A significant proportion of English language learners come from Spanish-speaking countries: they totalled approximately 10% of the total number of students at SGI last year, with the vast majority coming from Spain and Argentina.
Spanish is an official language in 21 countries and territories – which means there are at least as many varieties of Spanish out there – but some generalisations can be made as to the kind of difficulties native speakers of World Spanishes have with English pronunciation: The fairly straightforward relationship between sound and spelling in Spanish is in stark contrast to the countless irregularities found in English and while there is a great deal of overlap in the consonant inventory of both languages, the vowel system is more complex in English.
The inventories below come from the Speech Accent Archive – an excellent and comprehensive online resource:
Now let’s take a look at an authentic example of speech, once again from the Speech Accent Archive. Listen to the recording of a Colombian learner reading the text in the box below. As you listen, note down any areas of pronunciation you think the student needs to work on:
“Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.”
You have probably identified a number of issues but I am going to focus on the three areas of pronunciation that most often impede intelligibility in my students. I will indicate how where these errors are evident in the speech above and finally outline some activities that might help you overcome these issues in the classroom.
1. Vowel Length
Spanish has 5 pure vowel sounds which are short, so producing long vowels can be a challenge. Although diphthongs do exist in Spanish, their written form always contains two vowels so learners may not use a diphthong when the word contains a single written vowel e.g. snake.
2. Weak Forms
First of all, Spanish is a syllable-timed language which means that the amount of time it takes to say an utterance depends on the number of syllables, whereas in English, the timing depends on the number of stressed syllables. This means that Spanish speakers may find it difficult to ‘squash’ what lies between the stressed syllables. In addition, the schwa – the most common sound used in weak forms – does not feature in the vowel inventory of Spanish.
3. Devoicing Final Consonants
As you can see in the transcription, this tends to happen when a voiced consonant is followed by an unvoiced one (either between or within words).
So, now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Spanish speakers might find difficult in terms of pronunciation, what next? Here are a few ideas for activities you can do in class:
- Raise awareness
In a one-to-one class it might be worth spending some time comparing the phonemic inventories of Spanish and English (the tables in this article are a bit technical so think
about how you could simplify and extract what’s useful for your students). In a mixed-nationality class perhaps set a homework to research the differences and similarities between the sound systems of English and their L1.
- Show learners how to produce target sounds
Make sure students know what they need to do with their articulators (tongue, mouth, teeth etc.) in order to produce the right sounds. There are also plenty of diagrams online and in textbooks you can refer to.
- Drill, drill, drill. Then drill some more.
- Minimal pairs in context
Minimal pairs are two words that only differ in a single phoneme. Using these words can be a great way to help students distinguish between sounds and making sure they are contextualised will show students how mispronouncing even a single sound might cause misunderstandings. They can be used in listening and speaking activities as well as games such as bingo. The following examples might be used to focus on the difficulties with vowel length, diphthongs and devoicing final consonants:
Can you collect the bins / beans?
I didn’t buy any soup / soap.
John broke his bag / back.
- Listening for weak forms
Make your own gap-fill: take out all the weak forms from the transcript, students listen and fill in the gaps. After that, get them to imitate the recording.
Once you have planned some activities for your Spanish speakers, it might be useful to keep a record of your classroom observations pre- and post-intervention to evaluate whether the learners are making progress.
If you are interested in finding out more about typical pronunciation difficulties of Spanish speakers, Learner English (Swan, 2001) is an essential read. Likewise, I have found Pronunciation Practice Activities (Hewings, 2004) very useful.
• Speech Accent Archive:
• Learner English (Swan, 2001)
• Pronunciation Practice Activities (Hewings, 2004)