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I'm new to Spanish and I'm trying to learn pronunciation first.

I listened to a few materials and I'm finding it difficult to distinguish "ñi" and "ni", for example "niñito". And it's even harder to immitate that. So how should I go ahead?

I found another pair of examples: compañía and compaña

  • Should we assume that English is your native language? Otherwise there may be similar sounds in your language, e.g. gn in French. – Miguel Jun 30 '17 at 18:21
  • @MiguelAtencia Actually no but you can assume so. I'm native to Chinese but English is almost "native". – iBug Jun 30 '17 at 18:30
  • I agree with @pablodf76's answer. I would only add that if you require some sort of visual cue to help with the pronunciation, for example, with niñito, you might think to separate the word as "nin" and "yito" as if the word were "nin'yito", and work on bridging the pronunciation gap little by little, until the point where you can see "niñito" and not have to think twice about it – psosuna Oct 9 '17 at 18:22
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The first thing would be to note that ni + vowel and ñ do not sound that different (which is the point of your question, obviously), so in many cases you won't need to imitate it perfectly. That is, nieto and *ñeto (the latter word does not exist) would be very difficult to distinguish in practice even for native speakers, unless pronounced slowly. In a word with n next to ñ such as niñito, however, the contrast becomes readily apparent.

What you need to understand is how n and ñ are produced.

Spanish n (IPA: /n/) is alveolar (when followed by a vowel), as in English. The tip of the tongue must be placed flat against the alveoli, which are the spaces just behind the roots of your upper front teeth.

Spanish ñ (IPA: /ɲ/) is palatal: the middle of the tongue must be raised and pressed against the hard palate, while the tip will be probably lowered and pressed against the back of your lower teeth.

There are a ton of resources on the web for this, but check out this one, which has drawings.

You might want to use niñito as a test. If you pronounce it OK, you will notice how the tongue shifts in your mouth, the tip first striking your alveoli and then coming down to touch your lower teeth. If instead you're pronouncing *ninito, your tongue will tap your alveoli twice in succession.

ADDED: This applies also to the difference between ll and li, but as explained in this answer about the pronunciation of ll, in most Spanish dialects ll has merged with y and the merged phoneme is pronounced generally rather differently and it's not as prone to confusion with li.

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  • Does the same apply to "lli" and "li"? – iBug Jun 30 '17 at 16:59
  • "niñi" -> "ni nyi" :: "lilli" -> "li [l]yi" – Darren Jun 30 '17 at 18:18
  • About lli and li: well yes and no. Check out this answer. I'll add that to my answer. – pablodf76 Jun 30 '17 at 20:45
  • 2
    Minimal pairs: unir (to unite) / uñir (to join animals on a team by a yoke). Also: montañismo (mountaineering) / Montanismo (Montanism, an early Christian movement); canilla (shinbone; thin leg) / cañilla (diminutive of caña "reed, cane") – Locoluis Jun 30 '17 at 22:56
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    So close are /nj/ and /ɲ/ that sometimes the ñ is used to replace ni in (primarily to represent /nji/. For example, if someone's name is Antonia, then to add -ita, neither Antonita nor Antoniita are right. Instead, it's Antoñita. – user0721090601 Jul 1 '17 at 11:46

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