Phonemes /k/ and /g/ share manner and place of articulation and differ in voicing (/k/ is voiceless and /g/ is voiced). So, in theory they are exactly the same sound except for the fact that when we produce a /g/ our vocal folds vibrate and when it is a /k/ they don’t. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than that. In order to pronounce /k/ and /g/ well, we have to take into account more elements, and this is even more important when we compare them to Spanish /k/ and /g/.
One very important thing is that almost everything said here about /k/ and /g/ can be applied to the pairs /p/-/b/ and /t/-/d/ because the three plosive pairs behave in the same way.
Let’s start by listening to these minimal pairs:
You will probably have noticed that, even though /k/ and /g/ are different, they are produced in a very similar way.
Spelling: k (key), ke (make), c (come), ch (character), che (ache), cc (occur), ck (pack), qu (quarter), cq (acquire)
Let’s now compare the following words:
Listen to them in context:
Where does this big difference between English and Spanish /k/ lie? I’m sure you’ve heard the puff of air -like a small explosion- which is expelled when an English /k/ is produced. This is called aspiration and it is an essential characteristic of English voiceless plosives (/p/, /t/ and /k/) when they appear at the beginning of a stressed syllable. It is a feature that doesn’t exist in Spanish, so we have to get used to doing it in the English way. As we’ll see in a moment, learning how to pronounce /p/, /t/ and /k/ correctly -that is, accompanied by that puff of air- is crucial to avoiding misunderstandings.
Here are some examples of /k/ produced by native speakers:
It’s very important to remember that aspiration only occurs at the beginning of stressed syllables, so if the syllable is not stressed the amount of air that accompanies it will be drastically reduced. A classic example of this the word paper, in which the first p is aspirated whereas the second is not.
Listen to how Rupert Everett pronounces it in this example:
And there is another crucial point to remember: aspiration doesn’t occur when the voiceless plosive comes after the consonant s, so in words like stop, Spain or school, the plosives –t, p, k– are produced without aspiration.
Have a look at this example:
Your first novel, The South, is set in Spain, / and your most recent short story published in The New Yorker is set in Spain. / What kind of literary inspiration does Spain give you? (Eleanor Wachtel, CBC Radio).
As you can appreciate, none of the plosives (p and t, in this example) are aspirated.
Spelling: g (again), gg (egg), gh (ghost), gu (guardian), gue (rogue)
And now let’s compare the English and Spanish /g/ sounds.
Listen to them in context:
You’ve probably noticed that the English and Spanish /g/ are not the same. As we said with the /b/, the English /g/ sounds dry and flat while the Spanish /g/ sounds somewhat richer. This is because the three voiced plosives (/b/, /d/, /g/) are devoiced when they come at the beginning of a word, that is, they are produced with no vocal fold vibration.
Let’s listen to some clips where the /g/ is pronounced by native speakers.
The devoicing of voiced plosives has a very important consequence. When /k/ and /g/ are at the beginning of words, English speakers don’t distinguish them by their voicing, since /k/ is voiceless and /g/ is devoiced (so, there is no vocal fold activity in either of them, they’re both voiceless de facto). They distinguish them because of the presence or absence of aspiration -the puff of air mentioned before-, because /k/ is aspirated and /g/ isn’t (remember the minimal pair cold-gold ). So if you pronounce the sound /k/ in the Spanish way -that is, without aspiration-, an English speaker is most likely to understand a /g/ (as I said, this happens with the pairs /p/-/b/ and /t/-/d/ too). So, maybe you are trying to say cane, but your interlocutor might understand gain.
g between sounds. Finally we’ll address an issue which is responsible for the strong foreign accent of many Spanish speakers of English: the pronunciation of voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ and /g/) within words. Let’s listen to the following examples:
It is clear that the English /g/ is very different form the Spanish /g/ when it is found inside a word. Here the problem is that, in medial position, the Spanish /g/ is no longer a plosive but a fricative. This means that we don’t stop the flow of air before producing the sound. Instead, we go smoothly from one sound to the other. Remember that in a velar plosive the obstacle to the airstream is performed and felt at the back of the mouth: the back of the tongue rises and produces the closure. You can feel this very clearly by saying these two Spanish words.
ágata. Notice how you don’t rise the back of your tongue in the same way and the /g/ is produced without any blockage to the flow or air. This is because, in Spanish, in medial position the /g/ is a fricative.
Now, the problem is that in English the /g/ is always a plosive, so you have to be careful to do the closure. Like this:
Here’s an example of the /g/ within a word:
Do it in this way and you’ll get rid of the problem once and for all.
This is the type of analysis 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.
But, unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop here. There is another little detail to mention. We don’t normally speak in isolated words, but in chunks of speech where words are linked to one another. We produce an uninterrupted stretch of sound. For this reason, we are likely to pronounce the /g/ badly even when it comes at the beginning of a word. Have look at this example:
Keep this point also in mind and you’ll improve your pronunciation immensely.