Posted by: janecronin | October 30, 2016

Writing “how it sounds”

I made a decision quite a long time ago about how to deal with the pronunciation of written Spanish.  Before explaining my decision, let’s look first at the most usual method employed by some writers.  No doubt you have in your possession a Spanish phrase book which writes the “phonetic pronunciation” of words and expressions.  Here are some typical examples:  “Quiero café con leche”  “Key-air-o, kafay con lechay”.   “¿Dónde está la estación?”  “Donday estah la esta-thee-on?”  Now, if I were travelling to a country where I didn´t speak the language and just needed a few basic phrases to get by for a week’s holiday, then I would definitely use this kind of phrase book.  However, if I decided to stay in that country for any length of time, I would dispense with it as soon as possible, and find out how the language is actually pronounced.

The problem with this so-called phonetic spelling is that all it ever does is give you the nearest English equivalent of a sound and the fact of the matter is that English sounds and Spanish sounds have important differences.  For example, in many English accents we use a lot of diphthongs, that is double vowel sounds, whereas in Spanish each vowel represents a single sound.  Therefore, if you say “kafay con lechay” the Spanish are actually hearing “cafei con lechei”.  Obviously if you’re sitting in a bar when you say it you will undoubtedly be understood, but if you continue to use those sounds as you progress with the language, you are giving yourself a huge handicap as the Spanish will struggle to understand you.

Let’s look at the “phonetic” spelling of “está” where the emphasis expressed by the accent on the “á” is replaced by an “h” – “estah”.  Most English speakers will read that as a lengthened “a” sound, in other words we would make it rhyme with “bar”.  In Spanish this lengthened “a” sound doesn´t exist at all.  There is only a single short “a” sound, so the correct pronunciation is much more clipped that the way a phrase book could possibly indicate.  Again, if you’re on your holidays and looking for a station, some pitying soul is bound to help you, but this pronunciation is absolutely no basis for further learning and communication.

So, with this in mind, what was the decision I made about explaining pronunciation when writing about Spanish?  Well, I have written a lot of articles specifically explaining the structure of Spanish pronunciation, including my e-book A to Z of Spanish.  I have also made some videos about Spanish pronunciation which are free to view on my website  All my on-line course material includes audio files and in addition I do my best to explain particular features of pronunciation when the subject arises.   That might not give immediately gratification to my readers, but at least I can sleep at night knowing I haven´t made a travesty of Spanish language!


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