In contrast to vowel sounds, which are made by completely opening the vocal tract, consonant sounds are created by momentarily blocking the vocal tract while expelling air. Fortunately, there are only two consonants sounds that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce, which we will cover in the next section. In this section, you will review a few slight but important differences between English and Spanish Consonants.
Denti-Alveolar /d̪/ and /t̪/
In English, we create the /d/ and /t/ sounds by touching the tip of the tongue to the point where the gums meet the teeth (alveolar ridge). In contrast, Spanish /d̪/ and /t̪/ sounds are made by touching the blade of the tongue (just behind the tip) to this same spot. To do this, you have to stick your tongue out a bit further, causing the tip of your tongue to actually rest beneath your upper teeth (hence the name denti-alveolar). Notice the little “tooth” symbol underneath both letters – let this remind you of this difference between these sounds in Spanish.
This may seem like an unimportant detail, but it is extremely important to build a habit of dentalizing your “d” and “t”, because certain Spanish sound combinations are IMPOSSIBLE to produce with the English, tip-of-the-tongue, “d” and “t” sounds.
“Soft” /b/ and /v/
In English, we make the /b/ sound by closing our lips, building air pressure behind it, then releasing a burst of air. For the /v/ sound, we touch our upper teeth to our lower lips and let air pass through with friction (To see what I mean, say “vvvvvvv”). Both sounds are strong and distinct in English, which is why English speakers rarely mishear “bat” for “vat” or “Bic” for “Vick”.In Spanish, on the other hand, both of these sounds are weaker, particularly the /v/ sound. Though Spanish speakers create the same /v/ effect as in English, they hold the sound for much less time. Also, though they do sometimes make a strong /b/ sound, they most often make quick and softer /b/ sound by touching their lips together for just a brief moment. In fact, sometimes the lips do not touch each other at all, resulting in a sound more similar to /w/.As a result of the relatively weaker /b/ and /v/ sounds, many Spanish speakers will often replace the /v/ sound with the /b/ sound. For example, the word “Vaca,” meaning cow, will be pronounced “Baca.” The speaker in the audio below does indeed distinguish these sounds, but you will notice that the difference is still much slighter than it would be in English.
Other Consonants to Note – /x/ and /ɲ/
There are a few consonant sounds that exist in some dialects of Spanish and not in others. Where ever you travel to learn Spanish, it will not be difficult for you to identify and mimic the one or two dialectal sounds, so I will not cover them here. The one sound I do want to cover, however, is the Voiceless Velar Fricative, which from here on will be represented as an /x/ (In Spanish writing it is written as “g” or “j”). This sound is common throughout most of the Spanish world, though in some dialects it is replaced with the /h/ sound you are familiar with from English.The /x/ sound occurs at the same place that the /k/ sound occurs. It is the sound that most people do when imitating the hiss of a cat (see below).
The other consonant sound to note – /ɲ/ – exists in English, it just that people do not realize it is different from the normal /n/. If you say the word “no” with a long /n/ sound (“nnnno”), you will notice that you are creating this sound with the tip of your tongue touching the point where your teeth meet your gums. Now if you stop on the “n” sound in the word “going” (as in “goinnnnnnng”), you should notice that your tongue is now retracted and the tip is NOT touching the gums anymore. Though these sounds are similar, the movement is completely different, hence the different symbol – /ɲ/. In both Spanish and English, this sound occurs before /k/, /g/ or /y/.
Dialectal Dropped /s/
In some Spanish dialects, the /s/ sound is often dropped or replaced by an /h/ sound. The artist for the last song of this program is Puerto Rican and does this often. This is important to know, because Spanish learners who learn from text (in which the “s” is always written) find it difficult to understand Caribbean varieties of Spanish for this reason. It is not that difficult to process, however, once you tune your ear to it.
Though I have included a lot of information above, none of the actual sounds should be difficult for you to create as an English speaker. There are, however, two consonant sounds that will prove difficult for you: the alveolar tap and the alveolar trill. I cover these sounds in detail in the next section.