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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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4 Connected speech phenomena

It was mentioned in Week 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  that connected speech phenomena contribute to the perception that Spaniards speak very fast. Resyllabification and syllable contraction are the most important of these. 


Resyllabification is a phonological process in which consonants are attached to syllables other than those they originally come from. It involves adjustments of syllable structure across morpheme or word boundaries, and is common in Romance languages. So in Spanish, unlike in English, a word-final consonant is normally resyllabified together with the following word-initial vowel, so mis amigos (my friends) is syllabified as This makes it difficult for students to parse the individual words and gives the impression that Spaniards speak so fast that they merge words. Thus, the two phrases tienes alas (you have wings) and tiene salas (s/he has rooms) sound the same in connected speech. Although there are not many ambiguous phrases like these, when they encounter them, students might have the impression that spoken Spanish cannot be segmented into words. Being aware of resyllabication will improve students’ spoken language comprehension. To raise awareness, a parallel can be drawn between linking-r (or even intrusive-r) in British English. The word caris pronounced as [kaː] in isolation, but in a phrase where it is followed by a vowel-initial word like car is, an is also pronounced and syllabified with the next word [kaː. ɹɪz]. The phenomenon is attested even in phrases where no orthographic is present, so when a word ends in /ə/, /ɪə/, /ɑː/, or /ɔː/ and the next starts with a vowel, an appears; India (r) and.  

Syllable contractions

In connected speech, it is very common that sequences of unstressed vowels (especially if one of them is an or a u) are grouped into a single syllable across word boundaries (in Spanish, this is known as sinalefa) and a diphthong is formed; mi amigo [mi̯a.ˈmi.ɣo], tu abuelo (your grandfather) [tu̯a.ˈβu̯e.lo].

Frequently, sequences of identical vowels are reduced to a single vowel; de Elena (from Elena) [de.ˈ], estaba allí (I/he was there) [es.ta.βa.ˈʝi], and also within a word; alcohol [al.ˈkol]. These contractions can even affect three vowels va a ayudar (s/he will help) [ba.ʝu.ˈðar].

Ideas for exercises

  1. Ask your students to listen to a recording (or a recording with text) appropriate for their level and find any resyllabifications or syllable contractions.
  2. At higher levels: Find a poem that contains syllable contractions (sinalefa) and ask students to count the number of syllables, show where contraction occurs, and then read the poem aloud. For example: 

José de Espronceda: La canción del pirata

Con diez cañones por banda (8 syllables)

viento en popa a toda vela (8)

no corta el mar, sino vuela (8)

un velero bergantín; (7, but as it ends in a stressed vowel, in verse it counts as 8)

baja el pirata que llaman (8)

por su bravura el Temido (8)

en todo el mar conocido (8)

del uno al otro confín (7, but as it ends in a stressed vowel, in verse it counts as 8)

Activity _unit4.5.1 Activity 1

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes.

Listen to this recording and give the student feedback on the pronunciation of her vowels in Spanish. Disregard any other language errors.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Feedback: Student 2
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Audio _unit4.5.1 Feedback: Student 2
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This is a possible answer. You might want to point out other pronunciation features.

We can claim that the student has assimilated the main rules regarding the pronunciation of vocalic sounds in Spanish. She doesn’t pronounce English diphthongs in final position.

[a], [e], [i] and [o] are pronounced following the Spanish patterns and this is especially noticeable when the student clearly differentiates between the [a] and [i] in /amiga/ [ aˈmiɣa] and the [ɑː] and [ɪ] in /Cardiff/ [ˈkɑːdɪf].

[u] is pronounced somewhat front (estudia), which shows clear interference from English. 

There seems to be an influence from another foreign language as well – probably French – as enis pronounced with a lower nasal vowel as in French. This should definitely be pointed out early so that it does not become a fossilised error.