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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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1.2 Contrastive segments

Human languages in general use a rather small number of contrastive segments to construct words. These contrastive segments are called phonemes. The vowels /e/ and /a/, for instance, are phonemes of Spanish, as they differentiate meanings as in peso (weight) and paso (step); /p/ and /k/ are also phonemes of Spanish; peso vs. queso (cheese). Although Spanish orthography is quite phonemic as described above in Orthography (that is, a letter represents a phoneme), this is not always the case. The phoneme /k/, for example, has various orthographic representations; c– casa (house), qu– quesok – kilo.

Spanish, English, German, Chinese and any other language may have segmental contrasts in their own systems that do not exist in other languages. The native speakers of those languages will have no difficulties producing or perceiving those distinctive sounds, while the native speakers of languages in which those contrasts do not exist, will encounter some difficulties. The words eat and it in English, for instance, are pronounced differently; [iːt] and [ɪt] respectively. /iː/ and /ɪ/ are in phonological opposition in English, while in Spanish there is no such opposition. Therefore, the Spanish speaker of English might have difficulty trying to make a difference between the two.

A further difficulty for language learners is that a given phoneme is not always realised in the same way. The actual pronunciation may depend on various factors such as the speed of speech, surrounding sounds, or the position in the word or syllable. Foreign language learners must be made aware of this variation in order to be able to perceive and pronounce the sounds of Spanish accurately. 

Activity 1

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes.

Explain the pronunciation of the phoneme /d/ in Spanish 


In word-initial position and after and l, the phoneme /d/ is pronounced as a stop consonant [d]. In other word-medial positions, it is pronounced as an inter-dental approximant [ð], as in had(fairy). Word-finally, it has many pronunciations depending mostly on the dialect of Spanish. It can be pronounced as a voiceless inter-dental fricative [θ] “Madriz”, or [t], or it can simply be deleted.

Listen to the phrase the day pronounced by a native speaker of Spanish. Does she pronounce the consonants correctly? 

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No, she pronounces it [də ðei̯], that is, she swaps the two consonants around.