In this comprehensive post, I will share the benefits of improving your Spanish pronunciation to achieve better speaking fluency.
When you think about human language, what would you say are its main components?
Without unnecessary jargon, the three building blocks at the heart of any language are:
- The sound system
Despite being equally important as grammar or vocabulary, the ability to work with sounds does not receive enough importance in foreign language learning.
Or else when it does, pronunciation training focuses for the most part on the articulation of vowels and consonants.
Let me walk you through the importance and the benefits of pronunciation in language learning and how you can start optimizing your Spanish pronunciation in 5 steps.
Written language is not spoken language
You might have heard many times that Spanish is a phonetic language and, unlike English, is written the same way as it is spoken.
In fact, the idea that phonetic equals straightforward and easy to pronounce is a widespread misbelief not only among students but also among some teachers.
But strictly speaking, it would be incorrect to simply affirm that Spanish is a phonetic language and English or French is not.
Phonetics is about the sounds of language. And therefore, all languages are phonetic languages except for sign languages.
And while some languages are more phonetically consistent than others, they rarely have a perfect correspondence between the written and spoken forms.
Like any other language, spoken Spanish has its particularities and your difficulties in pronunciation will depend on how far or close your base language is.
Pronunciation training goes beyond the production of isolated letters.
In the speech chain, there are some mechanisms involved that influence the way you speak and hear a language.
We pronounce sequences of words and groups of words that make up sentences.
This is the reason why you struggle to understand native speakers. To you, it sounds like a continuous and incomprehensible babble of sounds, and are unable to recognize words you (probably) already know in their written form.
What are the benefits of improving your Spanish pronunciation?
Pronunciation is everywhere.
Spoken language is sound and sound gives life to grammar structures and vocabulary.
Every language has its patterns of rhythm, stress, and intonation. This is called prosody and it’s our first gateway into language.
Prosody is at the heart of any language structure. It is infused into everything: from the smallest unit of sound to the more elaborate patterns of rhythm and intonation.
The way prosody is intertwined with other domains of ability like grammar and vocabulary affects your language fluency in the complex task of processing language.
While a few might have a natural knack for it, not everyone can pick up a good pronunciation on their own as an adult learner.
You cannot aim for fluency while neglecting pronunciation and leaving it as a side and unattended task.
In addition to grammar and vocabulary, becoming familiar and agile with how a language sound system works will contribute to your overall fluency and your ability to feel more confident in spoken language.
By becoming aware of the musical patterns of the Spanish language you will not only become a better speaker, but also a better listener.
In other words, pronunciation training can help you change the way you speak and sound, but also the way you hear Spanish.
And most importantly, it will have a better impact on your interactions.
It all comes down to understanding and being understood.
Is it not what we all ultimately long for after all?
We want to communicate confidently and effectively and make meaningful connections.
Even more so in a foreign language where the path to fluency seems full of obstacles.
Now, becoming the most expressive, fluent, and confident self in Spanish is possible.
But, how do you do that?
Start implementing these 5 tips…
5 Speaking Tips for bettering your Spanish pronunciation with the power of prosody
Now that you understand how pronunciation impacts your spoken and listening fluency, let’s dive into 5 tips to help you transform the way you speak and hear Spanish.
How to speak with the Spanish rhythm
Rhythm is the repetition of a pattern. It’s present in human and natural life, but it’s also an integral part of music and language.
Spanish has hundreds of accents. But only one rhythm.
Some languages have a similar rhythm to Spanish, like Italian, and others have a very different one, like English and German.
How does Spanish sound to you?
The rhythm of Spanish is often compared to a machine-gun-like sound. And the syllable is at the core of the Spanish rhythm.
Read this sentence aloud.
Trabajo con gente maravillosa.
ta TA ta ta TA ta ta ta TA ta
Spanish rhythm versus English rhythm
Spanish syllables are much more equal than English syllables with respect to length.
In Spanish, both stressed syllables and unstressed syllables take about the same amount of time to pronounce.
In contrast, English punched syllables last longer than unstressed syllables and they occur at regular intervals.
To fit this punchy rhythm of English, the syllables in between are shortened, unstressed syllables tend to be reduced and vowel sounds dropped.
Whereas in Spanish, the vowel sounds are always clear and crisp, both in stressed and unstressed syllables, and the consonant sounds are more relaxed than in English.
Become aware of the syllable pattern of Spanish.
Make sure you pronounce every syllable equally and do not eat any vowel when you speak.
Practice by reading out loud.
How to stress words and nail Spanish pronunciation
Spanish words have a stressed syllable (sílaba tónica).
It’s pronounced with more intensity.
As an example, look at these three words:
médico medico medicó
The only thing that changes is the place of the stressed syllable. The graphic accent (called tilde) indicates the stressed syllable. But it´s not always visible.
Knowing how to stress a word is relevant because if you don’t stress it correctly, you might change the meaning of the whole sentence.
There is no need to go into orthographic rules but just remember that in Spanish there are three types of stress. In other words, three places inside a word where the stress can fall.
[ MÉ di co ] the stress falls on the third-to-last syllable and means doctor.
[ me DI co ] the stress falls in the second-to-last syllable and means I medicate.
[ me di CÓ ] the stress falls in the last syllable and it means he/she medicated (simple past).
Did you know that more than 80% of words in Spanish are stressed in the second-to-last syllable?
It’s a particularity of Spanish in contrast with Italian or French. This stress is called llano (flat) in Spanish and it’s what gives Spanish its cadence and rhythm.
There is one instance where it’s important to get it right to avoid misunderstandings.
Present versus indefinido
Look at these two sentences.
Estudio en la universidad de Bolonia.
Estudió en la universidad de Bolonia.
The difference is tiny, but the tilde (the graphic accent on the O of estudió) makes all the difference.
And the meaning of the whole sentence changes.
Es | TU | dio is the present tense for the first person (yo).
Es | tu | DIÓ is the past tense for the third person (él/ella/usted).
When you are unsure about the stress of a word, try stressing it llano. You will have more chances to get it right.
Pay special attention to the stress of the present and past tense of regular -AR verbs : canto/cantó – hablo / habló – estudio / estudió
How to link words and sound more natural
If there is only one thing you want to practice to break the code of spoken Spanish and become more fluent in speaking and listening THIS is the thing you need to train and master.
You might know enough vocabulary and grammar, if you are not able to perceive the spoken sounds, your brain won´t be able to make the connections between written and spoken Spanish and decode the message as you hear it.
Training your ear to hear and speak using the mechanisms of connected speech is one of the most powerful habits you can implement in your study.
Can you understand this sentence?
[ Kɯanðoaβlamos, losoniðosenlaɸan ]
The sentence above says : cuando hablamos, los sonidos se enlazan (when we speak, we link the sounds).
That’s the way we speak. And that´s also the way we hear.
We connect sounds and that’s one of the reasons you feel like all you hear is a babble of incomprehensible utterances when you hear native Spanish speakers.
If you read the following sentence, you will most probably understand without much difficulty.
Me ha encantado el espectáculo.
But if you hear :
/meaen can ta doe les pec ta cu lo/
you might have trouble making sense of the first part of the sentence.
Three vowel sounds from three different words blend into one single gliding sound to respect the rhythmic structure of Spanish.
Me ha encantado >>> /meaen can ta do/
If you haven’t trained your listening and opened your ear to this frequent occurrence in Spanish, you will struggle to separate the words as you hear even simple sentences.
See, neither Spanish is spoken as it’s written.
Spanish Syllable versus English Syllable
There are open syllables (ending with a vowel) and closed syllables (ending with a consonant).
Spanish prefers open syllables, whereas English prefers closed syllables.
[Spanish] Da niel versus Dan yel [English]
In spoken Spanish, we try to form open syllables whenever possible and we make some adjustments in the sentence to respect that open syllable structure.
[Spoken] / No-sen-can-ta-bla-res-pa-ñol /
When you speak in tune with the Spanish rhythm and respect the syllabic structure of Spanish, you will not only feel you sound more natural, but you will minimize the energy you need to speak and words will flow more effortlessly.
Pay attention to connected speech. Watch out for this occurrence in the present perfect tense:
Has hecho> / ha-se-cho /
Hemos hablado> / he-mo-sa-bla-do /
How to use intonation in Spanish
Intonation is the fall and rise of the pitch of voice. The melody.
When we speak in a second language we tend to apply the intonation of our native tongue.
Studies have shown that intonation is the first thing we acquire in our native language even before we start speaking.
Look at how these babies communicate.
With intonation, we communicate attitudes and emotions, and we can express an infinite array of language subtleties.
And we have to take into account that when speaking in a second language with an incorrect intonation we might be perceived as abrupt or rude.
Sometimes what you say is not as important as how you say it. And the meaning of the sentence changes.
Embracing the patterns of intonation in a new language is a little bit like letting go of our idea of who we think we are.
And yes, it can be scary, because intonation is so intimate and so ingrained in our identity that for some speakers it might be a real challenge.
The way we use intonation is of course very subjective and distinctive to different variants of Spanish.
But there are four basic patterns of intonation.
-Questions with question marker
Every sentence has a different melodic curve. All of them have a falling intonation except for the second one, the Yes/No question.
Written words versus phonetic words
You might have the feeling that Spanish speakers speak very fast as if they don’t pause anywhere.
But we do pause.
These little pauses help break a long sentence into smaller chunks. Usually, rhythmic groups are composed of between 5 and 10 syllables.
Think of a chunk as one phonetic word pronounced in one go.
Each chunk has a different intonation based on its position within the sentence.
Here is an example:
Pauses are important
In some cases, a pause or the absence of it can change the meaning of the whole sentence and you might be saying the opposite of what you want to say.
The first sentence would translate as: I don´t want to go out, while the second one would express the opposite: No, I want to go out.
Become an actor / an actress and mimic the intonation using small scenes from movies or series.
Identify the phonetic words within a sentence and practice speaking in chunks of words instead of isolated words.
How to find your voice and fall in love with the way you sound
Unlocking limitless fluency in Spanish or any other language for that matter demands consistency and perseverance.
If you are somewhere at the intermediate level, progress can feel quite messy. You need to develop a strong mindset and keep pushing through the obstacles to achieve your fluency goals.
But to start with, here are two ideas you should get rid of when it comes to finding your voice.
You don’t need to speak like a native speaker.
First and foremost, you should get rid of the idea of speaking Spanish like a native.
This trend of English, French, Spanish or X-language programs that glorify the ideal of speaking like a native is absurd.
What does it mean to speak like a native? A native from where?
Finding your voice in Spanish is about feeling confident in your interactions and knowing that it’s possible to fall in love with the way you sound in Spanish.
Even with mistakes and imperfections.
You don’t need to change who you are (unless you want to)
Transforming the way you speak using the music pattern of Spanish to sound more natural can be a real challenge.
We identify deeply with the prosody of our native tongue and we fear that by losing our accent we will lose our identity.
But I have good news for you.
Actually, you don’t need to change who you are to speak Spanish with more ease and fluency.
You don’t need to hide or erase your accent.
Pronunciation training is not about the accent.
We all have accents.
Even native speakers have accents in their mother tongues.
Pronunciation training is a tool to optimize your overall language fluency and speak with more clarity.
In fact, pronunciation is inseparable from your fluency goal.
Start recording yourself to detect what you need to focus on to improve and get familiar with your voice in Spanish.
Conclusion: The Importance of Spanish Pronunciation to develop your fluency
When it comes to pronunciation, your base language has an impact on the way you pronounce Spanish.
The ease or difficulty will depend on how close or distant your native language is from Spanish.
Pronunciation and prosody can help you unlock your fluency in Spanish in the most musical way.
As adult learners, we often forget that sound and musicality are our entry door into a foreign language, and prosody is the base that supports everything else, such as grammar and vocabulary.
By owning the sounds of a language, we own the language.
Opening to the new sounds and patterns of Spanish prosody will start transforming the way you speak and hear Spanish.
Let me ask you.
How did you fall in love with Spanish?
Did you fall in love with the Spanish alphabet?
Or did you fall in love with the melody and musicality of the language?
Pronunciation training is not only reserved for a few actors or singers that are required to perform with a flawless accent in a foreign language.
Along with grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is at the heart of language and it can be a powerful and effective practice for anyone committed to their goal of fluency.
Isn’t that great news?
Don´t forget to check the Spanish fluency blog for more free content about pronunciation and fluency.