In the second class of our Absolute Beginner Spanish course we are going to learn how to read Spanish. In other words: we are going to learn the basic correspondence between letters, spelling, and sounds.
You will see that, at first, it is quite easy, as the Spanish spelling system is quite consistent. Most letters match with one sound, and most sounds match with one letter.
Spanish letters, and how they sound
The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters, plus some other combinations of letters required to represent some sounds.
Spanish has only 5 vowels: a, e, i, o, u. As simple (or not!) as that. They always sound the same.
Now let’s go with consonants. Most of them are quite similar to their English counterparts, so it is going to be easy.
- b represents /b/, as in banana
- c represents /k/ in the sequences ca, co, cu, and /θ ~ s/ in the sequences ce, ci (see q above for the sequences /ke/ and /ke/), as in caro, coche, cuchillo, cepillo, circo
- d represents /d/, as in dedo
- f represents /f/, as in farmacia
- g represents /g/ in the sequences ga, go, gu, and /x ~ h/ in the sequences ge, gi (see gu above for the sequences /ge/ and /gi/), as in gato, gobierno, gula, genio, girar
- h is always* a silent letter in Spanish, as in English heir or honor
- j represents /x ~ h/, as in jefe
- k represents /k/ (but is rarely used), as in kilómetro
- l represents /l/, as in leche
- m represents /m/, as in mano
- n represents /n/, as in naranja
- ñ represents /ɲ/, as in España
- p represents /p/, as in pañuelo
- q represents /k/, only in the sequences que, qui (u is silent), as in querer, quinoa
- r represents /ɾ/, or /r/ at the beginning of a word, as in pero, ropa
- s represents /s/, as in salsa
- t represents /t/, as in tener
- v represents /b/ (for real), as in vaca
- w represents /w/ (or /b/ in some words), but is rarely used
- x represents /(k)s/, as in examen
- y represents /ʝ/ or /i/ when it means ‘and’ or at the end of a word, as in yo, y, rey
- z represents /θ ~ s/, as in zapato
We are missing a few combinations of letters necessary to represent all the Spanish sounds:
- ch represents /tʃ/, as in chorizo
- ll represents /ʝ/ (or /ʎ/ in some speakers), as in llover
- rr represents /r/, as in perro
- qu represents /k/ (only used in the sequences que and qui; silent u), as in querer, quinoa
- gu represents /g/ (only used in the sequences gue and gui; silent u), as in guerra, guitarra
- gü represents /gu̯/ (only used in the sequences güe and güi; u is pronounced), as in vergüenza, pingüino
Common reading mistakes
You are just starting out, but you would be surprised by the amount of intermediate and even advanced students who keep making these basic reading mistakes.
Remember: ca, que, qui, co, cu; za, ce, ci, zo, zu; ga, gue, gui, go, gu; gua, güe, güi, guo.
Never pronounce the letter h (unless it’s combined in ch).
Never ever pronounce v as [v]. Believe me: Spanish does not have the phoneme /v/!
Spanish doesn’t have the phoneme /z/ either! Most Spaniards pronounce the letter z just as the English th in think (/θ/), but /s/ is also perfectly fine.
I know it is hard, but do try to distinguish between /ɾ/ and /r/: there’s a difference between pero and perro.
Also hard, but try to minimize the aspiration in stressed /p/, /t/, /k/: Paco, patata, coche…
Also, remember that the Spanish pure vowels are always simple vowels: there are no diphthongs in que or Rodrigo.
Of course, all this needs to be elaborated upon (there are specific pronunciation courses, and they take hours!), but for now it is more than enough.