English sounds

A correct production of English sounds is a basic element of good pronunciation. This is a tricky area for Spanish speakers since the English phonological system works in a very different way from that of Spanish. Unfortunately, in English, things are not always what they seem to be. The good news, however, is that as Spanish native speakers we are able to produce all those sounds reasonably well with just a little bit of practice.

Let’s start by looking at what I consider to be the two main difficulties.

Fewer letters, more sounds. The English alphabet has 26 letters, one less than we have in Spanish (our famous ñ), but many more sounds. One of the main sources of trouble is always the English vowel system: whereas in Spanish the five vowel letters –a, e, i, o, u– are pronounced as five vowel sounds, in English the same number of letters produce twelve different sounds (fourteen if we include the short [i] and [u], which are usually left out because they are not phonemes) . So, in English there are three types of [a] sound, two types of [i], two types of [o], etc. Things seem a little bit easier with consonants, but this turns out to be misleading too. Some sounds are the same in both languages (/m/ or /f/, for instance), but others are not. The Spanish /t/ is very different from the English /t/, and the same can be said in many other cases.

No consistency between letters and sounds. The habit of identifying one particular letter –a, for instance- with one particular sound ([a]) is deeply ingrained in Spanish speakers’ minds. But most of the time this assumption is wrong in English. I’ve always been fascinated by the counter-intuitive pair wonder/wander, which appears as a sort of puzzle to our Spanish ears: the o in wonder sounds like an a and the a in wander sounds like an o. Also, the diphthongs in bow and row can be pronounced as ou or au, with completely different meanings, and the vowel letters i, o, ou, u and e in words like bird, word, journal, occur or person always result in the same sound, /ɜː/, despite the differences in the spelling.

These two problems lead to two different conclusions:

The first one is that, if we need to talk about sounds, we cannot use just letters. We need an alphabet that reflects the whole variety of sounds. Fortunately we have phonemic symbols, as reflected in the charts included in the following sections. The use of phonemic symbols to improve your English pronunciation only has advantages: they are clear, accurate and, most importantly, very easy to learn.

My second conclusion -and this has become a sort of guiding principle for me- is that English pronunciation is not difficult. Actually, we are all perfectly capable of producing all the English sounds. Where the difficulty lies is in the spelling, which is excruciating. So, the first strategy should be to try to avoid being misled by the spelling and concentrate on the sounds. Just learning them is half the battle.

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