Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Letter B and V

Hello everyone. I'm back and this time we're going to take a look at the letters "b" and "v". The first time you heard a native Spanish speaker say the word vaca, it probably sounded to you like he said "baca".  Or, when you heard beso you may have thought she said  something more like "veso". The reason for this is that the distinction between "b" and "v" has been largely lost over time and in modern Spanish they both represent the same sound. In fact, many native speakers will make spelling mistakes when it comes to using "v" or "b". 

For English speakers, the problem arises when trying to make a distinction between the two letters. The correct pronunciation falls actually somewhere between an English "b" and an English "v", so when English speakers try to make them sound different either like an English "b" or like an English "v", they just end up sounding a little bit off all the time. 

So, let's take a closer look at what is happening. The Spanish b/v sound first starts off like an English "b" with both your lips together, but ends like an English "v" with your bottom lip flipping outwards and brushing against the bottom of your top front teeth. This all happens very quickly. The feeling in your mouth could be described as having your lips pressed together and suddenly exploding open with a burst of air (that's the English "b" part). However, as the lips separate during this explosion, the bottom lip brushes against the bottom of your front top teeth (this is the English "v" part).

One way to achieve this sound is to first position your mouth to say the English word "vest". You'll rest your top teeth on your bottom lip.  Stay in this position. Now leaving your top teeth in contact with your bottom lip bring your lips together. Effectively, your top lip wraps over your top teeth so that you seal the opening of your mouth. At this point, your lips are together, but you should also feel your top teeth still resting on your bottom lip. 

Now say the English word "best". 


Make sure to finish with your bottom lip brushing against your teeth like you do for "vest".

Try this exercise several times. Again, begin by positioning your mouth for an English "v", press the lips together sealing the mouth, and say the word with an explosive "b" but finishing with your bottom lip flipping out for the "v".  

Now let's try some Spanish words.






Hopefully the beginning of all those words sound the same when you pronounced them!

Here are two trabalenguas for you to try on our own!

Ese bobo vino 
nunca beber debe, 
vida boba y breve 
vivirá si bebe

or this one:

Juan tuvo un tubo, 
y el tubo que tuvo se le rompió,
y para recuperar el tubo que tuvo,
tuvo que comprar un tubo
igual al tubo que tuvo. 

See you next time!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Letter C and K

Today we're going to look at the final consonant sound that differs from English because of its aspiration. Check out my previous posts if you don't remember what that is. Actually, we're going to see two letters because the "k" only appears in loan words but otherwise has the same sound as the hard "c". Also, what do I mean by "hard"? Basically, like in English the Spanish "c" has both a hard and soft pronunciation depending on whether it's followed by an "e" or "i". In English, we see this difference when we compare "hard c" words like "cat" and "cook" to "soft c" words like "city" and "cell". Similarly, Spanish has the hard and soft difference which you can see if you compare "hard c" words like "campo" and "con" to "soft c" words like "cierto" and "celos".

For this post, we're mainly interested in the hard "c" pronunciation because that's where we see a difference between the English and Spanish pronunciation. In English, the hard "c" and "k" have an accompanying puff of air when you say the letter. Put your palm in front of your mouth and try saying the following words:




Notice that blast of air on your hand? Good. The non-aspirated form of the sound generally appears when the hard "c" is preceded by a consonant. For example, let's try the words:



To isolate the non-aspirated hard "c" let's try the splitting exercise. Try placing a short pause between the "s" and "c/k".



Now, lengthen the space between the "s" and "c/k" and soften the "s" to a whisper.



Ok, let's drop that "s" altogether and pay attention to how you're making that hard "c" sound. There shouldn't be any puff of air anymore on your hand.



Keep that non-aspirated hard "c" sound going and now let's use it in some real Spanish words.



All right! That should cover it for the letters "c" and "k". I hope you found that helpful in improving your Spanish accent and sounding less like a gringo!

Here's your trabalenguas for the day!

Until next time!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Letter T

Today, we're going to look at the consonant "t" which shares the same issue of aspiration that we talked about last time with the letter "p". Additionally, the Spanish pronunciation of "t" differs from the English pronunciation by where we place the tongue. We'll get to that soon enough, but let's start with the issue of aspiration. 

A little review from my previous post, aspiration is when there is a puff of air that emanates from your mouth at the same time you pronounce the letter. We saw that last time with the letter "p" and how in English most "p's" are aspirated except when following a consonant. So, the "p's" in "parrot", "top", and "open" all have aspiration while in words like "spit", "span", and "spend" there is none. Spanish "p's" always sound like the latter set of words with no aspiration. 

So, coming back to the letter "t", we find the same thing. Let's look at some English "t's" first. Put your palm in front of your mouth and try saying these words.




Did you feel the puff of air? Now try these on for size.




Hopefully, you felt the difference. Now for the Spanish.




If you're having trouble make the non-aspirated "t", you can try the splitting exercise. Start first with:


Next, make the "s" even softer and increase the pause between the "s" and "t".


Now drop the "s" altogether.


For a Spanish word, add an "a".


See, simple!  I know the "e" sound is a little different going from the English "stem" to the Spanish word "tema", but we're just focusing on the "t" right now. 

Ok, now let's take a look at tongue placement which also contributes to the difference between Spanish and English "t's". With English "t's" we place the tip of our tongue on the bony ridge right behind our top front teeth like in the words "tea" or "tail". However, in Spanish, the tip of the tongue is placed at the bottom of the front teeth and even sticks out a little between the top and bottom teeth.  In fact, the position of the tongue is very similar to the placement of the tongue when we say the English words, "theme", "thank", "through". 

Try this exercise. Repeat the following word a few times paying attention to where your tongue is at the beginning of the word.


Now, pretend you are going to say "through" and place the tip of your tongue between your teeth or close to the bottom of your top front teeth. But, instead of saying "through", say the Spanish word "toro". 


Did that work for you? Be careful that you're not producing a "th" sound and saying something like "th-oro". We're just concerned about the starting position of the tongue. So, just get your tongue in the right place by pretending that you're going to say "through", but then say "toro." 

Well, hope that was helpful in getting your "t's" to sound more like an authentic Spanish accent. To recap, the Spanish "t's" differ from English "t's" in that they are never aspirated and the tip of the tongue is placed between your teeth or close to the bottom of the top front teeth. 

All right. Here's your next trabalenguas, or tongue twister. Ready?

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Letter P

So, here in our first post examining Spanish pronunciation, we're going to take a look at the letter "p". In English, most of the time we use aspirated "p's" whereas in Spanish, none of the "p's" are aspirated. What's aspiration you ask?  All that means is that when you say the sound of the letter they aren't accompanied by a puff of air. For example, try putting the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and say the word: 


You should feel a little breath of air emanate from your mouth at the beginning of the word when your pronounce the "p". This also happens when the "p" occurs in other places within a word. Try out "map" or "leopard" and you'll feel the same puff of air on your palm. The only time that you don't get this aspiration with an English "p" is when it follows a consonant. So, try the exercise again of putting your palm in front of your mouth and say the word:


Notice this time that you don't feel the same strong puff of air from the "p" as you did with "pass". It's this second unaspirated "p" that characterizes how "p's" should sound all the time in Spanish regardless of where they fall in the word. It's almost like you're saying the "p" very softly. Or, another way to think about it is that it's a sound that comes close to somewhere between the English "p" and "b". While the letter "b" is different in that it is voiced (that is, your vocal chords vibrate) your mouth is essentially performing the same action. Don't worry if you didn't get that last bit. We can cover it in more detail in a later post. For now, remember what you did with your mouth when you said "spell". Now let's try a Spanish word:


When you say this, there shouldn't be a blast of air coming from your mouth. If you felt something, you can try this exercise. First, try repeating the word "spell".


Then put a brief pause between the "s" and "p" as you continue repeating the word.


Now, say the "s" very softly so you can barely hear it and lengthen the pause between the "s" and "p".


Next, drop the "s" altogether and continue repeating.


Great! Keep going! Now, let's turn that into Spanish. Add "ma" to what you're saying:


There you have it!  Now say:

¡No seas pelma! 

Or, Don't be such a bore!

Easy, right? If not, keep practicing this exercise and it'll start to come more naturally. We'll actually look at two more consonants that have the same issue, so don't worry. More practice is on the way!  

Check out this video of a Spanish tongue twister.

He's speaking quickly, but pay attention to the "p's" and you'll notice that they just sound a little softer compared to English "p's". Strive for your "p's" to have this non-aspirated quality.

Hope that didn't scare you!

If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, you can also check out this Spanish iPhone App that I have found helpful with improving my Spanish accent. It focuses specifically on pronunciation, so I think it's really great for what we talk about in this blog. It has audio from real native speakers and a unique way of phonetic transcription that doesn't rely on your knowing IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) or learning a new system. Basically, they use common English words as a guide that everyone already knows how to pronounce. Disclosure Notice: I have done some work for this company, but they do have a great app that's really wonderful and helpful in breaking down the sounds systematically. So, I'm giving them a little plug. They even have some regional accents covered. Go check them out!

Great! We're a step closer to improving our Spanish accent!  Gringo no más!  

Until next time!

Thursday, October 7, 2010


They say Spanish is one of the easiest foreign languages for native English speakers to learn. Many words look similar to English because of shared Latin roots. And, the spelling is fairly consistent unlike English or French. Why again do the "oo" in "food" and "good" sound different? Or, why in French do the "o" in "mot", "ô" in "hôtel", "au" in "aux", "eau" in "pea", "eaux" in "beaux", all sound the same? 

I remember when I was in elementary school our homeroom teacher looked down upon our youthful and innocent faces and proudly shared with us a nugget of wisdom from her vast well of knowledge, "If you don't want to learn a foreign language pick Spanish. It's the easiest language to learn. It's just like English, but you just throw in some extra vowels." 

Still, for many of us our Spanish comes out with a heavy gringo accent. You know what I'm talking about if you've tried to place a simple order in Spanish at a taquería and all you get is a blank stare back at you. Been there. Or, you just about choke on your tongue when you try to say refrigerador.

I had several Spanish teachers before getting a great one that really paid close attention to our pronunciation and explained that there are many letters besides "r" and "extra vowels" which have a distinct Spanish way of pronouncing them. 

In this blog, we'll take a closer look at some of these Spanish letters and sounds that many native English speakers take for granted as sounding like their own. Here is where I believe you can really improve your Spanish accent and begin to sound less like a gringo.  

Keep in mind that the geographical reach of among Spanish speakers is quite broad, so there is definitely some regional variations in pronunciation. However, I'll try to focus on Standard Spanish with a look at some of the more prominent regional accents when the need arises.   

Ok, that's it for an introduction. We'll get started with consonants on our next post. See you then!