Pronouncing the Spanish G and J

G sounds varies considerably

Letters "G" and "J"

The g in Spanish can one of the more difficult letters to pronounce, at least for those who hope to be precise. The same is true for the j, whose sound it sometimes uses.

Beginning Spanish students can think of g has having two sounds, although those who want to be exact will find that the g has three common sounds and a pair of rare situations where it is pronounced very softly if at all.

The Quick and Easy Approach to Pronouncing the G

The way many English speakers learning Spanish start out is by thinking of Spanish as having two sounds, depending on the letter that follows:

  • Most of the time, the g can be pronounced much like the "g" in "dog" or "figure." Note that in both of those English words, the "g" is pronounced somewhat softer or less explosively than the "g" in words such as "goat" and "good."
  • However, when the g is followed by e or i, it is pronounced something like the letter "h," the same as the Spanish j. (In this way, the sound of the g parallels that of the c, which has a "hard" sound except when it comes before an e or i, in which case it has a softer sound. Both c and g in English often follow a similar pattern.)

Note the differences in these phonetic transcriptions. The first three have the hard "g" sound, while the final two have the "h" sound:

  • apagar — ah-pag-GAR
  • ego — EH-goh
  • ignición — eeg-nee-SYOHN
  • agente — ah-HEN-teh
  • girasol — hee-rah-SOHL
  • gusto — GOO-stoh
  • gente — HEN-teh

You should have no difficulty being understood if you follow these pronunciations. However, if you hope to sound more like a native speaker, you should follow the next section.

A More Precise Approach to Pronouncing the G

Think of the g as have three main sounds:

  • When the g comes immediately before an e or i, it is pronounced like the Spanish j, detailed below.
  • Otherwise, when the g comes after a pause, such as at the beginning of a sentence, or if it doesn't have vowel sounds immediately before and after, the g can be pronounced much like the "g" in "dog" or "figure."
  • When the g comes between vowels (unless followed by e or i), it is pronounced much softer, and there is no good English equivalent. You might think of it as a mushy version of the above pronunciation, or like something between silence and the above pronunciation. You can hear it pronounced native speakers here.

A Pair of Exceptions

These three pronunciation take care of nearly all situations. However, there are two significant exceptions:

  • Some speakers intensely soften or even drop the sound of the g in the letter combination gua, especially when it appears at the beginning of the word such as in guapo, guacamole, and guardar. So guapo sounds something like WAH-poh, and guacamole sounds like wah-kah-MOH-leh. This tendency, which can be heard here, is found in many areas and varies even within localities. At the extreme, you may even hear agua pronounced like AH-wah.
  • A few English gerunds ("-ing" verbs) such as "marketing" and "camping" have been adopted into Spanish (often with a slight change in meaning). Most native Spanish speakers can't readily imitate the "ng" sound well at the end of a word, so the tendency is to end the word with the n sound. Thus marketing may sound like márketin, and camping may sound like campin. In a few cases, such as "meeting" becoming mítin or mitin, the spelling has been changed to conform with the common pronunciation.

Pronouncing the J

The j sound is what is known as a voiceless velar fricative, which means that it is formed by forcing air through the slightly constricted back part of the mouth. It's kind of a scraping or raspy sound. If you've learned German, you may know it as the ch sound of Kirche. You may hear it sometimes in English in the word "loch" when given a Scottish accent or as the initial sound of "Hanukkah" when an attempt is made to pronounce it as if it were in Hebrew.

One way you might think of the sound is as an extended "k." Instead of sounding out the "k" in an explosive fashion, try lengthening the sound.

The sound of the j varies with region. In some areas, the j sounds almost like a soft "k," and in some places it sounds very close to the "h" sound in words such as "hot" or "hero." If you give the j the sound of the English "h," as many English-speaking Spanish students do, you will be understood, but keep in mind that is only approximate.