Mexican Spanish Pronunciation Guide
©2005 David W. Bodwell, reproduced here with permission


Spanish is a nearly perfectly phonetic language, i.e., each letter is always pronounced exactly the same.  This makes it a very easy language to learn to pronounce properly, if you learn the rules.  Here is a guide to help you.  This guide to Mexican Spanish pronunciation is based on common western U.S. (west of Ohio) and western Canadian English pronunciation:

a  as in father

e  like the ay in bay

i  as in machine

o  as in cold

u  like the oo in food

b  as in boy (see also, v)

c  before e or i, the same as s, otherwise, like the c in care

ch  as in church, although the initial "t" sound is more emphasized

d  as in dog when an initial letter of a word or syllable or after n or l, 
    otherwise, like a soft, almost th as in the comically lisped thithy (sissy), 
    but an ordinary d sound will be understood if you find this difficult.*see notes for perfectionists

f  as in fair, never soft, as in effusive

g  before e or i, like the h in hair, otherwise like the g in game 
    **gue  like the word gay
    **gui  like the word ghee, the clarified butter used in India
    **güe  like goo-ay
    **güi  like the word gooey (goo-ee)

h  always silent

j  like the h in hair

k  like the c in care

l  like the l in like

ll  like the heavily stressed y in YES!, as when your team scores.  Often, in México, it's pronounced
    like the j in jelly.

m  as in man

n  as in name
ñ  like the ny in canyon

p  as in pan

q  always followed by ue or ui, the u is silent
    **qui  like the word key
    **que as in the word okay

r  lightly trilled at the start of a word or syllable; otherwise like the soft d in medicine in casual
   central/western U.S. speech.  ***see notes for perfectionists

rr  strongly trilled, no real English equivalent

s  as in sun

t  as in top

v  the same as b

w  as in wander

x  as in exit except in words borrowed from the various Mexican Indian  languages, 
    e.g., Xalapa = hah LAH pah and México, MAY hee ko, where it is the same as the h in hair.

y  before a vowel, see ll, otherwise the same as i  

z  like the s in sun

The following are the common Spanish diphthongs,  really pseudo-diphthongs, as both letters are pronounced, one slightly weaker than the other (usually the i or the u).  The two letters are pronounced so close together (almost slurred) that it is very hard for an English speaker to hear them as separate.  When first learning Spanish words, you should make the effort to pronounce both letters, even though that is not truly correct, otherwise some bad mispronunciations could cause you to be misunderstood.  

ai  like ah-ee 

au  like ah-oo 

ei  like ay-ee 

ia  like ee-ah 

ie  like ee-ay  

oi  like oh-ee  except for English loan words such as boiler where it is pronounced like the oy in boy, 
     boiler  BOY layr (a water heater)

oa  like oh-ah, sometimes slurred as  wah, 
      but the Mexican city of Oaxaca is correctly pronounced as  wah HAH kah

ua  like oo-ah, but commonly slurred as  wah

ue or üe  like oo-ay 

ue  after g or q  the u is silent, not a pseudo-diphthong

ui or üi  like oo-ay  

ui  after g or q  the u is silent, not a pseudo-diphthong

uo  like oo-oh 

If the vowel combination has an accent mark over either letter, this "splits" the combination and they are pronounced totally separately.  Unfortunately, in México the common suffix -ria that should almost always have the accent mark, -ría, but rarely has it, so be careful.  It's pronounced  RREE ah, most of the time.

Pseudo-diphthong examples:  six = seis  =  say-ees  not says
combpeine  =  PAY-ee nay  not  PAY nay
                                dancebaile  =  BAH-ee lay  not  BUY lay

Stress: The stress in most words depends on the last letter of the word: If it's a vowel (a e i o u) or n or s, the stress is on the next-to-last syllable, e.g., tácos, señóra (accent marks for this guide only), otherwise it's on the last syllable, e.g., señór, nacionál, comér (accent marks for this guide only).  Only words that don't follow these rules are written with an accent mark to let you know which is the stressed syllable.

Note:  In México, when a word is written in all capital letters, the accent marks are NOT used, so it's easy to make pronunciation errors.  Be aware.

Note:  Some written single syllable words have an accent mark that has nothing to do with pronunciation, they are only there to differentiate the word from one with the identical spelling but a different meaning, e.g., sí = yes, si -=if.  Sometimes the accent mark is used to "split" a vowel combination (so it's not a pseudo-diphthong) such as ía or úo, which puts the stress on the syllable ending with the accented letter.

Some last notes for perfectionists:

Some consonants, particularly p and t, are pronounced in English with a plosive, i.e., a sort of puff of air that lays a little extra stress on the letter.  Spanish pronunciation, while nearly identical with the English, never does this.

Spoken Spanish is often not enunciated as separate words, but until you are very fluent, continue to enunciate the separate words, as you would in English.  This merely sounds somewhat theatrical to those listening, it won't be misunderstood.

One of the reasons English speakers hear Spanish as "very fast" is that spoken Spanish gives only approximately 1/2 the time to a vowel that spoken English does.  Spanish speakers will hear the person learning Spanish pronounce words as if they are heavily "drawled".  English speakers will hear the native Spanish speaker sound as if he is "clipping" his vowels.  You will be understood by the native Spanish speaker, but it may be difficult for you to understand the native Spanish speaker.  Good examples are the words yes and no = sí and no.  You and I, English speakers, will usually say these as the English words see (sseee) and no (nnooo), the Spanish speaker will say them as see (se) and no (no), exactly the same sound, but so "clipped" and so abrupt that it sounds rude to an English speaker.

When using the transliterated phonetic versions of the Spanish words, you need to practice saying them until you can say them all run-together, otherwise your pronunciation will be considered a little "odd", not necessarily wrong, but definitely odd.

*The soft Spanish d.  This is tough.  It's really not pronounced like the soft d in medicine, as that will be misunderstood by Spanish speakers as a soft r.  It's actually sort of a cross between a soft English d and a th.  Probably the best example is a deliberately lisped s (in a comical manner).  This is not the famous Spanish lisp, but an English s, deliberately lisped for comical reasons as in thithy (sissy).  The word for pig = cerdo, is pronounced SAYR thoh with this sort of not-quite-th sound.

**The ue and ui after g and q are not pseudo-diphthongs, as the u is totally silent.  In the case of the g it is used to indicate that a g before e or i is pronounced as a hard g instead of the normal h.  The üe and the üi after g are normal pseudo-diphthongs.  They just have the dieresis (those two little dots) so you will know that they are not silent.  I haven't discovered why the u is after the q in the que and qui sounds.  Probably some lost historical reason.  Latin?

***The soft Spanish r.  This is real tough.  The word for newspaper = periodico, will be heard by most English speakers as pediodico.  But the English word medicine, when spoken casually (the tip of the tongue lazily resting against lower teeth) by a central/western U.S. English speaker, will be heard by most Spanish speakers as mericine, so the best way to describe the pronunciation is like the soft d in medicine, in my opinion.


David W. Bodwell
August, 2005
Mazatlán, Sinaloa, México

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