SOUNDING ENGLISH (If you’re Spanish) – Part 2

In Part 1 I identified some of the historical, cultural and but mainly linguistic challenges encountered by Spanish trying to learn English, and focused on vowel sounds. Here, in part 2, I go on to examine difficulties with consonants, features of connected speech and word stress.

As outlined in Part 1, English vowel set presents big challenges to Spanish learners but they also have problems with some consonants.

Take the sound /h/ at the beginning of a word. This is often unuttered by English learners because it is silent in their own language. It is confusing that this silence is correct in ’ honest’ , ‘honour’ and ‘hour’. However other ‘h’ words require an initial, voiceless, glottal fricative, such as the 3 words in the vowel example: ‘hat, heart, hut’. Another common error is to ‘over-vocalise’ the initial letter ‘h’ so that it sounds like a Spanish uvular fricative (as in ‘jota’). This is a sound which does not feature in the English phoneme set and if you do this you will definitely sound Spanish! Spanish learners also have to train themselves not to utter /g/ in ‘bag’ as a fricative. It ought to be a voiced velar plosive.

Let us look at the letters ‘b’ and ‘v’. Uttered as two distinctly different consonants in English. Spanish pronunciation lies between the two – a bilabial fricative and they have to make a very conscious effort to utter the voiced, labio-dental fricative ‘v’ as this sound rarely occurs in opposition to the bilabial ‘b’ as it does in English, where it effects a change in meaning. The minimal pairs bet/vet and ban/van are examples of why it is important to make the distinction.

Another often ‘lost’ consonant is the /m/ sound which only occurs at the beginning of a syllable in Spanish. For this reason, when it occurs in a syllable-final position in English words, this is uttered closer to ‘n’ or even a nasal vowel. I hear ‘suntines’ /ⁱsʌntaɪnz/ where ‘sometimes’ /ⁱsʌmtaɪmz/ is required. Or, ‘I’m going to my hone’ /hon/ . This is both a lexical error (‘home’ for ‘house’ or instead of ‘I’m going home’, in addition to being a pronunciation error of the final /m/..

The voiced dental fricative produced by native English speakers in ‘this’ and ‘these’ /ðɪs/ and /ðiːz/ is again, not a sound in the Spanish phoneme set. So they will tend towards a ‘d’ – ‘dis’ and ‘deez’/dɪs /and /diːs/. Note that the final sound ought to be voiced as /z/ in the second word but this distinction is often missed.

The voiced and voiceless palato-alveolar sibilants / ʃ / and /ʒ/ are also new to Spanish learners of English. With the error that is ‘say as you see’, words such as ‘nutrition’, which should be /njuːt’rɪʃən/ are incorrectly pronounced ‘noo-triss-e-on’ /nutrisiɔn/ (also missing the half-vowel /j/ as in the pronunciation of ‘new’) and ‘revision’ /rɪ’vɪʒən/ as ‘ree-viz-e-on’ /riviziɔn/.

On the one hand, Spanish want to pronounce the ‘r’ where the orthography contains it – such as in the word ‘heart’ (which also has confusing vowel pronunciation). It is also true that the reason is pronounced in many British English accents and in American English. On the other hand, there will be an absence of the linking ‘r’ that is uttered in standard English accents, such as ‘we need butter and milk from the shops’ /ⁱbʌtərənⁱmɪlk/.

Another feature is where the sound of one consonant alters in conjunction with the one that follows. Consider the usual native pronunciation of ‘sandwich’ for example. Not, as non-native speakers might logically attempt ‘sand-witch’ but ‘sam-wij’ /ⁱsæmwɪdʒ/.

Most recognisably Spanish is the addition of a syllabic vowel before any consonant cluster beginning with ‘s’ – e.g. /eⁱstɔp/ or /eⁱskuːl/ for ‘stop’ and ‘school’, simply because, once again, these consonant clusters do not feature at the beginning of syllables in Spanish.

Finally, mastering phonetic pronunciation will still not achieve authenticity without applying 1: the various intonation patterns which exist in English (many more falling tones) and 2: the sentence stress where the vowels in unstressed words (typically articles and prepositions) are usually pronounced schwa /ə/. This, I believe, is the ultimate key to sounding English.

As my Spanish friends might say: “Is true, no?”

© 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 28 March, 2023