ʃ / ʒ

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 // or, especially, /z/ and /s/. Nothing that cannot  be fixed with a little bit of practice.

Let’s start by listening to some examples.

sound_loud_speaker mission                      sound_loud_speaker vision

sound_loud_speaker action                         sound_loud_speaker measure

sound_loud_speaker special                        sound_loud_speaker usual 

sound_loud_speaker pronunciation        sound_loud_speaker decision

sound_loud_speaker sharp                           sound_loud_speaker genre

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.


ʃ (post-alveolar, fricative, voiceless)

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:

sound_loud_speaker pronunciation

sound_loud_speaker position

sound_loud_speaker obsession

sound_loud_speaker accusation 

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/ /ˌækjuˈzʃn/

3. // for /ʃ/. Sometimes, the phoneme /ʃ/ is substituted with //,  and words like show are said as /ou/ instead of /ʃəʊ/.


Now, here are some examples in which native speakers use words including the sound /ʃ/:

sound_loud_speaker Because I had at least ten years, thank goodness, with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Ben Kingsley, BBC4)

sound_loud_speaker I love stories about the machinery of things, and the machinery of Hollywood is tremendously funny (Rupert Everett, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker This definition of the obsessive rumination on what appears to be a single piece of damming evidence (Kenneth Branagh, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker All foundations in his life shift (Kenneth Branagh, BBC4).

ʒ (post-alveolar, fricative, voiced)

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.

Like this:

From /ʃ/ to /ʒsound_loud_speaker


Now, here are some very clear examples of /ʒ/ said by native speakers.

sound_loud_speaker Such a strong vision and need for love (Susanne Vega, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker I’m not really in the business or ruling things out according to genre or something (Colin Firth, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker So we used to think that you have to have suffered a major abuse in order to develop something like these seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Yes, it’s one of my great pleasures (Colin Firth, BBC4).

sound_loud_speaker Yes, it didn’t have the fantastic visual impact that the cities of the Greek east did (Catherine Steel, BBC4).


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 // (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.



This is the type of work I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.


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