When Spanish words are pronounced by a native speaker – be they from Argentina, Colombia, Spain, or elsewhere – the language has a certain musicality that gives it a real charm.
But, as foreigners, our efforts to replicate these sounds are often nothing short of a complete disaster. We butcher the accent and destroy what was once a quite beautiful tongue.
Sometimes we mess up the pronunciation so badly that native speakers can’t even understand what we’re saying; on other occasions we just sound a little odd.
I distinctly remember, for instance, mispronouncing the word “jaqueca” (“headache/migraine”) so spectacularly that my, usually very serious, Spanish teacher had to interrupt our group class for a good three minutes while she ended herself laughing. Less than ideal.
We’re not condemned to forever destroy the accent, mind. There are a whole bunch of techniques we can use to improve the sound of our Spanish, and to begin to imitate that pleasant sing-songy tone of the real thing.
The benefits of a good accent
Avoiding misunderstandings and humiliations is not the only reason it’s important to develop a reasonable accent when speaking Spanish.
Idahosa Ness, who coaches people on how to improve their Spanish pronunciation, believes that accent is one of the most important things to master if you want to connect with others when speaking Spanish.
People naturally gravitate towards others that sound like them, he says, meaning a native speaker will be much more likely to talk to you, get on with you and form a friendship with you, if your way of speaking resembles their own.
This has largely been my experience too. After many years living in Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve gradually been able to eradicate the rougher edges of my own British accent and speak the language which isn’t immediately identifiable as non-native.
Native speakers are more impressed by a reasonable accent than by flawless grammar.
Throughout the years, and as I’ve gradually improved, I’ve noticed that new people I meet are now far more willing to give me the time of day and spend at least a few minutes chatting, than they were when I first started out. This isn’t solely down to improvements in my accent, but I’ve no doubt that this has played a very real part in helping me develop rapport with Spanish speakers more easily.
And in these situations I’ve found that native speakers are much more easily impressed by a foreigner with a reasonable accent, than by one with absolutely flawless Spanish grammar. While you may be rightly proud to pull off a perfectly executed phrase in the pluscuamperfecto del subjuntivo, the chances are that your local friend won’t even realise the complicated grammatical gymnastics involved in such a feat.
Your accent, on the other hand, is immediately noticeable to everyone.
Choosing your adopted accent in Spanish
Where then to start on your journey to improving your accent in Spanish? If you’re really committed to this goal, my personal view is that you should start by choosing one sort of Spanish, from a given region or country, as the version that you will largely focus on imitating – at least in the first instance.
With Spanish spoken in so many different countries, there are a whole range of different accents, sounds and local variations between them. This all makes it highly complicated, if not impossible, to choose an entirely ‘neutral’ sort of Spanish to learn.
While Colombians, for instance, often say that the Bogota accent is the closest to this ideal, Spaniards would likely dismiss this way of talking as ‘Latino’ and say that Valladolid, outside Madrid, has the purest version of the language (see the comments at the end of this other article for a brief insight into this perfectly fruitless debate).
Copy Spanish from just anywhere and you’ll end up with weirdly inconsistent speaking habits.
If you seek to copy the Spanish spoken from just anywhere, you could end up with up some weirdly inconsistent speaking habits – like combining the lisping ‘z’, that is exclusive to Spain, with the shushy ‘ll’ sound that is used only in Argentina and Uruguay.
Zeroing in one variant of Spanish, on the other hand, will ease the task of as it’ll mean you consistently hear words and sounds pronounced in roughly the same way. This makes a big difference when it comes to tuning your ear to how things should sound, before going on to imitate and replicate this specific way of talking.
Producing a 100% untraceable version of Spanish is nigh-on impossible, so you might as well make things easier on yourself and go full on with one accent from the outset.
The easiest way to train yourself in one accent is by going to spend a while studying or living in a Spanish-speaking country. Your accent will naturally start to improve, as Bogotá-based Spanish teacher Naty Cruz, notes, if you: “interact with native speakers, get out into the street and listen to how people talk, create a chat group or find a group of local friends so you can listen to them all the time, and familiarise yourself with the sound of the language”.
This is, moreover, a great way to form a connection with the local culture and society – an often-underestimated factor in accent improvement. As another teacher, Diana from the Nueva Lengua Spanish school reports, “in our school we’ve had students who are in love with Colombian culture – and especially that of the capital, Bogotá – who have a deep desire to speak like bogotanos, to imitate their accent and use their colloquial expressions”. It is these students, those who most want to integrate and fit into a given Spanish-speaking environment, that will eventually be best able to mimic the local sounds.
Not everyone will pick up the accent merely from holding everyday conversations.
If you’re the kind of person who’s normally good at doing impressions of distinctive accents in your own language then, via full immersion, Spanish accent acquisition should come relatively easily for you. Or, more precisely, of all the difficulties you will face during the Spanish learning process, picking up the accent will probably be one of the least painful.
But the process is not so straightforward for everyone who immerses themselves in the language. And, of course, most people do not have the luxury, as I once did, to be able to drop out of their normal life and jet off to a Spanish-speaking country for several months. (Although you can partially replicate an immersion experience even from afar by surrounding yourself in the radio, music, videos and movies from a given country, by finding language exchange partners via sites like Italki etc).
Breaking down words; imitating sounds
For those of you who have already practicing speaking plenty, but still can’t seem to shake off your native accent, you’ll need to dedicate some extra energy to the task.
Aiming to pronounce whole words perfectly from the beginning is maybe a little ambitious. Diana, from Language Routes, instead recommends splitting each term out into its constituent syllables and practicing pronouncing each of these individually.
Record yourself, and listen to these back, to try and hone the pronunciation of each part first. Then combine all the syllables to reproduce the sounds in the whole word together. In this process, you’ll very likely identify some troublesome individual sounds, which you’ll need to work on further.
Training yourself on the correct pronunciation of Spanish vowel sounds is, says John from Toucan Spanish, a vital first step towards a better accent, given that these usually represent more than 50% of the word you’re trying to pronounce.
“The vowel sounds in Spanish are open, meaning that you need to open your mouth wide to pronounce them. I recommend practicing pronouncing these sounds while holding a pen across your back teeth, as far back in your mouth as possible. First off, start by pronouncing each of the vowel sounds on their own, repeating them several times over.
“Then, you can try with groups of two (au, eo, ia, et, etc.) or three vowels (iai, oau, euo), remembering always that vowel sounds are never combined in Spanish. Later, you can also practice combinations of consonants in different positions (e.g. be, age, tro, bleu) and then full words. While this exercise might seem a little strange, it will bring significant improvements in the way you enunciate your words.”
Tackling the ‘RR’…
Even if you’re not otherwise too bothered about perfecting your accent, I’d highly recommend working on your pronunciation of Spanish’s tricky double ‘r’. (Nothing prompts as much ridicule from a native speaker as hearing us gringos mess up the trilled ‘r’ sound in Spanish.)
Nothing prompts as much ridicule from a native speaker as hearing us gringos mess up the trilled ‘r’ sound in Spanish.
For Violet, of the Social Spanish school in Medellin, this is the number one tip she recommends for foreigners who want to speak more naturally. “Search on the internet for videos called ‘praxias erre‘ and you’ll find videos containing exercises used by speech therapists to help train Spanish-speakers who also have problems pronouncing the double ‘r’. [You can find one such example here.]
“The exercises are a bit funny to do, but they’re really great. I guarantee if you practice them for five minutes every day — before going to work or going to bed, for example — you’ll rapidly notice a big difference.”
There are different versions of these sorts of exercises you can do to find one that works for you. This teacher, from Spain, for instance, focuses much more on tongue positioning as the key to reaching a decent sounding ‘rr’. Mimic Method’s Idahosa, provides his alternative take in this interview, starting off with doing drills on the pronunciation of ‘d’ as a means to improve your accent on the ‘r’ and ‘rr’ sounds.
…and some other troublesome consonants
Plenty of other sounds are problematic in Spanish too, beyond those tricky ‘r’s. Improving pronunciation and accent is, again, a matter of repeatedly doing drills for each sound, and comparing these to those of a native speaker, in order to gradually build up your proficiency.
On this page, you’ll find a whole bunch of written practice sentences for all the sounds in Spanish. A few of these are replicated below, along with an audio file of a native speaker from the Elefun school in Medellin, so you can practice:
Ll / y – audio file
En mayo yo quiero comer paella en tu yate
La lluvia llena la calle
Ella llama a la ballena en la playa
B/v – audio file
En primavera los árboles se cubren de verde
El barco velero navegó nueve veces a Barcelona
S/k – audio file
En el centro de Cáceres y Cuenca hay casas con colores preciosos
S – audio file
La piscina municipal está en pésimas condiciones
Cecilia toma jugo de ciruela mientras cocina las zanahorias
J/g – audio file
Gané la guerra con mi guitarra
Mi gato es muy goloso
No more ‘em-PHA-sis’ on the wrong ‘syl-LA-bles’
Getting a handle on the individual sounds of Spanish is only one part of the puzzle. To reach a high standard of accent and intelligibility, you’ll also need to pay careful attention to other aspects of speech, especially the pace, tone, intonation and the emphasis that native speakers put onto sounds.
“Different languages have different ways of separating out their syllables”, notes Toucan Spanish‘s John. “For example, if you try to pronounce the Spanish word ‘atletismo’, using the following hyphenation [way of splitting out syllables] ‘at –let- ismo’ you’re very likely to have problems in pronouncing it. However, if you hyphenate it ‘a-tle-tis-mo’, you’ll find it much easier to identify the correct areas in which you should be putting the stress” when pronouncing the word.
A misplaced accent in Spanish is all it takes to change a conversation about your dad into one about a potato.
It’s worth recalling here that those pesky accent marks in written Spanish are actually an invaluable guide for us here. It’s easy enough to dismiss these as kind of irrelevant when reading Spanish, simply because we don’t have them in English. But we shouldn’t, as these little guys tell us exactly where to put your emphasis when you speak.
This is vital not only for improving your accent, but also to avoid communicating completely something incorrect when you’re talking. A misplaced accent is, for example, all it takes to change a conversation about your dad (“papá”) into one about a potato (“papa”).
Far from all Spanish words contain accent marks, of course, but there are some resources available to help you figure out exactly where you should be putting the stress on words that don’t. This site, for example, allows you to enter any Spanish word and will break it down into its component syllables. It also shows which of these you should be emphasising when you talk.
If you still have doubts over how the word should be pronounced, you can also search for it in the database of audio files compiled by Forvo. The site has a massive repository of user-uploaded audio files with recordings of pronunciations from across different countries (Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Mexico etc). These are great accent guides for you to copy.
A few fun activities…
Should all the above drills and exercises get too serious for you, some of the Spanish teachers I spoke to this for this article also recommended some more enjoyable activities for improving your accent. These complement some of the above stuff nicely as it means you can practice bringing together all you’ve learnt in a more interesting way.
Try imitating a particular artist, presenter or actor, who is a native speaker and who you listen to frequently.
One way to start better mimicking the accent, according to Nueva Lengua, is to concentrate on the speech patterns of celebrities that you like. “We recommend to our students that they imitate a particular artist, presenter or actor, who is a native speaker and who they listen to frequently.”
Not only will this help familiarise you with the change in voice that you’d like to achieve, but it also means that the studying process is relatively painless as you presumably already enjoy listening to whatever sounds that your chosen celebrity produces.
You needn’t limit yourselves to just mimicking spoken Spanish either. One helpful exercise, even for the completely tone deaf, is to do some private karaoke and start singing along with your favourite local tunes. As well as improving your vocabulary (especially in those vital matters like love and heartbreak), keeping up with the native singers as they bellow out their songs will get your tongue used to moving in the way it needs to produce Spanish sounds.
A final exercise in this category is to try practicing tongue twisters, and reading out short and long phrases, whilst varying the speed and tone. As Naty Cruz says, this is a good way to “take your mouth muscles to the gym” and train them up further for Spanish pronounciation. Here’s a few written tongue twisters to get you started, together with a video for you to practice repeating them along with a narrator.
Assessing your progress
Accent is actually a difficult thing to judge for yourself whether you’re improving. While it’ll be very clear to you when, for example, you can speak Spanish faster and with less of a monumental mental effort, the gradual improvements in your accent are trickier to detect. One way to keep track of them is to save your accent practice recordings over time, and refer back to them every few weeks or so to see how you’ve advanced.
If you have regular contact with native speakers, you’ll also get frequent (and unsolicited) feedback on how you’re progressing. Chances are that we’ll never be able to completely remove all traces of our native accent in Spanish, but it seems to me that a good indicator of success is when you reach a stage that, upon meeting someone new, they can’t immediately place where you’re from. When this happens, it is a victory worth celebrating.
For those that continue to struggle in the meantime, try not to get too down. As Diana, from Nueva Lengua, reminds us: “The way you speak is a reflection of who you are, and of the image you want to project. A foreigner can maintain their accent and still speak Spanish perfectly”. Keeping a little of your accent doesn’t mean that your Spanish is inadequate – it merely means that you’re adding a little of your own flavour to the language.
Summary of Spanish accent practice resources:
Colombian Spanish: A Learner’s Dictionary
One of the problems I faced as a Spanish learner in Colombia was that the meaning of many of the words I heard in everyday conversation didn’t appear to match what the dictionary said they should. Any attempt to translate such things literally proved extremely unenlightening.
Insanely Useful Colombian Spanish Resources
A great way to expose yourself to the Spanish spoken in Colombia is by watching, reading, listening to and generally enjoying the country’s entertainment output. The amazing thing about doing this is that it feels like much less effort than consulting textbooks or studying in class. It is also fun and can be done for minimal cost, whether or not you’re physically located in Colombia.