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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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2 Pronunciation and context

The pronunciation of a phoneme might vary depending on where it occurs in the word. The phoneme /d/ in Spanish, for instance, is pronounced as a stop [d] in initial position and after or l, while in other contexts, especially between vowels, it is pronounced as a voiced inter-dental approximant [ð]. Positional variants of a phoneme are called allophones

A common source of pronunciation mistakes is the mismatch between the phonemic-allophonic status of speech segments between Spanish and English. While /d/ and /ð/ are two phonemes in English – as demonstrated by pairs of words (called minimal pairs) like day and they– they are allophones of the same phoneme in Spanish. 

The acquisition of these differences might be complicated further by orthography. Let’s take the graphs ‘b’ and ‘v’. In English, the first will be pronounced [b] as in Bath and the second will be pronounced [v] as in veto. In this case, the correlation of these two graphs and their pronunciation is very stable in English. However, both these graphs will be pronounced [b] in Spanish when in absolute-initial position e.g. BarcelonaValencia, but they will be pronounced [β] in other environments, especially between two vowels e.g. av(bird), pensab(I/he/she was thinking).

It seems logical to imagine that the average English speaker will not perceive this difference, especially because the sound [β] does not exist in English. It´s likely that students will pronounce Barcelona [b] and Valencia [v], and ave [v] and pensaba [b]. This is further complicated by the fact that students will often perceive [β] as ‘v’, that is, it will be categorised as the phoneme /v/ rather than an allophone of the phoneme /b/. It is important that language teachers explain and correct these typical mistakes early on, before they become fossilised.

Some other graphical interference will occur, especially in cases related to vocalic sounds. The word veto looks exactly the same in Spanish and English, but it is pronounced [ˈviːtəʊ] in English and [ˈbeto] in Spanish. The vocalic sounds in Spanish and English will be analysed in more detail in Week 4 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , and the role played by stress is discussed in Week 3

The pronunciation of sound segments may vary according to their position in the word, and neighbouring sounds. This variability is language-specific, e.g. the pronunciation of /b/ varies in Spanish, but is quite stable in English. It is also common for certain sound sequences to be possible in one language while they do not occur at all in another. 

Activity _unit2.3.1 Activity 2

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes.

Do all geographical varieties of Spanish have the same number of phonemes? Try to justify your answer.


Most varieties of Spanish have one alveolar sibilant in their phoneme inventory; /s/, which can be represented by the letters ‘s’ and ‘z’ and the combination ‘ce’ and ‘ci’, in words such as  sals (sauce)centro  (centre), or  z apato  (shoe). In some varieties of Peninsular Spanish, the letter ‘s’ will correspond to the phoneme /s/ realised as [s], while the letter ‘z’ and the combination ‘ce’ and ‘ci’ will represent the phoneme /θ/ and be pronounced as [θ]. The two segments are contrastive, as they form minimal pairs such as  cas (house) and  caz (hunt).

How do you think native speakers of Spanish would pronounce the English words spray and stay, and why?


They would probably pronounce them [esprai̯] and [estei̯] or [estai̯]. Focusing on the initial consonant cluster, they would add an [e] sound before the initial s+consonant sequence because although all these consonants occur in Spanish, the sequences never occur in Spanish in word-initial position.

Reference: Hualde, José Ignacio. The Sounds of Spanish, 2005, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2009, 8th ed., s.v. “Phonotactics” Chicago.