SOUNDING ENGLISH (If you’re Spanish) – Part 1

A Spanish friend of mine, who lived with an English partner for a few years and made a lot of trips to the UK to visit his English family, often complains that she thinks she still sounds “too Spanish”. Of course she does sound Spanish. So why is this?

She is a fluent speaker with accurate grammar and a wide vocabulary so it is sometimes difficult to identify the precise reasons. However her spoken English contains many features that highlight the differences between the languages of our two nations.

One of the reasons it is difficult for Spaniards to acquire the English language and a more authentic English (or US) accent is that imported films and major television series are dubbed into Spanish, so they do not hear the native soundtrack. Most other countries in the world keep the original soundtrack and add subtitles in their own language. Another reason is that the Spanish public system did not invest enough in English teaching until recently, so there are not many native (or good non-native) English speakers working as teachers within it. Although this is now improving, it does explain why, before the pandemic, there were a lot of private English language academies in Spain offering work to native English-speaking teachers – a far greater number than any other country in Europe.

If we study sounds – and here you need to look at your *English IPA (phonetic) chart – the first and most obvious difference is in the greater number of vowels you need to recognise and reproduce. In Spanish there are only 5, whereas there are 20 (including dipthongs) in English. For example, English has 2 sounds close to the Spanish /i/ – the long /iː/ and the short /ɪ/. Spanish learners will use their one sound so that they make no difference in the pronunciation of ‘he’s fit’ /hiːz fɪt /.ːːand ‘his feet’ /hɪz fiːt/. It all comes out as ‘Eez feet’ / iz fit /. Also, some early learners separate what should be a diphthong into two, separate vowel sounds so that the word ‘road’ /rəʊd/ is said in error as ‘row-ad’ /rəʊæd/.

Another problem for Spanish and many non-native speakers of English, is that they want to pronounce words as they see them spelt on the page. Yet another is that they do not recognise word stress (Spanish is a syllable-timed language, English is a stress-timed language). For instance, the words ‘mountains’ and ‘comfortable’. Spanish speakers give the second syllable equal weight and pronounce it as if it rhymes with ‘rains’- /maʊnteɪnz/ Whereas the native pronunciation is ‘moun-tins’ / ⁱmaʊntɪnz/ – the unstressed syllable pronounced as the short /ɪ/. With ‘comfortable’ two errors are made. The first and most common is to pronounce it with 4 syllables (a reasonable guess on the basis of its spelling). The second is to pronounce the final two syllables like the word ‘table’. The native English pronunciation has only 3 syllables – with both unstressed syllables containing the vowel sound /ə/ known as ‘schwa’. This is the most common sound in unstressed syllables and, in fact, the most common sound in spoken English. The usual pronunciation is /ⁱkʌmftəbəl/.

The 2 individual front vowels /ʊ/ and /uː/ often represented by ‘oo‘ as in ‘good food’ and in particular 3 vowels articulated low,back /æ/, /ɑː/, /ʌ/ as exemplified by the trio ‘hat, heart, hut’, also present difficulties. Some Spanish (and other Latin language speakers) cannot distinguish these sounds when they hear them and therefore do not pronounce them.

So far, in this first of a 2-part article, I have identified some of the historical, cultural but mainly linguistic challenges encountered by Spanish trying to learn English and I have focused on vowel sounds. In part 2, I go on to examine difficulties with consonants, features of connected speech and word stress.

Shaded = equivalent phonemes in English and Spanish

Unshaded = would present difficulties for Spanish speakers of English

© Alex Clayton-Black June, 2020

Alex Clayton-Black is a part-time EFL teacher at WLES who spent 3 years from 2016-2019 teaching English at private academies in Spain.

Published on 31 March, 2023