SPANISH DIFFICULT CONSONANTS

Most consonants in Spanish have a similar pronunciation to that of their English counterparts; nevertheless some of them are rather different, be it softer (as in the case of “x”, for instance) or harder (as in the case of “r” and “j”). It is important for Spanish learners to keep in mind that the pronunciation of certain letters sometimes varies from region to region. The following guide attempts to cover the most general rules for the pronunciation of all those consonants that might be perceived as “difficult” to the average non-native speaker :
  • B and V, to begin, share the exact same pronunciation in Spanish, a sound similar to that of the English “b” in “bell”. This implies that both the words “botar” (to throw away) and “votar” (to vote) sound the same! (“bo·tar”), which tends to lead to many orthographical mistakes -even in native speakers-. Be warned.

  • C, when placed before the letters “e” or “i” is pronounced differently in Europe and in Latin America. In the first case, its sound resembles the English “th” found in words like “thanks” or “thought”. Thus, the correct pronunciation of “cenicero” (ashtray) would be “zeh·nee·zeh·ro” in Spain. Latin Americans, meanwhile, use a sound equivalent to the “s” in the English word “soda” for words like “cenicero”, thus pronouncing it “seh·nee·seh·ro”. In every other case (when it’s next to the vowels “a”, “o”, “u”, or any other consonant) the standard pronunciation for “c” in Spanish is similar to that of its English equivalent, save for the fact that it’s somewhat less plosive. Examples: “carro” (car), “combate” (combat), “camarógrafo” (cameraman), etc.

  • D also has pretty much the same sound in Spanish as it does in English, except when it comes in between two vowels, in which case it acquires a rather softer sound, similar to the initial “th” found in “that”. For example: the second “d” n the word “dorado” (golden) is much less defined than the initial one.

  • G when placed before the letters “e” or “i” takes the same sound as the Spanish “j”, which would be similar (although stronger) than the English “h” in “happy”. Examples: “gelatina” (jello), pronounced “hai·la·tee·na”; and “girasol” (sunflower), pronounced “hee·ra·sol”. In every other case (when it’s next to the vowels “a”, “o”, “u”, or any other consonant) the standard pronunciation for “g” in Spanish is almost the same as it is in English. Examples: “gacela” (gazelle), “gorilla” (gorilla), “garaje” (garage), etc.

  • H is silent in every case, no exceptions. Examples: “hamaca” (hammock), pronounced “a·ma·ka”; “hechizo” (spell), pronounced “ai·chees·o” or “ai·chee·thoh”, depending on the where you are; “hogar” (home), pronounced “o·gar”; etc.

  • J has a sound that is similar to that of the “h” in the English word “help”, only stronger, more like the “ch” placed at the end of the famous German composer’s last name “(Johann Sebastian) Bach”. Examples: “juego” (game), pronounced “hoo·e·go”; “jarabe” (syrup), pronounced “ha·ra·beh”; etc.

  • LL could be pronounced similarly to the “j” placed at the beginning of the English word “jump”, only slightly softer, perhaps approaching the sound the letter “y” has both in Spanish as in English. For example: “llegar” (to arrive), pronounced “jeh·gar”; “lluvia” (rain), pronounced “joo·bee·a”; etc. It is worth mentioning, though, that in certain places (particularly Argentina and Uruguay), the letter’s pronunciation is rather stronger, approaching the “sh” sound found at the beginning of words like “sure” or “shine”. Examples: “llegar” (to arrive), pronounced “sheh·gar”; “lluvia” (rain), pronounced “shoo·bee·a”; etc

  • Ñ has a similar pronunciation to the “ny” sound found in the English word “canyon”…but much stronger in the way the tongue has full contact with the palate, otherswise there would be no difference between Spanish words like “sueño” (dream), pronounced “soo·eh·nyo” and “genio” (genie), pronounced “heh·nee·o”.   

  • R has a similar sound to the one that is made when pronouncing the letters “d” and “t” (respectively) in the words “Idiot” or “Italy” (American pronunciation). In this way, a Spanish word like “claro” (clear) would sound somewhat like “clah·doh” or “cla·toh”. It is to be noted that whenever an “R” is located at the start of a word, or it’s preceded by the consonants “l”, “n” or “s”, its sound is rather “double” (as in “RR”). The pronunciation of the “RR” sound can be quite tricky for English speakers. It is officially called “alveolar trill”, but you can think of it as the sound a cat makes when it purrs, or the noise of an engine revving up, as silly as it may seem! It is also suggested to take reference in actual audible examples for both of these sounds, either by looking up on the Internet or by trying to talk to a native speaker.

  • X has pretty much the same as the sound in Spanish as it does in the English word “execute”. There exist, nevertheless, some regional variations by which it is pronounced differently. For example, it receives the sound of the Spanish “j” in the case of the name of the country “Mexico” (pronounced “meh·hi·coh” instead of “meh·xi·coh”). Some Mayan, Catalan and Basque words also change the traditional sound of the letter “x” to that of the “sh” found at the beginning of the English word “shovel”; a notable example can be found in the nickname of the famous Spanish footballer “Xavi” Hernandez, whose name is not pronounced “xah·bee” but rather “sha·bee” (this individual being from the Catalonian region of Barcelona).

  • Z receives a different pronunciation in Latin America and in Europe. In the first case, it is pronounced as a simple “s” (which, as in the case of “b” and “v” often leads to certain common orthographical mistakes); for example: “zócalo” (baseboard) would be pronounced “soh·cah·loh”, and “zumbido” (buzzing) would be pronounced “soom·bee·doh”. The European Spanish pronunciation of this letter, though, is more close to the “th” sound found in English words like “thumb” or “third”; for example: “zócalo” (baseboard) would be pronounced “thoh·cah·loh”, and “zumbido” (buzzing) would be pronounced “thoom·bee·doh”.


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