Pronunciation problems for Spanish learners of English

Pronunciation problems for Spanish learners of English


One of the major problems that Spanish learners of English face is related to their pronunciation skills. As the two languages have quite a lot of differences in terms of phonetics and phonology, they find it very difficult to utter specific sounds which don‟t exist in their Phonetic alphabet. Moreover, this problem is strongly associated with the concentration of the EFL learners more on reading and grammar than speaking and listening. In other words, they tend to learn more about the language and how the language is structured than to learn the language itself.

Another significant factor that hampers the improvement of their pronunciation skills is their limited exposure to the language. Throughout my internship in Seville, I have observed that the only way to listen to English is through internet. It was quite interesting to notice that the majority of the English TV series or films were dubbed into Spanish instead of subtitled. As a consequence, Spanish people are not used to listening to the English language, hence they are not exposed to the correct pronunciation of the words.

This reflective diary will focus mainly on the various pronunciation problems that Spanish speaking learners of English have. To be more concise, I will mention the difficulties they have in pronouncing certain vowels and consonants.

Vowel Pronunciation Problems

One of the most important differences between Spanish and English is that the former has only five vowel sounds whereas the latter has more than fourteen. This is the reason for one of the biggest pronunciation problems that Spanish speaking learners confront, which is the fact that, unlike English, there is no distinction between long and short vowels in their language. Therefore, they tend to confuse words such as “ship” and “sheep” or “bit” and “beat”.

Additionally, they find it really difficult to utter certain diphthongs such as /əʊ/ in “boat”, /eɪ/ in “great” and /aɪ/ in “right”. Throughout my teaching experience, I have observed that my students tend to pronounce these words in the exact way they are written, since they are used to uttering exactly what they read. Moreover, it is impossible for them to pronounce correctly the words that carry the vowel sound [æ] such as “cat”, “fat” or “apple”. As this sound doesn’t exist in the Spanish phonological system, the students tend to substitute it with [ɛ] or [a]. Likewise, the absence of the schwa [ə] in the Spanish IPA creates confusion to the Spanish speaking learners of English, who substitute the sound with another letter based on the spelling of the word. As I have already mentioned, Spanish letters are written as pronounced.

However, the schwa sound is the most common English vowel: [ə]

As a consequence, the mispronunciation of the specific sound causes miscomprehension. One of the most common mistakes my students make is the pronunciation of the word “comfortable” /kʌmfətəbl/. The written form of this word is exactly the same in Spanish, but the spoken form differs significantly. Therefore, my students usually substitute the two schwas with the Spanish sounds of the letter they read, i.e. [ɒ] and [a].

Consonant pronunciation problems

As far as consonant sounds are concerned, the EFL learners encounter a great amount of problems. A well-known pronunciation problem, which even the highest-level students find it hard to deal with, is the fact that Spanish has no word-initial consonant clusters such as /sl-,sm-, sn-, st-, sp-, sk-/. Therefore, Spanish words similar to English ones which start with /s/ usually have an initial /es/ sound instead (school/escuela). It is a common mistake for the Spanish students to say that they are from “Espain” instead of “Spain”.
The pronunciation of the English letter /r/ is another major issue for the Spanish EFL learners. The basic difference between the Spanish and the English sound of the letter
is that the former can be either an alveolar tap. In other words, the English [ɹ] is softer and weaker than the Spanish one. According to my observations, this makes the students either confuse it with the sound [w] or substitute the postalveolar approximant [ɹ] with the much easier for them alveolar tap.

Moreover, as the letter /h/ is not pronounced in Spanish, the students have the tendency not to pronounce the voiceless consonant in words such as “hat” or “hate”, hence uttering the words “at” and “ate”. The majority of my students were helped when I referred to the similar sound of the Spanish letter /j/ (jota) in order for them to pronounce the words correctly.

The sound of the consonant blend /th/ is quite confusing for the Spanish speaking learners of English. As it can be either a voiced dental fricative [ð] or a voiceless dental fricative [θ], the students don‟t usually know which sound to use in order to utter the word. One of the most common mistakes that my students do is to confuse the words “though” /ðəʊ/ and “thought” /θɔːt/. As I have also observed, low-level students are inclined to confuse the sound [θ] with the sound [s]. For instance, instead of “thing” /θɪŋ/ they say “sing” /sɪŋ/. This phenomenon, which I find quite difficult to explain, may cause total lack of comprehension.

Miscomprehension can also be caused by the students’ tendency to confuse the consonant blends /ch/ and /sh/. As the latter doesn’t exist in the Spanish phonetic alphabet, a “ship” can be called “cheap”. This can be even more complicated with words such as “champagne”, where /ch/ is actually pronounced as /sh/ [ʃ].

All things considered, these are just a few of the pronunciation problems that Spanish
people have when they speak English. Throughout my 3-month teaching experience I came to the conclusion that teaching pronunciation to Spanish EFL learners should be prioritised and considered as significant as teaching vocabulary and grammar. It is doubtless that the mispronunciation of a word can affect the stress of it as well as the intonation of the whole sentence. This can result in a failure to convey the message and can cause troubles in communication. Therefore, Spanish students need to be exposed to the language by listening to native speakers in order to assimilate the
correct pronunciation and thus hold efficient conversations.

Furthermore, I have noted various consonant cluster simplifications and elisions by my Spanish students. The most important is the reduction of the initial /ex-/ into /es-/ through omitting the sound [k] from the consonant cluster /ks/. Thus, words such as “expression” or “exquisite” are pronounced as „espression‟ and “esquisite”. This can be explained by the fact that this phonological process occurs in the Spanish language as well, as words such as “Extremadura” are pronounced as “Estremadura”.

Spanish learners find it extremely difficult to utter a word that contains the voiced To be more concise, the students replace the English sound with the Spanish [j] which is represented by the letters /y/ or /ll/. In
fact, the majority of the students fail to pronounce the sound correctly even if I repeat it a lot of times. The main reason of this problem is that this sound does not exist in the Spanish language.

Last but not least, Spanish speaking students, more specifically Andalusian students, have the tendency not to pronounce the final /s/ of a word. Some examples are the final /s/ in the third singular person (e.g. he plays) and in plural (e.g. boys). In both cases, an Andalusian student does not pronounce the final sound. The explanation of this pronunciation problem lies in the Andalusian phonological features. 

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