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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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4 Barriers to pronunciation

When students try to speak a foreign language, they encounter certain barriers in doing so. These barriers may have a number of different origins, ranging from psychological or physical characteristics, to aspects mostly related to the different characteristics of the student’s mother tongue. It is also worth noting that pronunciation is generally taught through the medium of written language, by asking students to read a text aloud. This is not really teaching pronunciation, although many teachers might believe it to be doing so. Reading aloud requires certain intonation skills that are not present in spontaneous speech and for this reason, in general, it is quite unproductive. 

In what follows, a number of factors are listed that can affect language learners’ pronunciation.


There is a noticeable difference in good pronunciation in the target language depending on the learners’ age. The younger learners are, the easier it is for them to achieve accurate pronunciation. It becomes increasingly difficult with age, as the brain’s original plasticity diminishes. That said, this does not mean adult students should give up trying to improve their pronunciation. It just means they have to work harder. If you teach adult learners, be ready to plan and devote some of your class time to targeted pronunciation practice.

Phonological deafness

This is perhaps one of the most decisive barriers that a student can face when attempting the pronunciation of the foreign language. The listening/perception system of the learner of a foreign language is influenced by the selective habits acquired from childhood through the perception of the sounds in the mother tongue. When students hear the sounds of another language that does not exist, at least in a phonological opposition to other sounds, in their native tongue, they behave as if they had not heard them. Certain sounds might not be perceived, while others will be perceived wrongly. Students are not sensitive to the peculiarities of these “different” sounds and will tend to confuse them with sounds in their mother tongue that are close to the perceived ones in some way. Think of the phrase the day– mentioned earlier – and how it is perceived and pronounced by a native speaker of Spanish. 

This “deafness” will create Native Language Interferencein learning the target language.

Students of different mother tongues have varying degrees of difficulty in learning proper pronunciation in Spanish. Students may have difficulties articulating certain sounds because: 

  • the given sound (phoneme or allophone) simply does not exist in their native language e.g. [x] as in Jaén is difficult for native speakers of English;
  • there is no contrast between “similar” sound segments, so they are merged into one phoneme by the learner such as the vowels eat and it in English when spoken by native speakers of Spanish;
  • both segments exist in both languages, but their phonemic status is different e.g. /d/ and /ð/ as in the day;
  • the phoneme exists in both languages, but the actual phonetic realisation is different. For instance, the phoneme /p/ exists in both Spanish and English, but while in English it´s a strongly aspirated sound, in Spanish there is no aspiration (see Week 5 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ).

It is important to bear these factors in mind when preparing targeted pronunciation practice. 

Insufficient input

Students who live in a Spanish-speaking environment are likely to acquire better pronunciation more quickly, because they are immersed in the language. However, not all students are immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment. The degree to which students are exposed to Spanish on a daily basis will determine how fast they will be able to improve their pronunciation. If you have students who do not have enough exposure to Spanish, encourage them to increase it, either by listening to authentic audio or socialising with Spanish-speaking locals.

No explicit instruction

One of the factors that may be affecting your students’ ability to acquire proper pronunciation is quite simply that it is not being explicitly taught in the classroom and there is little room for correction. Reflect on your teaching practices. Do you correct pronunciation mistakes? Do you give specific pronunciation exercises that target certain phonemes or allophones? Be sure to devote some class time specifically to targeted and systematic pronunciation practice. 

Learners’ attitudes

Research consistently show that emotions are a very important aspect of language learning and can positively or negatively affect students’ achievement in the production of a foreign language. Students with a positive attitude towards learning the target language learn faster. Similarly, students who are genuinely open-minded and interested in improving their pronunciation often do improve it. 

There might be a number of reasons for students to aim for better pronunciation. They might simply want to fit in; they don’t want to be discriminated against because they have a “funny” accent. Adult learners often need to speak clearly and effectively for professional reasons. If you have students who seem to lack motivation, try to identify the reasons for this and use their goals to help nurture their motivation and passion.