The phoneme /j/ is the is the sound we find in words like young, yes or yogurt. It’s similar to a short /i/ or /ɪ/ quickly followed by a vowel, but it is not exactly the same and it tends to give different kinds of trouble to Spanish speakers. However, it is not completely unknown in Spanish, since it’s the sound we make at the beginning of words such as hielo, hiato or iónico. All the problems can be solved, then, with a little bit of practice. But, for starters, an important warning: the phoneme (or sound) /j/ has nothing to do with the letter j. Actually, the letter j is never pronounced as /j/.
Now have a look at this comparison:
Spelling: y (yes, yield, young), i (onion, Spaniel). As part of the sequence /juː/ it adopts different spellings: ou (you), u (mule), ew (few), iew (view), ue (due), eu (feud), eau (beauty). Also as /jʊə/, ure (pure), eu (Europe).
How to do this sound? The /j/ is produced by raising the middle part of the tongue against the centre of the palate without touching it. This forms a gap which is suddenly opened when the sound /j/ plus the following vowel is produced (to do this you have to lower your tongue and open your mouth a bit).
There are a couple of differences between the /j/ and just an /i/. First, the /j/ is produced at the centre of the mouth whereas the /i/ is produced at the front. Second, this is a semiconsonant, so the tongue is placed closer to the roof of the mouth than in vowels. If you say the Spanish word hielo (which in Spanish can be transcribed as [ˈjelo]), you’ll see that the position of your tongue is different from the one it takes in words like fíe or lío (which are transcribed with an [i]).
Let’s do a very simple experiment. Say these words aloud:
You’ll probably notice that in hielo the middle part of your tongue is very close to the roof of the mouth, something which doesn’t happen in lío. That’s the difference between /j/ and /i/, and therefore it’s the sound you have to achieve and remember. (But, before going on, a small word of caution: in Spanish, some people pronounce hielo as yelo. This is not what we are looking for).
Listen to a few examples of the sound /j/ produced by different native speakers.
What’s the problem, then? As we saw before Spanish speakers can pronounce the /j/ perfectly well, as this sound occurs in their own language in certain contexts. Nevertheless, the /j/ is often mispronounced by Spanish speakers. To try and solve this problem we’ll focus on three different points.
1. /j/, not /ʤ/. Many Spanish speakers pronounce you and yes as /ʤuː/ and /ʤes/ (or something similar). It’s like saying yelo instead of hielo, which might be acceptable in Spanish but it is not in English. /j/ and /ʤ/ are very different phonemes and we have to keep them distinct.
Let’s see these minimal pairs:
Bear in mind that the letter y is normally pronounced as /j/ when it’s found at the beginning of a word and it never, ever produces the sound /ʤ/, which is usually spelled as j or ge, gi. As we already mentioned, the coincidence between the phoneme /j/ and the letter j, which are different and sound different, is a source of confusion. It’s also interesting to remember that the opposite problem exists too.
2. Difference between year and ear. Many people have trouble making these two words sound different. That’s why it’s important to realize that the sound /j/ is not exactly the same as /i/ or /ɪ/. Remember that the /j/ is produced at the centre of the mouth, not the front, and that the tongue is rather close to the palate. It is this position that gives it its distinctive character.
Let’s listen to the difference:
Now listen to the word years again pronounced by native speakers.
3. A difficult combination. The same problem as in year, but a bit more difficult, is found in a few words in which the /j/ is followed by the vowel /i:/, such as yield or yeast. As in year, the key is to produce the sound at the centre of the mouth with your tongue close to the palate.
And here are some more recordings where the sound /j/ can be heard said by native speakers. The letter u, which is pronounced /ju:/, is included more than once.