5

How can a foreign speaker (where a "foreign speaker" speaks Spanish as a second language) effectively improve their spoken Spanish by improving their pronunciation and reducing their foreign accent.

To be more specific, let's assume that the foreign speaker wishes to target a particular regional accent in Spanish. Let's take the pronunciation of a native from Madrid, Spain, as an example.

Note: this is a cross-post from the Stack Exchange site "English Language and Usage". I posted in both places because I expect the methods for improving pronunciation may differ.

closed as off-topic by walen, DGaleano, Charlie, fedorqui Dec 4 '17 at 13:19

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because "how to improve my Spanish" questions are explicitly defined as off-topic in our help center. – walen Dec 2 '17 at 14:56
  • What you say is true @walen but in a sense all questions asked by non-native speakers are aimed at improving our Spanish. – mdewey Dec 2 '17 at 17:15
  • @mdewey The current description of the stack accepts questions about specific problems, but not general questions about "how to improve". Thus questions like spanish.stackexchange.com/q/1273/13628 are OK (specific pronunciation problem) but this one is not -- once again, as per the current description. So either we change the site description or we close questions like this. We're both aware of the ongoing Meta debate about off-topic definition, my close vote intends to shed some light onto questions that might be affected by it. – walen Dec 3 '17 at 8:56
7

I am an Spanish speaker struggling with English, and I can't do anything but recommend what I do when trying to improve my English pronunciation. I'm not sure if what I do is good, bad or just so-so... It's just what I do and what I can say based solely in my personal experience :)

  1. Try to watch movies or TV shows in Spanish. In the case of the TV shows, for instance, I force myself to watch the episodes twice: Once with English subtitles (English in my case, since is the language I'd like to improve, Spanish for you) and then watch it again without subtitles. I would strongly recommend using the same language for the subtitles as the language you want to improve (Spanish soundtrack, use Spanish subtitles). Do not use a different language for your subtitles: It will drive you nuts, bored and it will probably create a useless mess in your brain.
  2. Listen to the radio (or to podcasts that you may be able to pre-record in your mobile devices and listen in subways, trains...). Try to pick a subject that is interesting for you. You will pay more attention. Radio or podcasts are good because you won't have the visual aid of a TV show, and they'll force you to focus on the sound. I think newscasts or cultural programs are good choices, since the pronunciation is very clear.
  3. Record yourself. Speaking of TV shows with subtitles, you can get sentences from those shows and try to say them yourself in front of a recording machine. Then you can listen to yourself and compare with the actual pronunciation in the show (This item is really, really fun... It'll probably leave you thinking that your pronunciation is crap! It happened to me... I thought my English pronunciation was awesome until I heard myself. I could barely believe that the sounds I was listening to were actually made by me)
  4. Talk to Spanish speaking people. Maybe you could try to get a "web conversator pal"? using Skype or something similar. I've never checked, but there may be web sites that put in touch people who want to "exchange conversations"... An Spanish speaker may want to learn your mother tongue and chat with you. This may also help with something I've realized while learning English: It'll help you improve the way you convey the information. Spaniards are less direct (at least that's what I think) than Americans. If an American is presented with the question "Who do you love the most? Your daddy or your mommy?", he will probably start his reply with "My [mommy | daddy ], because..." whereas an Spaniard might start it with "It was a very beautiful day of spring... (half an hour of explanations)... and that's why I like my [mommy | daddy] the most". I still have serious difficulties conveying things in the American way (sounds rude to me), and I've realized that some Americans really don't understand what I'm trying to say when I go with the "Beatiful day of spring" mode. I've seen them making funny faces (like "Mmm... I'm not understanding this guy... It must be because of his accent") and start talking before I've reached my always valuable conclusion.
  5. Try to visit an Spanish speaking country and communicate with the natives in Spanish. When you try to order something to eat in a noisy bar and they bring you an ashtray because they didn't get you, that will definitely force you to improve your pronunciation. El hambre agudiza el ingenio, as we say in Spanish (hunger sharpens your wits, or something like that).
  6. Be constantly trying to "catch" differences in pronunciation whenever you can (use "reliable sources" for that, though: make sure the people you're listening to have a great pronunciation). Here in New York I've met many foreigners who have been living in the city for decades and whose English is still very bad. Why? Well, I'm pretty sure it's because they've reached a level that allows them to communicate at an "acceptable" level (Americans might make them repeat what they're trying to say a couple of times, but they'll end up being understood) and that's good enough for those people. Avoid that. Stick with the "Good enough is just not good enough" (as a car commercial here says).
  7. Study a bit the pronunciation rules. We have a bunch of (in my opinion) crazy ones (like ce, ci is pronounced ze, zi but ca, cu, co is pronounced ka, ku, ko... because some kind of historical reason) but once you know them, I would say they pretty much stay the same for all the words.
  8. As AirieFenix said, practice, practice and practice.
  • 1
    @jonsibley: Do not forget to read a lot. It may seem this has nothing to do with pronunciation but it does since you read to yourself in your mind. – Sergio Romero May 2 '12 at 19:56
3

If you are a beginner, I would suggest reading aloud in addition to the suggestions mentioned in other answers. Read slowly and pay special attention to where you are placing the spoken accent on each word and on the proper pronunciation of each letter. Letters such as g, c, z, j, and h can be especially tricky when starting out.

Also, practice getting the correct sounds for the vowels. We tend to be very "lazy" with our vowels in English. Many of them are simply pronounced "uh" in many words.

Ex.) mother - The 'o' is pronouned 'uh.' carnival - The 'i' is an 'uh' sound. memorable - The 'o' and 'a' can both be pronounced 'uh, and sometimes we leave the 'o' sound out completely.

Another vowel tip is that English vowels tend to be drawn out, especially in the southern United States. Make sure that your vowels are crisp and short when speaking Spanish. Although, "no" is spelled the same in both languages, it is pronounced slightly different between the two.

2

I was born and raised in Madrid (or Madrí as we say it) so I fit in the OP example. I'll give you some areas to focus on if you want to pass for a Madrileño. These are the things that surprise me (in a good way) as a native when hearing a foreigner speaking Spanish:

Basic tips:

  • They use only the 5 five pure vowel sounds (a e i o u). No mutating vowels like the do in English. For example, not pronouncing "No creo que ..." like "Nou creou quei ...". In other Spanish regions they have more vowel sounds (open vs closed, intermediate vowels)
  • Their Bs and Vs sound exactly the same.
  • They can pronounce properly our "hard consonants" i.e. strong R and J.
  • They use our 'S' sound. We don't do it with the tongue near the teeth like in English or even some parts of South America but a little bit more on the palate.
  • They can use the Z properly. In Madrid (native) people do not mix S/Z sounds but you will find people in Madrid from the south or other countries that use only S or only Z.

Pro tips (if you want to pass for Madrileño in the street):

  • They use the common intonation. I don't know how to describe it but when you compare the intonation with people from Galicia, La Mancha, Basque Country, Andalusia, etc. you'll see the differences.
  • They leave out the d in some participles: "Hoy estoy cansa(d)o", "el coche esta aparca(d)o"
  • They mutate s to h/j when it appears before a k sound. The infamous "ej que" (I'm guilty of that one) ;)

For other regional variation you should try to identify and replicate similar quirks.

  • 1
    +1 por el "ej que". Muy madrileño. – Diego Dec 2 '14 at 17:56
2

The tips I'm going to give you aren't exclusive to Spanish, but I think you'll find them helpful. I have three of them for you:

1: Take advantage of dictionaries with audio pronunciation.

Every time I read, I almost always come across a word whose pronunciation makes me curious. It isn't always a difficult word. Sometimes it's a word that I may have just heard pronounced differently by different people. This is true of both my native tongue -- English -- and others. Spanish rules of pronunciation are pretty consistent, so, oddly enough, I wind up doing this more for English than for Spanish, but if you're having trouble with a Spanish word, force yourself to take the time to do this. Some good resources include the following:

Forvo
Each entry usually has several recordings from around the world and they almost always include at least one from Spain. Plus, if you actually take the time to set up an account (and it's super easy), you can actually download audio recordings.

WordReference
Unlike Forvo, you will only find single word entries on this site and the only verbs you will find will be in their infinitive form. Neither will you be able to request a pronunciation of a specific word or phrase. You will also only find one set of pronunciations for each word, but that set includes a pronunciation from three different areas of the Spanish-speaking world — Mexico, Spain, and Argentina — for what I would guess is 99% of the words in its database. (In other words, a few words don't have pronunciations you can listen to, but just a very few, and they're usually long words that aren't that common.) Plus, you're given a choice of playback speeds — 100%, 50%, 25%. If you want to know what "purr" sounds like in Spanish with a playback speed of 25%, listen to this. You'll have to adjust the settings yourself using the dropdown box to the right of the word.

Wiktionary
Tried to find a word that most would find difficult to pronounce, so please click on the word "Wiktionary" above to see what I came up with. Wiktionary also has a Spanish version, but its database of Spanish words on its English site should be sufficient for most. If not, the Spanish version of it is here. Bear in mind that it doesn't contain much audio (if any) and what it does have will likely be in English. (After all, its Spanish site is designed for Spanish speakers, not English speakers learning Spanish.)

PONS
Sometimes gives you the option to view entries from the Oxford Spanish Dictionary in addition to those from the PONS dictionary. It also gives you the option of listening to "European Spanish" or "Mexican Spanish," but both versions sound a bit computerized to me. For recordings that sound more authentic, use Forvo.

dict.cc
A dictionary with pronunciations. This site has a couple of neat features the others don't. For starters, it gives you details such as the number of translations found for each word and orders them by most to fewest. The word "claro," for example, has been translated as "clear" more often than "light." Without any context to guide you, you can assume that "claro" means the former and not the latter (unless you're in a conversation with someone in which case it likely means "of course" or "sure"). The other neat feature of dict.cc is that, when possible and appropriate, it provides an image of the word in the upper right corner. (Oddly enough there's an image for "perro" but not one for "gato.")

All of the resources listed above are online, free, and available for multiple languages.

2: Follow Sergio Romero's advice

In case you missed it, he recommended reading as much as possible and I think that is excellent advice. He suggests that this bit of advice is slightly counterintuitive, but it will seem more logical to you if you also read out loud. I recommend starting off with very easy books and progressing from there. If you go to Amazon.com, you can search for children's books by language and age level. Here's a search of children's books using the search term "car." I then filtered it to return just Spanish books for those aged "Baby-2":

Books in Spanish about cars for those aged Baby-2

Start off with the easiest and work yourself up the age levels. Many of the books will allow you to preview the book so that you can determine if it's the right level for you and whether or not it's a good investment of your money. As you do this, be sure to read out loud. As you conduct your searches, I think you'll discover that Amazon's search engine returns results in a somewhat mysterious way, but for the most part you should see books that start off at a basic level. If you are unsure of what age level the book is actually intended for, click on the thumbnail for the book and then scroll down to view the book's details which should include its intended age or age range.

I'm pretty sure you might be able to do similar searches via other sites such as Project Gutenberg and Open Library but few, if any, allow you to search for books like Amazon does. I know some Spanish sites contain a children's book section. I haven't reviewed them in a while, but if any are worth recommending, I'll add them to this post.

As for the ones you'll find at Amazon, some books even have audio, but be sure to listen to a sample of it first if available; it may not be of a quality, dialect, or style that appeals to you.

If your budget's too tight for the purchase of a book, pay a visit to your local library. I'd be surprised if it doesn't have books in languages other than English on its shelves. The United States might not be as multilingual as the European Union, but there's a reason we call this country a melting pot and your library shelves should be reflective of that. If not, contact your librarian to see how you can request books not currently carried.

3: Adopt tips and tricks used by those in industries that require flawless pronunciation of words

This one's going to sound a bit crazy, but it is a technique I learned while attending a basic journalism and broadcasting course. I graduated from the course many years ago, but I have often used this technique to improve the pronunciation of my own native tongue. Whenever I am preparing to deliver a message, whether it's an important message on a voicemail machine or a 5-minute speech, I read the message out loud with a pencil in my mouth. I am not kidding you. Granted, if it's something as long as a 5-minute speech, I usually only read parts of the speech out loud and usually just as a warm up, but I cannot emphasize how useful this is in limbering up the muscles of the mouth and helping you articulate your words more precisely.

I've lately begun using this method with Spanish. If I catch myself stumbling over a word while reading out loud in Spanish, I will stop, put the pencil in my mouth and repeat the word a few times. You think rolling your Rs is difficult? Just try it with a pencil in your mouth and you'll find that it takes "difficult" to a whole new level. Even so, when you remove the pencil from your mouth and try pronouncing the word again, you'll be amazed at how much easier it is to say that word.

I believe tongue twisters and varying the speed of your speech are also effective limbering exercises, and ones I've encountered in places outside of broadcasting (e.g., theatrical productions) but nothing I've tried thus far really surpasses the effectiveness of the pencil method.


I realize the coveted green checkmark has already been awarded and I'm certainly not trying to convince you to give it up for me. Many of the answers here were quite good. I just saw an opportunity to contribute something useful or helpful by sharing some of my own techniques. Usually my contributions are in the form of a question, so it was refreshing to see a question on a topic I felt I could be helpful with. I am by no means an expert on this topic and, in fact, stumbled upon this question simply because I was about to pose a question somewhat similar to this. I may still post it since the topic is a bit more specific and not likely to be answered if I merely tacked it on in a comment here. If I do, I'll post the link here in this answer.

  • I confess, I just tried the pencil exercise and couldn't feel any benefit -- but maybe I didn't do it right. Anyway, +1. – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 4:15
  • @aparente001 Knowing that the most recent answer here is a few years old, I was surprised to see a comment from someone so quickly. I am disappointed and surprised that the pencil method did not work for you. You may want to try adjusting the thickness of the pencil (or even using a straw instead) and repeating the word a few times before trying the word again with the obstruction removed. If nothing else, I would think that this method helps develop the muscles of the tongue and mouth. Regardless, I hope it gave you a good laugh at least. – Lisa Beck Dec 2 '17 at 4:39
  • Just so I seem a bit less crazy, here's a video where you can see someone using the pencil method. I personally don't do it quite like this. I force myself to try to pronounce the word while grasping the pencil with both my upper teeth and lower teeth, but whatever works. I'll try to find one for Spanish. – Lisa Beck Dec 2 '17 at 4:42
  • 2
    I was surprised to see a comment from someone so quickly. Easy. If you click on the name of an SE site, you get taken to a page of recently changed items. A link in that list might be a new question, but it could just as well be an old question that just got a new answer or an edit. – aparente001 Dec 2 '17 at 5:20
  • 1
    Would you consider adding some of the resources you mention in your first section to the meta post spanish.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2514/… under the section Audio pronunciation? – mdewey Dec 3 '17 at 17:30
1

I think I won't be very useful here, but without any "scientific sources" I'm going with the most obvious advice here: practice.

Just talk with people that are from the place you want to speak as. If you can travel, you're going really improve your language skills visiting those places.

Sorry for writting such a basic answer I haven't any other advice.

1

Based on my personal experience, I can tell you that watching TV Series, Movies, Cartoons etc, and listening to music (of course all with the pronunciation you're aiming at) are good ways you can get an idea of how to pronounce many words, and as AirieFenix mentions, it's a matter of practicing and being consistent.

  • Yes, that would certainly help. – AirieFenix Mar 30 '12 at 14:40
1

In case there are some other people asking this question, here are my two cents.

Some of the software packages that claim to help you learn Spanish come with a "reading test" feature that uses the microphone and scores your effort. This is very useful, even if it's far from perfect. And it won't tell you what you are doing right or wrong. It just tells you whether or not you are improving.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.