Why is Pronunciation a Hack?

During my many years of working at El Patio, I have seen hundreds of students pass through our system of courses.

Many have achieved fluency (B2 and up), more have attained a foundational stage (A2, which could be bumped up to fluency), but a greater number has not made it past the first few levels (A1). 

There are many reasons for this, but for those who really did want to get further, I have noticed one thing with an easy fix. It stands out as an obstacle to progress, especially for beginners: pronunciation. 

Mastering pronunciation means that you master the sounds of the language. It also that you know how the words of a language are supposed to sound.

It’s easy so to see how important this is. 

And so, for this reason and many more, pronunciation is The Most Glamorous Beginner Spanish Hack.

From The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin

Pronunciation is a hack ...

... because it's an uncomplicated solution to a difficulty that will only become bigger later on. 

Unfortunately, for some students, frustration with pronunciation may even be an unrevealed reason for dropping out.

Glamorous, you say?

From Nestlings of Forest and Marsh by Irene Grosvenor Wheelock (1902), p40

Yes, because it makes you feel that way. Mastering pronunciation generates inner calm, leading to a feeling of serenity, fostering a sense of glamour in your new language.

  • It will eliminate stress. This is really important, as language learning should be fun. Having the correct pronunciation removes the obstacle of doubt when you are learning new words, helping you begin the memorising process faster. 
  • It will help you feel confident and attractive. When starting out, even if it's for the pure purpose of sound without meaning, it will bring grace, poise and self-assurance to your beginner Spanish attempts.
  • It will wrap your listeners in the elegance of your words, at once demonstrating appreciation and respect for the language of others. Learning a language is, essentially, going somewhere else.

Yeah, but what about my accent?

The best accent to cultivate is that of not a gringo!

You may have a partner or a connection to a particular Hispanic country, and in this case you probably have familiarity with that way of speaking, as well as a motivation that is very important and exciting.

However, we can get hung up on accent. We may be attached to, or intolerant of certain accents. I think it's important to listen to a lot of different pronunciations to keep your ear flexible.

If you don't have a specific (accent) goal, it's all good, as many sounds are common to all Spanish accents (or variants). Let's look at them:

  • The 5 Spanish vowel sounds:
    • There are only 5 sounds and they never change (like English ones do). Vowels sound the same regardless of where Spanish is spoken (well, it could be said that there are nuances in different regions, but vowels are the sonic structure of the Spanish language).
  • Most consonants are exactly the same across the Spanish speaking world. It might be easier to pick out the different ones (just to keep aware):
    • C, maybe G, J, LL, Z – ahhh, that narrows it down, doesn't it.

Other aspects of accent are:

  • The dropping of certain sounds in some regions – eg: dropping the S before consonants and as a final sound, in Chile, Colombia, Southern Spain, Cuba, to name a few zones
  • Of course, not to do with accent, but differences in vocabulary and word use varies across the Spanish-speaking world

Now for a Short, Mouthy, Spanish-Vowels Lesson

Vowels are possibly the single aspect that can be improved, for the greatest effect. So here our glamorous animals are going to help show how they're sounded. This site has a great explanation of where the tongue should be positioned for each vowel.

Glamorous Vowel A

Glamorous Vowel E

Glamorous Vowel I

A small bird eats leeches from the mouth of a Nile crocodile. Drawing Henry Scherren

Traced vector of Felix the Cat, by Tom Edwards, original drawing by Otto Messmer

The Cheshire Cat Vanishing (detail), from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, drawn by John Tenniel

The sound of A is always a big, wide, open sound, and not a half-hearted one like the English A (can be) at the end of a word (think about the second A in Australia). Weakening your final A is a dead giveaway that you're an English speaker! Our crocodile friend is showing us the open–mouth model, tongue down at the back (with the help of a little bird), which will produce a deep, crisp, short A.

Felix the Cat pronounces E with a wide mouth exposing possible teeth. The tongue is laying flat in the middle part of the mouth and it never moves from this position during E. The grin is a key thing here. Although the mouth is open very wide and smiley, the sound that comes out is quite short!

The Cheshire Cat really knows how to pronounce an I. To keep it clear, he widens his mouth and shows all of his teeth. Behind those flashing dentures, his tongue is at the top of his mouth. Pure I. Keep it a short sound and never waver from this!

Glamorous Vowel O

Glamorous Vowel U

Long or Short?

Image from page 196 of Elements of biology, with special reference to their rôle in the lives of animals (1933), by James Buchanan

From The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin

Image on p36 of On the natural history and classification of birds, William Swainson (1836)

A fish is great at reproducing the sound O – even if nobody ever gets to hear it underwater. An O–shaped mouth with a lowered tongue gives us that dark, back-of-the-throat vowel, nice and short.

Our happy chimp here is demonstrating perfect lip positioning for the Spanish U sound. She keeps them rounded and pursed, and not only that, she's placed her tongue fairly low down at the back of the mouth for a deeper U. Keep this one short and act like a chimp for a perfect U!

Did you notice that all of the vowel sound descriptions mentioned the word short?

This is key to Spanish vowel sounds – THEY ARE ALL SHORT SOUNDS. Think of the sounds in Australian English: cut (short vowel) vs cart (long).

Tell me More about Going Somewhere Else ...

The most observable reason for improving pronunciation is that your native–speaker listeners will understand you. You have made the effort to step out of the world of sounding like a gringo!

But there's another thing; if you endeavour to enter the mode of thought of a Spanish-speaker, you are going to go there and connect.

I believe that going there is one of the most underrated aspects of learning a language and a very important step to make when starting out. It's a big one, as it's a change of mind.

This is where we have to step out of English, Australian – or whichever language and culture is our first – and into Spanish. This is where we realise that learning a language is way more than how to order in a restaurant or have a chat with some locals. It's about learning how the locals think. Language is a vehicle for culture, so we step out of our own and go and visit another. It's subtle and challenging to make that leap, as it means that we have to let go of our usual selves.

Good pronunciation is the very first portal through with we move towards letting go and changing our mind. Perhaps the out-of-body feeling is a fitting one, after all?

Can El Patio Help?

Yes! A 2-hour Pronunciation Workshop is scheduled for the Spring Intensives. It's called Pronunciation & Accent (click the link to read about it).

Meanwhile, here is your hack list:

  • Listen to lots of Spanish (your textbook CDs, apps, podcasts)
  • Practise out loud at every opportunity:
    • in class, especially pairwork
    • in the school hallway with class colleagues
    • with teachers (if they're not rushing to make a photocopy)
    • with the caring and fluent El Patio student support team
    • to yourself (eg: in the shower, in the park, in the car)
  • Read up on pronunciation rules
  • Check out our online Beginner Basics 1 and 2 ($9.99 ea) for a pronunciation workout, the alphabet and basic phrases from our first two beginner classes
  • Train your mouth! It's a new combination of muscles that needs to be trained, and like any new exercise, repetition is going to help
  • Look up on YouTube – How to speak with a [insert nationality here] accent
  • A website with phonetics and videos of the sounds 
  • A website with pretty comprehensive phonetic explanations (also mentioned above)

From The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin

Not sure which course is right for your Spanish level? Test your Spanish level now!

Ready to start learning? Find a class and enrol now!

By Toni Edwards
March 15, 2018



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