Neither /ʃ/ nor /ʒ/ exists as phonemes in Spanish, but they are not difficult to produce (in this article I’m speaking about Peninsular Spanish. These sounds exist in many parts of Latin America). /ʃ/ is the sound we make when we want to ask for silence (Shhhh…!) and /ʒ/ is its voiced counterpart. The first thing to know, then, is how to distinguish them and when to use one or the other. One problem many Spanish speakers have is that they tend to produce all sounds of this type as voiceless (/ʃ/), and also to get /ʃ/ mixed up with /tʃ/ or, especially, /z/ and /s/. Nothing that cannot be fixed with a little bit of practice.
Let’s start by listening to some examples.
The phonemes marked in red in the first column are voiceless (/ʃ/), whereas those in the second column are voiced (/ʒ/). Read them aloud and try to feel the difference. If you put your hand against your throat, you’ll see that when you are saying /ʒ/ your vocal folds vibrate while in /ʃ/ the don’t.
Spelling: sh (short), s (sugar), ss (mission), t (education), ch (machine), c (special) sc (conscience).
The phoneme /ʃ/ doesn’t appear in any Spanish words, but it is very well known to Spanish speakers since it’s the sound used in different languages to ask for silence.
In producing the sound /ʃ/, Spanish speakers might face three different problems:
1. /s/ for /ʃ/. The first mistake is to say /s/ instead of /ʃ/. This is relatively uncommon in very obvious words with sh and t (even though /ˈfasion/ for /ˈfæʃn/and /ediuˈkeision/ for /ˌedʒuˈkeɪʃn/are occasionally heard), but it might become really problematic with less common spellings also pronounced as /ʃ/, such as c, sc or ss. Words like mission, special or conscience are often said with /s/ (/mision/, /spesial/, etc.) instead of /ʃ/ (/ˈmɪʃn/, /ˈspeʃl/).
2. Alternating sibilants. One of the greatest problems many Spanish speakers have is the difficulty in saying words that have the sounds /s/ or /z/, on the one hand, and /ʃ/, on the other, very close together.
Listen to the following examples:
A very common mistake is to produce both consonants as /ʃ/ (/prəˌnʌnʃiˈeɪʃn*/ /pəˈʃɪʃn*/, etc.). This normally occurs because the speaker is not sure about his or her production of the sound /ʃ/, or doesn’t know where it goes exactly.
You have to make sure that you keep a neat distinction between /s/ or /z/ and /ʃ/ in those kinds of sequences:
/prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃn/ /pəˈzɪʃn/ /əbˈseʃn/ /ˌækjuˈzeɪʃn/
3. /tʃ/ for /ʃ/. Sometimes, the phoneme /ʃ/ is substituted with /tʃ/, and words like show are said as /tʃou/ instead of /ʃəʊ/.
Now, here are some examples in which native speakers use words including the sound /ʃ/:
Spelling: s (usual, vision, leisure). This sound mainly occurs in mid-position. In initial and final position, only in words of French origin, as ge (genre, prestige).
/ʒ/ is the voiced counterpart of /ʃ/. So, to learn how to do it, we can go about as we usually do with fricatives. Start by producing a long /ʃ/ and then add the voicing.
Now, here are some very clear examples of /ʒ/ said by native speakers.
How are -tion and -sion pronounced?
It’s relatively rare that we can fully rely on spelling to decide about the pronunciation of words (English is so full of exceptions!). In the case of these very common endings, however, we can follow very precise rules.
- -tion: The ending -tion is always pronounced with /ʃ/ (pronunciation, definition) unless it is preceded by the letter s, in which case it is said as /tʃ/ (question).
- Vowel + -sion: The ending -sion is always pronounced with /ʒ/ when it’s preceded by a vowel (conclusion, decision).
- -ssion. Always pronounced as /ʃ/ (passion, mission).
- Consonant + -sion: If the ending -sion is preceded by a consonant (actually, the only possibilities are l and n), it is pronounced with /ʃ/ (repulsion, tension).
- R + sion: It can be said with either /ʃ/ or /ʒ/ (aversion, immersion). Remember that in British English the r is not pronounced in this case because it’s followed by a consonant.