The most widely spoken language in Spain is Castilian and this is the language which is usually referred to as "Spanish". There are, however, wide-ranging regional differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. It was exported from Spain into much of Latin America, making the Spanish language one of the top three languages in the world in terms of native speakers - the others being Mandarin Chinese and English.
Special linguistic features regarding learning/teaching English
Spanish has five vowel letters and five vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, u. I and u can be semivowels, as in reina/rey, pie, deuda and agua. Unlike Spanish however, English – depending on regional variations in accents – has up to twenty vowel sounds as is the case of Received Pronunciation (standard British English).
Spanish has nineteen consonant sounds (b/v, c/q/k, ch, d, f, g, j, l, ll, m, n, ñ, p, r, rr, s, t, y, z/c). Ll-y and s-z/c are merged in most dialects, which means most Spanish speakers have only seventeen consonants.
Spanish has many allophones. This means that they are capable of pronouncing IPA phoneme /ð/ (as in nada) but they hear it as IPA phoneme /d/. The also have IPA phoneme /ŋ/ (as in cinco) which is heard as IPA phoneme /n/. In some dialects they have IPA phoneme /z/ (as in mismo) which is heard as IPA phoneme /s/.
Spanish has a phonemic spelling. Children learn to read and write with rules such as “La eme con la a es ma”. This means that for them it is very difficult to learn that love, move and drove don't rhyme or that guerrilla and gorilla are homophones.
- a is similar to /ʌ/, /æ/ and /ɑː/. Many students confuse these three sounds.
- e is similar to /e/ (which should be written /ɛ/), and almost identical to the beginning of /eɪ/ in an American accent, or in Received Pronunciation. There is little possibility of confusion, because /ɛ/ is a monophthong and /eɪ/ is a diphthong.
- i is very similar but shorter than /iː/; Spanish speakers hardly hear the difference between /iː/ and /ɪ/.
- o is similar to /ɒ/ or /ɔː/. Americans find it is similar to the beginning of /əʊ/, which Americans often write as /oʊ/. Spanish Speakers have a hard time pronouncing differently /ɒ/ and /ɔː/.
- u is very similar but shorter than /uː/; Spanish speakers hardly hear the difference between /uː/ and /ʊ/.
Comparison of English and Spanish vowels
- /æ/ and /ɑː/ are similar to Spanish "a", and often confused.
- /e/ (actually [ɛ]) is of different quality than Spanish "e". Spanish "e" is heard by English speakers as /eɪ/.
- /eɪ/ is similar to "ei", but only in Received Pronunciation or General American. In Estuary English /eɪ/ is heard as Spanish "ai".
- /ɜː/ is very different from any Spanish vowel. It is often pronounced as Spanish "e".
- /iː/ is longer than Spanish "i".
- /ɪ/ is shorter and of a different quality than Spanish "i".
- /ɪə/ sometimes is realized as "íe" or "ía".
- /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ are similar to Spanish "o" and often confused. Many Americans merge these two vowels as /ɑː/.
- /uː/ is longer than Spanish "u".
- /ʊ/ is shorter and of a different quality than Spanish "u".
- /ʊə/ is replaced by "úa" or "úe".
- /ə/. Many Spanish speakers replace this vowel by any of its full counterparts. For example, "ago" pronounced [aˈgəʊ] or "problem" pronounced [ˈpɾɒblem].
- /ɔɪ/. Very similar to Spanish "oi".
- /əʊ/. American /əʊ/ is similar to Spanish "ou". British /əʊ/ is similar to Spanish "eu".
- /ʌ/ is between Spanish "a" and "o". In North America it is pronounced as "o" in loanwords (jonrón as an adaptation of "home run"). In South America and Spain it is pronounced as "a" ("bloody Mary" pronounced [ˌbladi ˈmeɾi]). See IPA phoneme /ʌ/#Spanish.
- /eə/ is similar to Spanish "ea".
- /aɪ/ is almost identical to Spanish "ai" (but not in Estuary English).
- /aʊ/ is almost identical to Spanish "au".
The following English sounds are difficult for Spanish speakers.
- IPA phoneme /dʒ/. Confused with /ʒ/ and /j/.
- IPA phoneme /ð/. In Spanish it is normally spelled "d" (as in lado), and it is always between two vowels.
- IPA phoneme /j/. Instead of pronouncing "yellow" like hierve [ˈjeɾβe] many people pronounce it like yeso [ˈʝeso].
- IPA phoneme /ŋ/. In Spanish it is normally spelled "n" (as in cinco) and it is always followed by [k], [g] or [x].
- IPA phoneme /ʃ/. Confused with /tʃ/.
- IPA phoneme /θ/. In most of European Spain it is a normal phoneme, and elesewhere it is confused with /s/.
- IPA phoneme /v/. Confused with /b/.
- IPA phoneme /z/. Confused with /s/.
- IPA phoneme /ʒ/. Confused with /ʃ/ and /dʒ/.
There are a vast number of false friends in the Spanish language. Some of the more typical ones include constipated vs constipado; actual vs actual and an embarrassed is avergonzado or avergonzada, not embarazada!