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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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2 Comparing stress in Spanish and English

Stressed syllables receive greater prominence by means of pitch, duration and intensity. In some languages, including English, the prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables is further enhanced by reducing vowels (i.e. changing vowel quality) in unstressed syllables. In this way, the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables is even more prominent. In Spanish, on the other hand, the difference in vowel quality between stressed and unstressed vowels is minimal. Think of the Spanish word banana and its English equivalent banana. Stress in both languages falls on the penultimate syllable, but in Spanish all three vowels are pronounced [a], while in English, the first and third vowels are reduced to a neutral vowel called the schwa, (the phonetic symbol for which is [ə]). Stress might also affect consonants, but again, in Spanish the effect of stress on consonants is minimal, while in English it is quite prominent. Think of the two t’s in the English word title and the Spanish word título. In Spanish both t’s are pronounced the same, while in English the first t (the one in the stressed syllable) is strongly aspirated, while the second tends to be pronounced as a glottal stop (a moment of closure).

Activity _unit3.3.1 Activity 1 The effect of stress in cognates

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes.

Make a list of (10-12) cognate words like ENG potato – SP patata, and compare the position of the stress and what effect it has on the vowels and consonants in the word. Your list can be a good starting point for developing an activity in class, or you can ask your students to make such a list.


We compiled the following list:

  • ENG – SP 

  • area – área

  • radio – radio

  • idea – idea

  • banana – banana

  • debate – debate

And in the following, stress falls on different syllables: 

  • capital – capital
  • continent – continente
  • dragon – dragón
  • information – información
  • artist – artista


Stress and orthography

The orthographic accent mark should not be confused with stress, that is, prosodic prominence. The aim of the accent rules in Spanish is to unambiguously indicate the position of lexical stress in every Spanish word. It would be very straightforward if every word had an accent mark, however, it would not be a very economical system, so stress is marked only on those words that do not conform to the general pattern. The general pattern is to place stress on the penultimate syllable if the word ends in a vowel, n or s and to stress the final syllable if the word ends in a consonant other than n or s. In this course, we will not deal with orthographic stress in any further detail.

Ideas for exercises

  1. Ask your students to find nouns and adjectives that don’t follow the general pattern with regard to the position of stress (stress on the penultimate syllable of the word if it ends in a vowel, n or s; stress on the final syllable if the word ends in a consonant other than n or s).
  2. Ask your students to make word lists with pairs of words which only differ in the place of the lexical stress (e.g. bebe vs. bebé).
  3. At higher levels: What’s the difference in the pronunciation and meaning of phrases like él vino vs. el vino? (Think of grammatical words vs. content words; words that are never stressed; you might consider here the use of personal pronouns in Spanish and English.)
  4. Make a dictation of words with and without accent marks.