Most Common Pronunciation Errors for Spanish Speakers Learning English
There are 40 million Spanish-speakers in the U.S., and 335,000 in the state of Oregon alone. 59% of Spanish-speakers in the U.S. speak English “very well”, however, many still may be wondering how to take their English skills to the next level. To boost your English pronunciation as a native Spanish speaker, looking at the most common pronunciation errors is a great place to start.
The two primary factors to consider in English pronunciation differences would be word stress and speech sound differences. Although there are a variety of Spanish dialects and experiences, the information we present is based on the literature and is not a steadfast rule for what each person will have difficulty with.
1. In English, we “eat” vowels.
English and Spanish have many cognates between the two languages. Cognates are words that share the same or similar spelling and meaning across languages. Because of this similarity in word spelling and meaning, it may be easy to forget about how syllables within a word can differ. For example, in Spanish, vowels are generally produced more completely, whereas in English, vowels are often reduced to the “uh”, or “schwa” sound. This even happens in unstressed syllables, or syllables that do not have emphasis. This can be seen in words like:
- Color (COL-or). English: “colr” / Spanish: “color”
- Popular (POP-u-lar). English: “populr” / Spanish: “popular”
- Normal (NOR-mal). English: “norml” / Spanish: “normal”
As a native Spanish speaker, words like cognates can be difficult because you have already established a pronunciation for them in your mother tongue. However, recognizing which words are cognates and learning about how pronunciation between the two words can differ is very important for pronunciation. To help study this, you can start with a list of cognates and then by listening to an English speaker pronounce the word.
2. We stress nouns, not adjectives.
In Spanish, adjectives are stressed more than nouns. In English, nouns are stressed more than adjectives. Being mindful of how your Spanish pronunciation system can influence your English pronunciation can help you sound more like a native English speaker. You can start by considering the following phrases. Where would you place the stress?
- She’s a nice girl.
- That’s an amazing idea.
If your stress looks like “She’s a NICE girl”, and “That’s an AMAZING idea”, then your Spanish skills may be influencing your English pronunciation. The correct stress would be, “She’s a nice GIRL”, and “That’s an amazing IDEA”. This places the stress on the nouns, rather than the adjectives, just as described above for a typical native English speaker.
3. We stress the endings of sentences, not the beginning.
In English, we typically place the stress towards the end of a sentence. In contrast, Spanish speakers typically place the stress towards the end of sentences. Let’s consider the following examples:
- I walked to my car.
- She went to the store.
Where did you place the stress? Did you say, “I WALKED to my car”, or did you say, “I walked to my CAR”? If you said the second option, you are correct! How about “She went to the store”? If you said “She went to the STORE”, you are also correct. For more information, see our other post about How to Place Stress in a Sentence.
Speech Sound Differences
Both languages have many similar sounds, but their vowels and consonants differ in many ways. For example, in Spanish there are only five vowel sounds, whereas in English, there are over 14. For this reason, Spanish speakers may have a hard time telling the difference between words like “seat” and “sit”, because Spanish does not have nearly as many vowels.
1. Consonant clusters look very different in both languages.
When we have two consonants that are together in a word, such as “st’ or “rt” in “start”, we call those consonant clusters. Both English and Spanish use consonant clusters, but not in the same way. In English, a consonant cluster can be at the very end of the word (i.e. “card” or “Richard”), whereas in Spanish, a consonant cluster at the end of the word is always followed by a vowel. For this reason, a native Spanish speaker may pronounce “card” as “car” (eliminating the cluster), and “Richard” as “richer” (again, eliminating the cluster).
2. Some consonants tend to be substituted for others.
There are some sounds that are present in one language but not another. Because of this, sounds might tend to be substituted for others when produced by a non-native English speaker. For Spanish speakers, the following consonant errors are the most common:
- /t/ or /d/ for “th”. This is because “th” does not exist in Spanish. For example, “thank you” might be pronounced as “tank you”, or “these” might be pronounced as “dese”.
- /b/ and /v/ might be used interchangeably. A native Spanish speaker may do this when speaking English because in Spanish, /b/ and /v/ are produced much more similarly than they are in English. The words “very” and “berry” may be pronounced almost identically by a native Spanish speaker, but a native English speaker would produce these very differently.
- /y/ and /dʒ/ (like the “j” sound in “judge”) might be used interchangeably. In Spanish, these two sounds can look very similar in words like “silla” or other words containing “ll”. However, in English, these sounds are very different. For example, a native Spanish speaker may pronounce “Yale” as “jail”, or “yellow” as “jellow”.
- /ch/ may be used for /ʃ/. In Spanish, the “sh” or /ʃ/ sound does not exist. Therefore, native Spanish speakers might produce English words containing “sh” with a “ch” sound instead. For example, they might say “champoo” instead of “shampoo”, or “chair” for “share”.
3. Vowels can also be difficult.
Because Spanish does not have as many vowels as English, vowel sounds can be overgeneralized by native Spanish speakers. In order to address this, native Spanish speakers may want to consider the following vowels in English: /o/, /I/, /ə/, and /ʊ/.
The /o/ sound can take on many different pronunciations. It does not just take the “oh” pronunciation like you would think (“so”, “only”), but also can sound like “a” as in “stop” or “lot”, “uh” as in “love” and “monk”.
The /I/ sound should be pronounced as “ih”, but because this sound does not exist in Spanish, it may be pronounced as “ee” instead. For example, common mispronunciations may include “seat” for “sit”, “leave” for “live”, and “feel” for “fill”.
/ə/, known as the “schwa” sound, sound like “uh” in English. Again, because this sound does not exist in Spanish, it may be produced as “ah” instead. For example, a native Spanish speaker may produce “shut” with an “ah” sound instead of the correct “uh” sound, and it might end up sounding like “shot”.
Acknowledging that miscommunication can result from mispronunciations of standard American English pronunciation is very important for English learners. Recognizing the value of pronunciation can help increase your English communication skills, whether you’re trying to improve it for a professional, social, or personal setting!
Mojsin, L. (2016). Mastering the American accent. Hauppauge, NY: Barrons.
If you missed us last time, check out our last post, Schwa /ə/ is Everywhere! Major Portland, OR Neighborhoods Containing the Schwa Sound
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