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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:

  1. Listen to a native speaker make the sound.
  2. Try your best to imitate.
  3. Notice the largest difference between what you said and what the native said.
  4. Try to best to minimize the difference.

Simple? Yes.

Easy? Hell no!

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:

  1. Stop blowing out candles
  2. Start blocking the air only sometimes

Stop blowing out candles

Light a candle, put it in front of you and say típico (typical). If it blew out, you’re probably saying it like this:

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Notice the difference between that and the non-candle-blowing version:

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Phonology übernerds call the sounds in the first version aspirated consonants, but we can call them candle-blowing sounds.

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?

—¡Mierda, O’Brien! El jodido Complejo Industrial-Educativo nos ha estado mintiendo durante años.
“Shit, O’Brien! The damn Educational-Industrial Complex has been lying (to us) (for) years”

—¿Pero qué diablos estás diciendo, McPherson?
“(But) what the devils are you saying, McPherson?”

—¡Lo que oyes! El sheriff acaba de decirme que las consonantes oclusivas sordas en español nunca son aspiradas.
“What you hear! The sheriff just told me that (the) voiceless occlusive consonants in Spanish never are aspirated”

—Malditos cabrones. Ya decía yo que la forma en la que articulábamos los fonemas era un poco rara.
“Damn bastards. (I’ve always thought) that the way we articulated phonemes was a bit weird”

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.

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 standard, Spain or scandal.

Mentally adding that little s at the beginning of the syllable is all you need to Hispanify the pronunciation.

Make this your daily practice and your Spanishness will level up quickly.

Start blocking the air only sometimes

I’m going to make two predictions:

  1. 90% of the sounds you have ever heard coming out of the mouth of a Spanish native contained an approximant.
  2. You have no idea what an approximant is.

Don’t feel bad if the second one is true; neither do Spanish people:

—Papá, ¿qué es un aproximante?
“Dad, what is an approximant?”

—Verás, hijo, un aproximante es… Digamos que es como… Mira, mejor pregúntale a tu madre, que ella es de Letras.
“(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)”

The fancy-pants definition of an approximant was invented by a smart linguist dude in the 60s, but we can get by just fine with the NachoTime gym-pants definition.

An approximant is the sound you make when instead of completely blocking the air coming out of your mouth, you only kind of block it.

I can already hear the phonologists preparing their pitchforks.

For example, to pronounce baby in English, you have to completely block the airflow for a few milliseconds to sound out the first b, and once again when you hit the second b.

Doing the same in Spanish will make you sound very non-native:

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The trick to sounding Spanish is to not block the airflow all the way when you’re in the middle of a word:

bebé
The first b is normal, the second b is an approximant

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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 el + bebé (the baby) is pronounced as a single word, elbebé, with two approximant /b/ sounds:

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There are only four sounds in Spanish with approximant counterparts. Let’s hear them in a dialogue:

Ya (normal /ʝ/) no llueve (approximant /ʝ/).
Now it doesn’t rain”

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Vale (normal /b/), pues me voy (approximant /b/).
“Ok, then I’ll go”

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Gracias (normal /g/) por el regalo (approximant /g/), Guillermo (approximant /g/).
“Thanks for the gift, Guillermo”

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De (normal /d/) nada (approximant /d/), Andrés (normal /d/).
“You’re welcome, Andrés”

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Things to notice:

  • The normal Spanish /ʝ/ sound is just like the English /ʝ/ sound in jump. In writing, this can correspond to either a y or a ll.
  • The /ʝ/ approximant is the only optional approximant (the other 3 are mandatory). If you didn’t want to emphasize ya (now), you could also say ya (approximant /ʝ/) instead of ya (normal /ʝ/). Your choice.
  • We don’t have a /v/ sound in Spanish. We pronounce our v‘s exactly like our b‘s. Weird, I know.
  • Voy would be pronounced voy (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: mevoy (approximant /b/).
  • In writing, the /g/ sound corresponds to ga, go, gu or gue, gui. Remember that ge and gi are always pronounced as if you had a fish bone stuck in your throat (at least in Spain).
  • In case you’re wondering why we say Andrés (normal /d/) instead of Andrés (approximant /d/): having an m or an n 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).

Time to wrap this baby up.

Spanish takeaways

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.

Once you manage to remove these barnacles from the hull of your pronunciation ship, you’ll be racing to Spanish waters at top speed.

Fall in love with deliberate practice: listen, notice, imitate, fix, repeat and level up.

Question the defaults. Are my o‘s too open? Do my d‘s sound more like r‘s? Are my h‘s silent?

Head over to the excellent forvo.com anytime you need a Spanish pronunciation fix.

Encourage natives to throw politeness to the wind and relentlessly correct you. Never let ego get in the way of a good education.

Practice difficult sounds out loud 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.

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