Spanish Accent

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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby Iversen » Mon Aug 08, 2022 8:21 pm

We're really speaking about the difference between phonemes and phones (or rather the bundles of allophones that correspond to a certain phoneme). Phonemes are actually constructs based on the interplay between the actual sound (phones) and meaning - if you have two words (or phrases) that only differ on one point, but mean different things then the sounds at that point are said to represent different phonemes. And thanks to this simplification we end up with somethings that function as some kind of sound alphabet for a language. And as long as we keep the phonemens separate we can in principle pronounce them in a wide variety of ways. Of course native speakers don't do this, but learners are supposed to pick up the sound variants (allophones) that the native speakers use - and the problem is that they don't always agree.

As for the "bob" thing the two b's are definitely not pronounced the same way: a final voiced plosive (or occlusive) like b or d or g wil tend to be devocalized, i.e. it will move in the direction of the corresponding voiceless plosives like p t and k. In other words we could just as well write "Bob" as "Bop" - the difference has been almost neutralized (and totally neuitralized with some speakers) . But the difference in sound+meaning is still there in "Bob" (or "Bop") versus "Pop" so we keep b and p as distinct phonemes in the phonemic repertoire for the English language.

As for Spanish is seems that the rule not only in Latin America, but also in Andalucia (where most of the conquistadores came from) is that the phonemic opposition between c/z and s has been neutralized everywhere, whereas it has been retained in all is might and glory in the rest of Spain. This is a more extreme situation than the one I mentioned for "bob", but it is also different in another way: there may be cases where a consonantal phonemic opposition in final position is neutralized in Spanish, but Spanish doesn't seem to be quite as intent on 'tightening up' as English - the Spanish consonants seem to be the result of a 'loosening up' where the mouth isn't closed totally, and this even seems to be carried to an even more sound - you can for example compare the d's in the town name "Valladolid": the last d is slackened so much that it can become almost silent.

And what do you do to overcome this real-world chaos in your language learning? Well, first and foremost you need to listen (and I shouldn't preach this since that is my own Achilles heel, but it is neverless a bloody good advice). And at least in the beginning it might be worth restricting your listening to the kind of Spanish you want to end up with (one more advice I haven't followed myself !). But there is one trick more you could use: as I have explained above the phonemes are really a construct that covers up a morass of allophones, which may seem to be stable in one person's speech, but differ from person to person - and sometimes also according to mood and context - and they are definitely not stable across different linguistic contexts. So you need to train your ability to hear what the natives ACTUALLY say, instead of just focusing on the phonematic reduction of it.

In practice this means that you should record short bits of speech and put them into some software where you with one keypress can repeat each passage again and again until you are sure that you have heard what precise sounds the speaker has used ('Audacity' is one possibility) - and try to notate the result in your own homebrewn sound alphabet if you don't want to spend time on learning the semi-official IPA system (I have never bothered to learn it). It's unlikely that you return from this exercise with a complete overview over the phonetics of Spanish, but you will learn to pass through the phonematic screen and hear the real sounds that lurk behind it. And with a bit of luck that should make it easier for you to profit from listening to native speech.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby Cenwalh » Mon Aug 08, 2022 9:17 pm

luke wrote: Is it harder to understand someone who mispronounces vowels, or someone who mispronounces consonants?

Back when I was much worse at Spanish than I am now, I was listening to an audiobook (which I believe was La última cripta by Fernando Gamboa) in which the characters attempt to make themselves incomprehensible to a non-native Spanish character in the book by each choosing a vowel, and speaking with words entirely using that vowel - that is to say replacing every vowel with one single one. Needless to say the narrator (who bless his heart probably didn't realise that he signed up to read that gibberish) managed to confuse two non-natives that day, the character in the book, and poor me trying to learn Spanish from it.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby SpanishInput » Tue Aug 09, 2022 1:25 am

I agree that those who have grinded through Pimsleur 1-3 are very easy to understand.

I also agree that vowels are one of the biggest contributors to a "gringo accent", because the vowel systems are just completely different. For example, there's never, ever, a reduction to schwa in Spanish. Also, Spanish vowels are pure, unmixed vowels, while in English most vowel phonemes are actually diphthongs (vowel + glide) masquerading as vowels. Yes, even the FLEECE and GOOSE vowels actually have ending glides in them and thus Dr. Geoff Lindsey classifies them as diphthongs.

I also agree that consonants also need to be mastered. For example, we don't have a /z/ phoneme, and it's typical of gringos to pronounce a /z/ when they shouldn't.

Another big contributor to the gringo accent is the plosives: /b p t d k g/. They're completely different in Spanish. In English you tell /b/ from /p/ mostly by the presence or not of aspiration after opening your mouth. In Spanish you tell them apart by how many milliseconds of voicing each one has before opening your mouth. In English the /b/ is always a plosive. In Spanish it's more often an approximant, not a plosive.

In standard Spanish there's no /v/ sound at all. Nowhere to be seen, except in the incredibly rare word "afgano", where it's an allophone of /f/.

Syllable structure is also completely different: In English you divide the word "general" like this: gen-er-al. In Spanish you divide it ge-ne-ral, because in Spanish the default syllable structure is CV.

Also, Spanish syllables don't change a lot in length. English syllables do change a lot in length, especially the stressed ones, which tend to be draaaaawwwwn out a lot. In Spanish we don't do that. Also, in English stressed syllables have a much higher tone than unstressed ones. Again, in Spanish the change is not that noticeable.

Spanish stressed syllables are much harder to identify (and imitate) correctly than English ones, because the relationship between stress, amplitude, length and tone is more complex than in English. For example, in Spanish sometimes the syllable with the highest tone is actually the one right after the stressed one... But the change in stress began in the stressed syllable, so it served as a pivotal point, a "hinge".

In general, in English when you want to highlight a word, you change the intonation. In Spanish, instead of doing that we're more likely to just change the whole sentence.

Just a few pointers. I hope this makes sense.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby leosmith » Tue Aug 09, 2022 7:01 am

SpanishInput wrote:Spanish stressed syllables are much harder to identify (and imitate) correctly than English ones, because the relationship between stress, amplitude, length and tone is more complex than in English.
From a reader's perspective, are they not just the penultimate syllables, unless there is an accent mark?
SpanishInput wrote:In general, in English when you want to highlight a word, you change the intonation. In Spanish, instead of doing that we're more likely to just change the whole sentence.
Can you give an example? I am mostly interested in whether you will say that your base sentence has no stressed word.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby luke » Tue Aug 09, 2022 11:30 am

leosmith wrote:
SpanishInput wrote:In general, in English when you want to highlight a word, you change the intonation. In Spanish, instead of doing that we're more likely to just change the whole sentence.
Can you give an example? I am mostly interested in whether you will say that your base sentence has no stressed word.

I'm not SpanishInput and I am looking forward to what he has to say, but here's some of what FSI Basic Spanish has to say in unit 46:
Whereas in English statements the subject normally precedes the verb, in Spanish both the order
subject-verb and verb-subject are common. This has sometimes led to the conclusion that Spanish word
order is relatively free. But actually, between such sentences as El caballo se cayó and Se cayó el
caballo
(when both are spoken with the normal intonation pattern /1211 l /, there is a difference, and it
is significant. This means that, in a given case, the speaker will usually use one order or the other
but not either indifferently. Since this is so, word order turns out to be, in a sense, part of the
grammar and must be understood and used correctly.


Spanish word order organizes the elements of a sentence (subject, verb, verb modifiers) so as
to show what part of the sentence is new information relative to other parts of the same sentence. New
information tends to come toward the end of a phrase. Thus the unemphatic sentence The ambassador spoke
may appear as either: El embajador habló or as Habló el embajador,
neither form containing a high pitch level of emphasis on the final syllable. But the two Spanish sentences
are different in what they imply and are not truly interchangeable. This is because Spanish begins
a sentence with what is felt to be known or taken for granted in the context, whether this is the subject
or the verb. This sets the scene or establishes the topic about which something will be specified. Thus,
in El embajador habló,
we begin by saying that we are going to talk about the ambassador, and then we specify what he did. In
Habló el embajador,
however, we begin by saying that someone spoke, and then we specify who it was. In the first sentence,
it would seem that the ambassador was already being talked about, whereas in the second some context
where speaking might be expected is suggested and then the narrowing, specifying information as to who
spoke is added.

There are several other units and sections where FSI Basic Spanish talks about word order and intonation and its impact on meaning.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Tue Aug 09, 2022 11:46 am

SpanishInput wrote:In general, in English when you want to highlight a word, you change the intonation. In Spanish, instead of doing that we're more likely to just change the whole sentence.


I remember a rather long sentence from my first term with Spanish (in the autumn of 1989!) - it was a descriptive text where someone had asked someone else a question, and this followed:
Ella dice que sí, pero primero tiene que preparar la comida para los niños.

OK, the basic rule said that we should stress the penultimate syllable for words ending in a vowel, -n or -s.* A robot, an early text-to-speech engine, or a student who didn't use their ears would follow this rule strictly. But on the tape (remember those?), the sentence had five stresses:
Ella dice que , pero primero tiene que preparar la comida para los niños.

So, it wasn't as simple as "no stress" / "just let the machine-gun run out of ammo", nor as complicated as the penultimate stress on every word.

* Later, I discovered that Michel Thomas chose to call this "the nose rule".
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby leosmith » Tue Aug 09, 2022 5:29 pm

luke wrote:There are several other units and sections where FSI Basic Spanish talks about word order and intonation and its impact on meaning.

I see - so the last word is stressed, just like Russian.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby SpanishInput » Thu Aug 11, 2022 1:17 am

Hi, everyone. I'm sorry, I should have clarified that all my comments were about spoken Spanish. When foreigners listen to spoken Spanish it can be hard to correctly identify where the stressed syllable is, because of the differences between stress in English and Spanish. Of course, when reading Spanish, identifying the stressed syllable even when there's no accent mark is dead easy if you know the rules, which are straightforward.

I didn't say that any base sentence doesn't have a stressed word. In Spanish, "sentences" do not always match "stress groups". A single sentence can contain several stress groups, and within each there's a stressed word and some unstressed words. Of course, at the sentence level we also have a "nuclear stress" or "acento nuclear" as professor Hualde calls it.

Regarding how in Spanish we prefer to change the sentence instead of changing the intonation of the same sentence when we want to highlight different parts of it, Professor Hualde gives the following examples:

In English, you can freely move the "nuclear stress" : John WILL bring the book / John will BRING the book / John will bring the BOOK.

In Spanish, according to prof. Hualde (and just as Luke pointed out), the nuclear stress is fixed in the last syllable with a lexical stress in the phrase. It's not normal in Spanish to change this. Possible, but not normal. So if we want to change the focus, we change the sentence: Traerá Juan el libro, El libro lo traerá Juan, Sí que traerá el libro Juan, etc.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby Cavesa » Thu Aug 11, 2022 8:03 am

miles wrote:The advice I have found is to work on the alphabet and vowel sounds and to record oneself any other ideas?! A good video of Latin American tongue twisters?


The most basic and also the easiest thing to do (from the practical point of view): repeat after audio. After your coursebook audio, after a native made beginner's podcast, later after a tv show, and so on. Especially the coursebooks should be introducing you to all the correct pronunciation gradually on purpose. Read their instructions, listen a lot, repeat as closely to the model as possible.


My aim is not to eliminate my accent.

My aim is to smooth it out so that all the words are clear and the drift of the sentences is not snagged on a thick accent. It has taken me close to a year of practicing rolling r’s almost every day to kind of be able to do it!

Your goal is a very good one and it can surely be achieved with practice.

leosmith wrote:
miles wrote:I am attempting to find a good system for help with my accent.

You did Pimsleur - did you not repeat each phrase while trying to imitate the pronunciation as closely as possible, per the instructions? Most Pimsleur finishers develop a good accent.


An excellent point. Just one thing: This can (and should) be done with any resource. Trying to mimic it as closely as possible helps a lot. With everything, including the intonation, and mood, and everything.

You probably already know how to pronounce all the individual sounds of the language, or phonemes, but if not, find a resource that teaches the alphabet, with audio, and make sure you master all of these before you do anything else. This step shouldn't take very long, especially since you said you can pronounce rr already.

One of the possible resources on this is the Fonetica series by Anaya, even though it might be too European. Various good quality coursebooks have solid introduction chapters on pronunciation. I wonder whether FSi couldn't serve, I really loved it for my German pronunciation.

Do not model your pronunciation after songs. Singing is useful, don't get me wrong, but singers often use non-standard pronunciation, so you shouldn't necessarily go around talking like someone sings.

Singing is an excellent exercise, but I'd say one of the best things about it almost never gets mentioned. It helps break the old habits. Yes, there is non standard pronunciation in songs. And it is true you shouldn't go around talking like a particular person sings. But adding singing to the normal exercises helps with learning to be more creative with sounds, exploring various ways to pronounce something, and getting "unused" to the old habits.


Finally, it is helpful to have native or advanced speakers of the language occasionally give you feedback, and let you know if there are any issues. Good luck!


This is something I would be careful about. Most natives praise too much, including most tutors unfortunately. Why:
1."criticism" isn't seen as something that would make you popular. Tutors are often far too much concerned about encouraging the learner at all costs
2.lack of skills in pronunciation feedback. In random natives, it is totally ok and to be expected. In tutors, it is very sad.
3.laziness.

I agree that high quality feedback on pronunciation is a an awesome thing. But you need to either look for an exceptional tutor, or you can try using the paid version of Speechling, where they really are after pronunciation feedback, not other things that tend to get all the attention away to something else instead. One of the free Speechling functions also shows the "melody" and lets you compare your recording to it, which really serves extremely well.

luke wrote:I once had a Spanish class where the teacher, a native speaker, taught us the vowels, AEIOU. Then he said, "Okay, that's it. Now you know Spanish." His point was that the vowels are the important part of the language.

It makes some sense. Verbs and adjectives are often correct or not, based on the vowel.

What do Spanish speakers think? Is it harder to understand someone who mispronounces vowels, or someone who mispronounces consonants?


While I agree that vowels are more important than consonants in at least the European languages (they really carry the sound and therefore shape the word more), I don't think the correct pronunciation of the consonants should be this much underestimated.

It really sounds more like the usual laziness or unhealthy not truthfull encouragement from this tutor, rather than the truth.

I am a bad Spanish speaker, but I understand well. Yes, the vowels matter more. In all my languages. But the consonants matter too and need to be learnt reasonably well.

Iversen wrote:I have to disagree with that teacher (native as he may be - or maybe precisely because of that). The difference between b or v in Spanish and in most other languages is worth learning properly, and those learners who don't have the c - z from the European kind of Spanish in their own language should also take pains to learn pronounce that sound - or switch to Latinamerican Spanish. Maybe the Spaniards can understand speakers who don't use the correct sounds, but then it can only be because those learners always are wrong in exactly the same way.


c/z, b/v, but also "ll" and others.

Please correct me, if I'm wrong, but I believe the LA variants of Spanish differ from the European standard (not mixing in the various dialects now) more in the consonants than in the vowels.

So, while vowels are extremely important for getting the overall Spanish pronunciation right, the consonants might actually be the key to getting closer to the desired Mexican pronunciation.
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Re: Spanish Accent

Postby sfuqua » Wed Aug 31, 2022 3:43 am

Languages vary a lot in the ways that meaning is encoded phonologically.

There is a language game that I have heard kids play in Samoan where they speak without consonants, just saying the vowels with correct timing. It is usually very comprehensible for Samoans.
There aren't many consonants in Samoan, and maybe they don't really even need the ones they have. :D

I think that each language I have learned has contributed to my foreign accent in the next language that I learned. I learned Samoan before Tagalog, so I attempted to force my Tagalog into the strict five vowel system that Samoan uses (Samoan is more complicated than that, but nobody is conscious of it). When I learned Spanish, I was greatly affected by Tagalog, especially since there are so many words that are the same. My Spanish has much more palatalization than is really should in many places, because of the way Tagalog works with these sounds. You know, the Tagalog word, tiyan is pronounced like chan in English. The front vowel makes big changes to the preceding consonant. The palatalization in Tagalog drove me crazy at first, because this process in minimized in Samoan. :o Cebuano, my wife's native language, doesn't do all the palatalization processes that Tagalog does, tiyan is pronounces tiyan in Cebuano.

I can hear my wife, a Tagalog speaker, palatializing the "t's" in her Spanish as learns it these days. Of course, different dialects of Spanish vary with when and how they do palatalization, but I am pretty sure that the Spanish my wife and I speak to each other doesn't really follow the system of any actual Spanish dialect. :lol:
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