it is sometimes retained, as in the final sound of loch or the initial sound of Channukah. The sound is sometimes described as a heavily aspirated "h," made by expelling air between the back of the tongue and the soft palate. If you can't pronounce it well, you'll be understood by using the "h" sound of "house," but it's worthwhile to work on the correct pronunciation. Examples: garaje, juego, jardín. See the lesson on pronouncing the J.

L is always pronounced like the first "l" in "little," never like the second one. Examples: los, helado, pastel. See the lesson on pronouncing the L.

LL (once considered a separate letter) is usually pronounced like the "y" in "yellow." There are some regional variations, however. In parts of Spain it has the sound of the "ll" in "million," and in parts of Argentina it has the "zh" sound of "azure." Examples: llama, calle, Hermosillo. See the lesson on pronouncing the LL.

Ñ is pronounced like the "ny" in "canyon." Examples: ñoño, cañón, campaña. See the lesson on pronouncing the Ñ.

R and RR are formed by a flap of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, or a trill. See the R and RR "how to" guides for these letters.

Z generally sounds like the "s" in "simple." In Spain it is often pronounced like the "th" in "thin." Examples: zeta, zorro, vez. See our lesson on pronouncing the C and Z.