/p/ and /b/ share manner and place of articulation and differ in voicing (/p/ is voiceless and /b/ is voiced). So, in theory they are exactly the same sound except for the fact that when we produce a /b/ our vocal folds vibrate and when it is a /p/ they don’t. Unfortunately, things are a bit more complicated than that. In order to pronounce /p/ and /b/ well, we have to take into account more elements, and this is even more important when we compare them to Spanish /p/ and /b/.
One very important thing is that almost everything said here about /p/ and /b/ can be applied to the pairs /t/-/d/ and /k/-/g/ 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 /p/ and /b/ are different, they are produced in a very similar way. And it is also quite clear that they are not the same as the Spanish corresponding sounds.
Spelling: p (pot), pp (puppy), pe (ripe). Exceptional spellings: gh (hiccough)
Compare the following words:
Listen to them in context.
Where does this big difference between English and Spanish /p/ lie? I’m sure you’ve heard the puff of air -like a small explosion- which is expelled when an English /p/ 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 where /p/, /t/ and /k/ are pronounced 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 the last 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: b (back), bb (rabbit)
Now let’s see what happens with the /b/ when we compare the English and Spanish sounds.
Listen to them in context.
The boat arrived late. El barco llegó tarde.
She’s just had a baby. Acaba de tener un bebé.
They are obviously different too. But what does this difference consist of? We might say that the English /b/ sounds dry and flat while the Spanish /b/ sounds somewhat richer. The release of the sound is also more sudden and clear in English. There is a phonetic reason for all this: even though /b/ is a voiced sound, when it comes in English at the beginning of a word it is devoiced, which means that it is produced with no vibration of the vocal folds. The devoicing of voiced plosives (/b/, /d/ and /g/) in initial position is another essential characteristic of English, which accounts for the difference between the English and Spanish sounds.
Here are some examples taken from real life:
Unexpected confusion. The devoicing of voiced plosives has a very important consequence. When /p/ and /b/ are at the beginning of words, English speakers don’t distinguish them by their voicing, since /p/ is voiceless and /b/ 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 /p/ is aspirated and /b/ isn’t (remember the minimal pair park-bark). So if you pronounce the sound /p/ in the Spanish way -that is, without aspiration-, an English speaker is most likely to understand a /b/ (as I said, this happens with the pairs /t/-/d/ and /k/-/g/ too).
Let’s see how the phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis illustrates this problem on his very interesting website: “Hearing the Spanish word pacharán for the first time I wrote it as bacharan which is a fact that should warn students that if they fail to aspirate stressed syllable-initial /p/ etc, a native English speaker will be very likely to interpret that attempt at /p/ etc as the corresponding soft (voiced) consonant”.
From all this, we can draw a very interesting conclusion: Spanish /p/, /t/, / k/ sound very much like English /b/, /d/, /g/ in many situations. So we might think we are saying pitch but what our interlocutor actually understands is bitch.
Here are a few more real-life examples where /p/ and /b/ can be heard in the same sentence.
b 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 /b/ is very different form the Spanish /b/ when it is found inside a word. Here the problem is that, in medial position, the Spanish /b/ 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. You can check this by performing an experiment: put your finger between your lips and say the Spanish word abajo. You’ll see that, when you pronounce the /b/, your lips don’t touch. The typical closure of plosives doesn’t occur. But, in English, this sound is produced in a different way. If you say the word about, you have to make sure that you close your mouth completely for a brief moment when you say the /b/. Do it in this way and you’ll get rid of the problem once and for all.
And here are two examples of the English /b/ in medial position. See how clearly the feature I’ve been talking about can be seen in the word abroad.
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 /b/ badly even when it comes at the beginning of a word. Have look at this example:
As you can see, in the Spanish rendition of this sentence the word basics, is not pronounced with a plosive b. We tend to do a fricative b in this context because we link it to the previous sound. This should be absolutely avoided in English. Fortunately, it’s a very easy mistake to correct.
And here is a good example of how different the three plosives /b, d, g/ sound from their Spanish counterparts. Concentrate on the words gay, Roberts and Madonna in particular.
Rupert Everett first memoir, Red Carpets and other Banana Skins, is full of witty, outrageous anecdotes about Hollywood, where he played the role of gay best friend to both Julia Roberts and Madonna (Kirsty Lang, BBC4).
Keep this point also in mind and you’ll improve your pronunciation immensely.