It is fairly common for students to fall into the trap of pronouncing Spanish words the way they would in their native language. It’s a natural impulse and sometimes hard to control. But do not fret! As challenging as Spanish grammar can be, Spanish pronunciation on the other hand, is pretty straightforward.


Sure, rolling the r, getting the j to sound right (in Argentina, it has a harsh raspy sound), and welcoming the ñ, etc., are important and obvious changes you have to embrace while speaking Spanish. But in this article, we’re going to focus on the more subtle differences…ones that will trick people into thinking you are from Latin America. Here is a must-read guide with five steps (and most common mishaps) that, with practice and perseverance, will get you speaking like a native.


  1. Short and sweet: the vowels
  2. The buzz factor
  3. Two-face: the letter d
  4. T time
  5. The big L


1. Short and sweet: the vowels


There is one specific phoneme (sound) to each vowel in Spanish, no matter what. Yes, this is true. Keep in mind that, generally speaking, vowels are shorter in Spanish than in English. For example, the letter a in English is pronounced longer: ‘aaaee’. In Spanish it is much shorter: ‘ah’. Let’s look at some other examples:


Spanish vowel sounds

English example

Spanish example

a - ah

talk, paw

llama, zapato

e - eh

pet, tennis

esmeralda, este

i - ee

leave, see

historia, isla

o - oh

snow, pollute

horóscopo, oso

u - oo

boot, shoe

usted, basura


2. The buzzing factor


The letters s, z, and x often share a commonality in English: the buzzing sound.


Let’s start with s. In Spanish, the letter s always has the hard s sound, like in the English words “sand, sandwich, and soccer”. However, in English the s is also pronounced with a z sound with words like “music” or “prison”. In Spanish, we only use the hard s. Now try saying a few examples with the hard s: música, prisión, ilusión, extensión, ocasión, televisión…


But that is one stubborn buzz. Now let’s talk about z. An English speaker’s natural impulse would be to make a buzzing sound for the letter z. In Latin American Spanish, the letter z has the hard z sound instead. For example the Spanish word zebra is pronounced “seh-brah”. Other words you can practice with are: azúcar, azalea, azafrán, zapato, lechuza, azul, zorro...


Last but not least: the letter x. When saying words in Spanish that contain the letter x, avoid falling into the buzz trap. For instance, let’s take the English word “exam”. Really it is pronounced “eggzam”. However, the same word in Spanish (examen) is pronounced with a ks sound (much like the English word x-ray, and remember to apply what you already learned about the s. You know the drill by now): “ek-samen”. Other examples are: exacto, boxeo, elixir, exagerar, anexo, axila, and ¡Auxilio!


3. Two-face: the letter d


The Spanish d has two different sounds: hard and soft. Generally speaking, the hard d resembles the d in the words “dig, dog, dinosaur”, etc., with the difference that the tongue touches the back of the front teeth, rather than the hard palate. The Spanish (hard) d is not as hard as the English one. The hard d is commonly found at the beginning of a word, or after the letters n and l. Examples are: doctor, fondo, and falda.


The soft d is most commonly found between vowels. It is pronounced like the English th sound in the word “rather” (placing the tip of the tongue between the top and bottom teeth). Examples are: dedo, además, and orden.


4. T time


Beware of the puff of air in the English pronunciation for the letter t (in words like tiger, tangerine, or time) and you’ll be fine. Meaning, in Spanish, the t sound is softer. Just like the hard d, allow your tongue to touch the back of the front teeth and go for it. Now let’s practice, again, without the puff of air! Tormenta, tigre, tiempo, tomate...


5. The big l


In English, when using the letter l, the tongue is curved a little and touches the top of the mouth. Try saying the word “love” and feel the shape of your tongue curve or bend.


However, in Spanish, we don’t curve the tongue when saying the l sound. When saying the Spanish words lechuga and loco, don’t curve the tongue, but put the tip of the tongue right behind the front teeth. Other examples are: limón, elefante, lápiz, and lágrima.


When speaking Spanish, to sum up:


  • Keep it short with the vowels
  • Lose the English buzzing sound
  • Embrace new sounds
  • Keep the d on the softer side
  • Train your tongue


Now you have the tools to sound more like a Spanish native speaker! All you need is…you guessed it. Practice, practice, and practice! You are not only learning new sounds; but you’re also training your mouth to move differently and that takes patience, perseverance; and most importantly, a positive attitude.


Take some time after a lesson, when the Spanish is still fresh in your head, to practice those challenging words again, and again. Focus on training your mouth to move correctly. If you’re time constrained, then multitask: practice it in the shower, on your way to work, or in your sleep! (If you can pull off the last one, then I want to know your secret). Work diligently with your italki teacher and don’t forget to have fun with it!


Hero image by Drew Hays (CC0 1.0)