Two Things to Sound 10x More Spanish

August 22, 2016
<p>Getting the right sounds to come out of your mouth is just a matter of muscle memory (magic is rarely involved). If you want to nail the pronunciation of a tricky sound in Spanish, you only have to follow these 4 simple steps:</p><ol><li>Listen to a native speaker make the sound.</li><li>Try your best to imitate.</li><li>Notice the largest difference between what you said and what the native said.</li><li>Try to best to minimize the difference.</li></ol><p>Simple? Yes.</p><p>Easy? Hell no!</p><p>The good news is that the 80/20 rule totally applies here. If you speak English, you only have to do two things to sound 10x Spanisher:</p><ol><li><a href="#aspirated"><strong>Stop blowing out candles</strong></a> </li><li><a href="#approximants"><strong>Start blocking the air only sometimes</strong></a></li></ol><!--more--><h2><a name="aspirated"></a>Stop blowing out candles</h2><p>Light a candle, put it in front of you and say <span class="sp">típico</span> (<span class="en">typical</span>). If it blew out, you're probably saying it like this:</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>Notice the difference between that and the non-candle-blowing version:</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>Phonology übernerds call the sounds in the first version <em>aspirated consonants</em>, but we can call them candle-blowing sounds.</p><p>Here's the thing: you've probably been studying Spanish for years, has anybody ever told you that there are no candle-blowing sounds in Spanish?</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¡Mierda, O'Brien! El jodido Complejo Industrial-Educativo nos ha estado mintiendo durante años.</span><br><span class="en">"Shit, O'Brien! The damn Educational-Industrial Complex has been lying (to us) (for) years"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¿Pero qué diablos estás diciendo, McPherson?</span><br><span class="en">"(But) what the devils are you saying, McPherson?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—¡Lo que oyes! El sheriff acaba de decirme que las consonantes oclusivas sordas en español nunca son aspiradas.</span><br><span class="en">"What you hear! The sheriff just told me that (the) voiceless occlusive consonants in Spanish never are aspirated"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Malditos cabrones. Ya decía yo que la forma en la que articulábamos los fonemas era un poco rara. </span><br><span class="en">"Damn bastards. (I've always thought) that the way we articulated phonemes was a bit weird"</span></p></div><p>O'Brien is totally right. Trying to sound Spanish while aspirating every /t/, /p/ and /k/ is like trying to silently shuffle across a marble floor wearing wet sneakers. It doesn't work.</p><p>If your English mouth is hell-bent on candle-blowing, realize that you're already making the correct t-p-k non-aspirated Spanish sounds when you say <strong>st</strong>andard, <strong>Sp</strong>ain or <strong>sc</strong>andal.</p><p>Mentally adding that little <strong>s</strong> at the beginning of the syllable is all you need to Hispanify the pronunciation.</p><p>Make this your daily practice and your Spanishness will level up quickly.</p><h2><a name="approximants"></a>Start blocking the air only sometimes</h2><p>I'm going to make two predictions:</p><ol><li>90% of the sounds you have ever heard coming out of the mouth of a Spanish native contained an <strong>approximant</strong>.</li><li>You have no idea what an approximant is.</li></ol><p>Don't feel bad if the second one is true; neither do Spanish people:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Papá, ¿qué es un aproximante?</span><br><span class="en">"Dad, what is an approximant?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Verás, hijo, un aproximante es… Digamos que es como… Mira, mejor pregúntale a tu madre, que ella es de Letras.</span><br><span class="en">"(You see), son, an approximant is… Let's say that it's like… Look, (you) better ask (it to) your mother, (since) she (studied Humanities in high school)"</span></p></div><p>The <a href="">fancy-pants definition</a> of an approximant was invented by a smart linguist dude in the 60s, but we can get by just fine with the gym-pants definition.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>An <strong>approximant</strong> is the sound you make when instead of completely blocking the air coming out of your mouth, you only <em>kind of block it</em>.</p></blockquote><p>I can already hear the phonologists preparing their pitchforks.</p><p>For example, to pronounce <strong>b</strong>a<strong>b</strong>y in English, you have to completely block the airflow for a few milliseconds to sound out the first <strong>b</strong>, and once again when you hit the second <strong>b</strong>.</p><p>Doing the same in Spanish will make you sound very non-native:</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>The trick to sounding Spanish is to <strong>not block the airflow all the way</strong> when you're in the middle of a word:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><span class="occlusive">b</span>e<span class="approximant">b</span>é</span><br><span class="en"><span>The first b is </span><span class="occlusive">normal</span>, the second b is an <span class="approximant">approximant</span></span></p></div><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>Spanish words are pretty sociable, they like to merge with surrounding words and pretend that they are one family unit (I think they get tax benefits that way). For example <span class="sp">el</span> + <span class="sp"><span class="occlusive">b</span>e<span class="approximant">b</span>é</span> (<span class="en">the baby</span>) is pronounced as a single word, <span class="sp">el<span class="approximant">b</span>e<span class="approximant">b</span>é</span>, with two approximant /b/ sounds:</p><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>There are only four sounds in Spanish with approximant counterparts. Let's hear them in a dialogue:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><a name="crossed_tail_j"></a>—<span class="occlusive">Y</span>a (normal /ʝ/) no <span class="approximant">ll</span>ueve</span> (approximant /ʝ/).<br><span class="en">"<em>Now</em> it doesn't rain"</span></p></div><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><a name="b"></a>—<span class="occlusive">V</span>ale (normal /b/), pues me <span class="approximant">v</span>oy</span> (approximant /b/).<br><span class="en">"Ok, then I'll go"</span></p></div><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><a name="g"></a>—<span class="occlusive">G</span>racias (normal /g/) por el re<span class="approximant">g</span>alo</span> (approximant /g/), <span class="sp"><span class="approximant">G</span>uillermo</span> (approximant /g/).<br><span class="en">"Thanks for the gift, Guillermo"</span></p></div><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp"><a name="d"></a>—<span class="occlusive">D</span>e (normal /d/) na<span class="approximant">d</span>a</span> (approximant /d/), <span class="sp">An<span class="occlusive">d</span>rés</span> (normal /d/).<br><span class="en">"You're welcome, Andrés"</span></p></div><p><audio preload="metadata" controls=""> <source src=""> <a href=""></a></audio> <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>Download</strong></a></p><p>Things to notice:</p><ul><li>The normal Spanish /ʝ/ sound is just like the English /ʝ/ sound in <em><span class="occlusive">j</span>ump</em>. In writing, this can correspond to either a <strong>y</strong> or a <strong>ll</strong>.</li><li>The /ʝ/ approximant is the only optional approximant (the other 3 are mandatory). If you didn't want to emphasize <span class="sp">ya</span> (<span class="en">now</span>), you could also say <span class="sp"><span class="approximant">y</span>a</span> (approximant /ʝ/) instead of <span class="sp"><span class="occlusive">y</span>a</span> (normal /ʝ/). Your choice.</li><li>We don't have a /v/ sound in Spanish. We pronounce our <strong>v</strong>'s exactly like our <strong>b</strong>'s. Weird, I know.</li><li><span class="sp">Voy</span> would be pronounced <span class="sp"><span class="occlusive">v</span>oy</span> (normal /b/) if it was by itself; but because the previous word ends in a vowel, they become social and we squish them together into one family unit: <span class="sp">me<span class="approximant">v</span>oy</span> (approximant /b/).</li><li>In writing, the /g/ sound corresponds to <span class="sp"><strong>ga</strong></span>, <span class="sp"><strong>go</strong></span>, <span class="sp"><strong>gu</strong></span> or <span class="sp"><strong>gue</strong></span>, <span class="sp"><strong>gui</strong></span>. Remember that <span class="sp"><strong>ge</strong></span> and <span class="sp"><strong>gi</strong></span> are always pronounced as if you had a fish bone stuck in your throat (at least in Spain).</li><li>In case you're wondering why we say <span class="sp">An<span class="occlusive">d</span>rés</span> (normal /d/) instead of <span class="sp">An<span class="approximant">d</span>rés</span> (approximant /d/): having an <strong>m</strong> or an <strong>n</strong> at the end of a syllable means it's physically impossible to follow it with an approximant (I've been trying to get it to work for the past five minutes and now my tongue hurts). </li></ul><p>Time to wrap this baby up.</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>In this post we dissected two of the most common English tics that are sabotaging your native potential: candle-blowing t-p-k's and non-approximant ʝ-b-g-d's.</p><p>Once you manage to remove these barnacles from the hull of your pronunciation ship, you'll be racing to Spanish waters at top speed.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Fall in love with <strong>deliberate practice</strong>: listen, notice, imitate, fix, repeat and level up.</p></blockquote><p><strong>Question the defaults</strong>. Are my <strong>o</strong>'s too open? Do my <strong>d</strong>'s sound more like <strong>r</strong>'s? Are my <strong>h</strong>'s silent?</p><p>Head over to the excellent <a href=""></a> anytime you need a Spanish pronunciation fix.</p><p>Encourage natives to throw politeness to the wind and <strong>relentlessly correct you</strong>. Never let ego get in the way of a good education.</p><p><strong>Practice difficult sounds out loud</strong> on your way to work, as you sing along to Shakira, or while buying avocados at the market. If people look at you weird, pity them for not knowing anything about candle-blowing sounds or approximants and continue on your journey towards Spanish mastery.</p>