Before I taught English, I worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency. Some of the television ads I wrote for a local fitness center were translated into Spanish.
I always loved the Spanish versions! They sounded so energetic and dramatic—like a bull charging at a matador.
The English versions had energy too, but a more peppy kind of energy. Like cheerleaders rooting for a football team.
Listen for yourself:
Why do Spanish and English sound so different?
The answer lies in the rhythm of the languages.
Every language has a unique rhythm. Some of these rhythms are similar to each other, such as the rhythms of English and Dutch. Other languages have rhythms that are quite different, such as English and Spanish.
The chart below illustrates this concept. It shows the rhythm of eight different languages according to certain rhythmic features.
Don't get lost in the the statistics! Just focus on the big picture.
English (EN) and Spanish (SP) are in different groups because they have different rhythms. And it is those different rhythms, more than individual vowel or consonant sounds, that can make English pronunciation challenging for Spanish speakers of English.
Figure 2.1: Classification of 8 languages along rhythmic dimensions %V and ∆C. Figure reproduced from Ramus, Nespor, and Mehler (1999).
The Rhythm of American English versus the Rhythm of Spanish
What is rhythm in language?
Rhythm is the timing patterns among syllables. And a syllable is a word, or part of a word, with a vowel sound.
For example: “Pass” has 1 syllable because it has 1 vowel sound. “Password” has 2 syllables because it has 2 vowel sounds.
Different languages have different syllable, or rhythm patterns.
English alternates between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables, and stressed words and unstressed words.
For example: I want to improve my pronunciation of English.
The syllables in bold and underlined are stressed. The other syllables are not. The words in red are emphasized. The other words are not.
This is called contrastive stress.
Spanish has much less contrastive stress. Every syllable is spoken with almost equal length and volume, and little change in pitch. And if you don't stress different syllables, then all the words sound equally emphasized as well.
Is there any contrastive stress in Spanish? Yes, but much less than in English.
And, of course, there are many different Spanish accents around the world. Some Spanish accents have more contrastive stress than others. But all varieties of Spanish use a syllable-timed rhythm.
This image can help you visualize the difference between the rhythm of Spanish (syllable-timed) and the rhythm of English (stress-timed.)
Where Do You Put the Stress?
An additional challenge for Spanish speakers is to stress the correct syllable.
Since there are many similar words in English and Spanish ("education" / "educación"), it is natural to use the stress placement of your first language. But in English, the stress in this word is not on the last syllable, as in Spanish. It is on the third syllable: "education".
Are there rules for stress in English? Yes. Particularly for words with suffixes (like "cion"). There are many YouTube videos and textbooks that review these rules.
Are they many exceptions to these rules? Yes. So be prepared if you learn the rules to also notice and practice the exceptions. And don't look for accent marks to help you. Unfortunately, English doesn't use those.
Other Vowel Challenges for Spanish Speakers of English
Spanish has five vowel sounds. American English has about fifteen vowel sounds (depending on the regional accent.) So that means that Spanish speakers of English need to work on distinguishing and producing many more vowel sounds.
The good news is that there is some flexibility with English vowel sounds. As long as they are “close enough” (and said with enough pitch change and length!), a Spanish speaker of English can be understood fairly easily.
What about Consonants?
Yes, consonants are important for Spanish speakers of English. But research shows that some consonant sounds impact the listener’s ability to understand you more than others.
Plus, changing individual sounds is an extremely time-consuming process. For many adults, it is not even possible. That is because Broca’s area—the part of our brain that is responsible for speech production—gets less flexible as we age. That flexibility starts to fade as early as puberty.
So it’s important to prioritize the consonants you work on.
Before you devote months and possibly years trying to address all the consonant challenges for Spanish speakers of English, I suggest you get a pronunciation assessment from a professional teacher. An assessment will identify which consonants in particular are tricky for you, and which ones matter the most.
So what should a Spanish speaker do to improve their English pronunciation?
Step One: Get a Pronunciation Assessment
As suggested above, have a professional English pronunciation teacher who is familiar with intelligibility research conduct an assessment. This will ensure that have a realistic and achievable learning plan.
Step Two: Work on the “Music” of Your Spoken English
I recommend first working on the rhythm, or what I like to call the “music”, of American English. In addition to syllable stress and sentence stress, the “Music of English” includes pausing in logical places. If you pause more frequently, you will slow down your speech in a natural way and allow time to add stress to your English.
Step Three: Improve Your Pronunciation of High-Impact Consonants
Don’t work on consonants that have a low impact on your intelligibility. You have better things to do with your free time. See a movie. Grab a coffee. Watch the sunset. Have fun!
Are You Ready to Work on Your English Pronunciation?
Well Said Coaching offers all of the above: a pronunciation assessment, a course on the Music of English, and, for those who need it, additional lessons on individual vowel and consonant sounds.
Interested? Please check out our pronunciation services, and then schedule a free consultation.
Don't Lose Your Accent. Lose the Confusion!
If you change the “music” of your English, you will be amazed at how much more easily people will understand you. The best part is that you don’t need to completely lose your beautiful Spanish accent, nor should you!
As Argentine-American actor Fernando Lamas once said:
 Brown, Adam. Pronunciation Models. Singapore, Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore, 1991.