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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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1 Orthography and pronunciation

Read the following words which are very similar in Spanish and English.

Table _unit2.2.1 Table 1 Comparison
Tranquilo Tranquil
Language: Spanish Language: English
Origin: Latin Origin: Latin
Grammatical category: Adjective masculine singular (feminine singular tranquila, masculine plural tranquilos, feminine plural tranquilas) Grammatical category: Adjective

Meaning: calm; peaceful; tranquil (without motion or sound) 

tranquil (free from emotional or mental disturbance)

Example: el mar tranquilo


Synonyms: pacífico, relajado, calmado

Meaning: free from disturbance; calm



 Example: her tranquil gaze


Synonyms: peaceful, restful, reposeful, calm, quiet, still, serene, placid, relaxing, soothing, undisturbed, idyllic, halcyon, mild, pleasant

Pronunciation: [traŋˈkilo] Pronunciation: [ˈtræŋkwɪl] 

Both words come from Latin. They both fall into the same grammatical category; adjective. They have very similar meaning and use; El mar tranquilo (the tranquil sea), and her tranquil gaze (su mirada tranquila). They also share very similar orthography (spelling). Yet, when we examine how we pronounce these words in each language, we realise their pronunciation is quite different (incidentally, you may have noticed by now that the IPA symbol ˈ indicates stress. It is placed before the stressed syllable).

This difference in pronunciation will happen with many other cognate words (words that have a common ancestry, are spelt in a similar way and whose meanings are very close) e.g. ENG equivalentand SP equivalente, or ENG hero and SP héroe.

Graphs exist that systematically represent sounds that are different in Spanish compared to English. The letter ‘z’, for instance, corresponds to the sound [s] in Spanish (or [θ] in some varieties of Peninsular Spanish), e.g.zapato [sa'pato] (shoe), while it generally corresponds to the sound [z] in English e.g. zinc pronounced [zɪŋk].  The varying pronunciation of cognate words can produce negative effects when learning a foreign language.

Ideas for exercises

Depending on your students’ level, ask them to make a list of cognate words and analyse the differences in the pronunciation of the consonants in the word-pairs. This will make students aware of the differences between words which they might consider identical. 

English spelling: many-to-many

English is well-known as a language in which the same spelling may allow for a number of different pronunciations, as well as one in which different spellings may correspond to the same pronunciation. There are many cases of words in which the same spelling has different pronunciation (e.g. read [ri:d] as in “to read” and [red] as in “I read a beautiful poem last night”), or in which different spellings are used to produce the same sound, i.e. the graphs ‘f’,’ph’ and ‘gh’ in words such as: filmphantom or laugh are all pronounced [f].

Spanish spelling: one-to-one  

In comparison, Spanish spelling is more phonemic and shows relative stability between the orthographic form and pronunciation. It is a language in which there is a more direct correlation between the spelling of words and their pronunciation. The correspondence between the orthographic form and the physical realisation is not one-to-one, but close, even if some sounds can be spelt in various ways. An example is [x] as in Getafe and Jérez. Similarly, ‘qu’ and ‘c’ can both represent the sound [k], as in queso (cheese) and casa (house). Nevertheless, pronouncing a written text is relatively straightforward.