The Spanish language is one of the hardest to master, grammatically speaking. In terms of pronunciation, this difficulty lessens somewhat, albeit it still presents its own set of challenges. Voice actors who wish to emulate this accent would benefit from learning about some of those intricacies.
Spanish is the second-most spoken native language worldwide, just below Mandarin Chinese. However, for the purposes of this guide, we will only focus on the European version of the language, namely, the one used in Spain (comprising the Iberian Peninsula and its islands.)
Before moving forward, it’s important to note that, much like in most countries, there is not one Spanish accent but many, even within the Peninsula (not counting the different regional dialects). We might not be capable of covering all of them, so we’ll focus mostly on the Castillian accent, which forms the basis of modern standard Spanish. Nevertheless, we can hand out some tips for people who wish to learn Spanish accent variants.
The vowels in Spanish are the same as those in English – a, e, i, o, and u – but the biggest distinctions lie in the vowel sounds.
The vowel system in English is quite complex, encompassing a total of 20 vowel sounds. Moreover, while there are some general rules on how these vowel sounds work, the exceptions list is still fairly large. Even native speakers sometimes engage in debates regarding how certain words are to be pronounced.
Spanish is immune to these hurdles, for the vowel sounds match exactly the number of vowels, meaning that each vowel has a corresponding phoneme assigned. Thus:
“a” = /a/
“b” = /b/
“c” = /c/
“d” = /d/
“e” = /e/
Note: “y” is not deemed a vowel in Spanish, nor does it have a vowel sound.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no variation in the way these vowels are pronounced. They will be read the exact same way regardless of the context or position.
For the record, Spanish vowels are much shorter than their English counterparts. Hence, “a” would be “aye” in English, whereas, in Spanish, it’d be “ah.”
Consonant sounds in Spanish are also quite regular and streamlined, meaning that you can already tell how a word is pronounced by only looking at how it’s written.
In Spanish, each consonant has one specific sound attached to it, with some notable exceptions. Let’s go into some particularities:
1. The pronunciation of the letter “r” varies depending on the location of the syllable within the word. Here’s how it works:
a) When it appears at the beginning of a word or as a double “r” (“rr”), it is rendered with a trilling (rolling) effect. Some would call this the “strong R” (symbolized as ⟨r⟩)
- Cigarrillo: Ciga⟨r⟩illo (cigarrette)
- Ratón: ⟨r⟩atón (mouse)
- Cera: Ce⟨?⟩a (wax)
b) In all other circumstances, it sounds similar to how Americans would pronounce the “t” in certain words such as “better” or “matter,” namely, with an alveolar flap effect (represented by the ⟨?⟩ symbol).
- Cara: Ca⟨?⟩a
- Pera: Pe⟨?⟩a
- Camarón: Cama⟨?⟩ón (shrimp)
2. In the case of the “c,” similar to what happens in English, the accompanying letter determines how we should read it. It is pronounced as either “th” (not “s” like in Latin American Spanish) or “k,” depending on the letter next to it. If it’s an “e” or an “i,” the sound would be “th” (styled as a “lisp”), whereas in every other case, “k” would be employed.
Some examples include:
- Gracias: Grathias (thanks)
- Carta: Karta (letter)
- Princesa: Printhesa (princess)
Spanish English Accent
Now that we’ve covered some of the quirks present in the Spanish language, it’s time to work towards shaping our “Spanish English Accent.”
In order to sound like a Spaniard trying to speak English, these are some of the common “errors” that you may take advantage of.
1. Trim down the consonant sounds at the end
Spaniards trying to speak English will undoubtedly struggle to pronounce more than one consonant sound at the end of a word. We could think of words such as “worked,” “marked,” or “conduct.” In all those scenarios, we use two unvoiced plosives together, which is something unheard of in Spanish.
For example, a Spaniard would probably pronounce these words as follows:
- Worked: War
- Mind: Mine
- World: War
Sometimes, one of the accompanying consonant sounds would be highlighted, and if there is a written vowel, they might emphasize it too. Hence:
- Worked: Work or Work-ed
- World: Wo⟨?⟩l or Wo⟨?⟩eld
- Marks: “Mars” or “Mark”
2. Change the “m” sound to “n”
Spaniards are not accustomed to words that end with an “m” sound, so they usually exchange it with “n.”
- Tame: Tane
- Lame: Lane
- Prom: Pron
3. Don’t use the dark “l” sound (/ul/)
Words like “little” or “mantle” end with a dark “ul” sound. In those instances, Spaniards normally refrain from using the “ul,” opting instead for either a “leh” or an “eh-l” sound (using light “l”). Let’s illustrate with some examples:
- Little: Litt-leh or litteh-l
- Bottle: Bott-leh or botteh-l
- Fiddle: Fidd-leh or fiddeh-l
In words that end with “l” – such as real or ball – a light “t” is ultimately used instead of its dark counterpart. Case in point:
- Fall: Fa/l/
- Spell: Spe/l/
- Sail: Sai/l/
Catalonians might be an exception to this, for they utilize something similar to a dark “l” in their language.
4. “S” is a subtle “sh”
European Spanish speakers have a fairly strong accent with emphasis on the “s” sound, to the point where it has a “shush” effect (this is regularly found in the Northern and Central parts of Spain, as well as in some South American countries like Colombia).
- Best: Besht
- Siren: Shy-ren
- Cursing: Curshing
Andalusians and Canarias use the softer “s” sound similar to that found in most Latin American variants. Moreover, some Andalusians (such as Sevillians) are wont to mix up “s” and “th” in their common parlance.
Keep in mind that the vocalized “z” sound present in English is also absent in the European Spanish accent.
5. Open up your vowels
The Spanish language is devoid of nasalized, open mid, or near open vowel sounds such as /æ/, /ʌ/, or /ʊ/. Hence, Spaniards are prone to substituting these vowels for the ones they know.
- Fat: Faht
- Cut: Coht or Coot
- Open: Ohpen
5. The Spanish use of the “th” sound
Spaniards use the “th” consonant sound for “c” and “z.” This is a starkly different use case from the English one. Conversely, in the place of written “th,” Spaniards use the same “d” sound as in “disco” or “day.” Below are some examples:
- This: Dis
- Bother: Boder
- Father: Fader
6. Remove the “puff of air”
The majority of English speakers release a “puff of air” after certain consonants and plosive stops. This effect is present in consonants like “t” or “p.” In European Spanish, this “puff of air” is absent.
However, this is not true in every regional variant. Some Andaluseans insert this vocal effect in their consonants, though this is an exception rather than the general rule.