English | Spanish | 3rd December 2021 | Virtual Wire
Languages vary, this is a universal truth. But how? If you have ever thought about learning Spanish, the rolled r must have been like a beware sign. Despite being scary or frustrating for some learners, it's actually easy-peasy.
Besides, everybody can roll their r’s! Although there is not an equivalent in the English language, the ability to roll your r's is not genetic. This is the biggest myth and a lame excuse unless you have tongue problems. Now we know a little something about r’s, we’re good to go to learn how to pronounce them.
First of all, be aware that a voiced alveolar trill (alias RR), it's all about practising. If you aren't a patient person, you can follow these 4 steps to excel at pronouncing RR:
Try to get English pronunciation out of your head. This is a mistake many beginners tend to make and also the most important to take into account. Remember there is not an equivalent to RR in the English language.
Start with a soft (unrolled) r. Try, for example, to say “rabbit”. This will allow you to be more aware of where your tongue is specifically placed, the movements it makes inside your mouth, etc.
Now you can make a soft r sound, make it twice in a row. No stopping! Try to do this as many times as possible. Make it twice, three times, four or five. As much and as quickly as possible. When you do the RR sound, you use your breath to create a vibration between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. If you follow this step, you’re very likely to roll your r without even realizing it.
Make sure your tongue is in the right place. Now you may ask yourself, where is it? Finding it is simple. Just put your tongue behind your top front teeth. Then, start moving your tongue toward the back of your mouth. Eventually, you'll feel the roof of your mouth stop being smooth and start having ridges. This ridged area is where your tongue needs to be when making the rolled r sound. Now, let your pirate side out!
Here there are some extra tips to keep on practising:
Listen to people making the RR sound. Babies learn language sounds intuitively by listening to and watching native speakers make them and so can you. There are YouTube videos, movies, and podcasts. You choose to Sing along to Spanish music. This can help you practice rolling your r's as you would in a conversation—in the middle of sentences and many different words. Plus, singing Spanish music is fun and a great way to learn about Hispanic culture as you work on your accent Use tongue twisters in Spanish.
These are called trabalenguas. You definitely can give it a try. It’s also a fun way to learn! To get you started, try the following: “Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril. Rápido corren los carros, sobre los rieles del ferrocarril” (r with r cigar, r with r barrel. Quickly run the carriages on the rails of the railway) If you got time, include these activities in your daily routine. If you got none, no worries! Try to make a few from time to time.
This will catch Spanish native speakers by surprise. Now we’ve dealt with r’s, let’s keep moving. Did you know that Spanish nouns have gender? This is something that characterizes romance and other Germanic languages such as French or German. I know it might be weird to think a notebook, a turtle, and slippers can be feminine, but it’s actually the case.
This is also the reason many young learners are encouraged to draw nouns as girls or boys with their respective eyelashes. With time, you’ll get used to it and unconsciously think feminine nouns are related to adjectives such as soft or passive. The same happens with ones that have a male gender. However, this doesn't end here. Once you identify, for example, the word turtle as feminine, you also have to match it with an article, in this case, "la" as in "la tortuga (the turtle.)” The same happens with masculine nouns. The corresponding article is “el” as in “el auto (the car.)”
If you’ve paid enough attention, you have probably seen that in English, this difference is not existing as the article for these words would be “the.”Now you may ask, but how am I supposed to know whether or not a noun is feminine or masculine? Well, thankfully, there are some rules to help you.
Masculine nouns can be identified as:
Words ending in -O: el auto (car), el sapo (frog), el vino (wine).
Words ending in -OR: el dolor (pain), el color (color), el calor (heat).
Words ending in -AJE and -AN: el anclaje (anchor), el patán (thug).
Numbers and colors: el diez (ten), el rosa (pink).
Days of the week and months of the year: el lunes (Monday), el julio (July). (Bear in mind months don’t take an initial Capital letter in Spanish while in English they do).
Cardinal points: el norte (North), el sur (South), el este (East), el oeste (West). (As in the last item, Spanish cardinal points don't take an initial capital letter while in English they do).
The majority of geographical-related nouns: el río (river), el mar (sea), el océano Atlántico (Atlantic Ocean), los lagos (lakes), los volcanes (volcanoes), el desierto del Sáhara (Sahara Desert).
Feminine nouns can be identified as:
Words ending in -A: la cáscara (peel), la cara (face),la jarra (jar).
Words ending in -CIÓN, -SIÓN, -ZÓN: la emoción (emotion), la mansión (mansion), la comezón (itching).
Words ending in -DAD and -TAD: la maldad (evilness), la libertad (freedom).
Words ending in -EZ and -TRIZ: la vejez (old age), la actriz (actress).
Ending in -TUD, -UMBRE: la solicitud (application), la legumbre (legume).
The letters of the alphabet: la D, la I, la A.
Now you’re ready to start identifying masculine and feminine nouns (if you think this is a lot, be aware that German has one more gender), I’ll have to confess something to you…There are exceptions. You know nothing is perfect, so be aware that even if you follow the last items to the T, you’ll have to double-check. But don’t worry! Here there are some of the most important exceptions you won’t fail to find as you learn this amazing language:
There are masculine nouns ending in -A: el mapa (map), el mantel (tablecloth).
There are feminine nouns ending in -O: la modelo (model).
Some nouns related to professions change the article depending on whether it is a female or male we are talking about: el/la atleta (athlete), el/la estudiante (student), el/la poeta (poet).
Gendered nouns can be a headache, but matching activities are worthwhile, trust me. I know Spanish can be a challenge. At this point, English seems to look like a language that is way easier to learn. That's why I'll show you Spanish is simpler than it seems. Take the case of negation. This is way simpler in Spanish!
For example, let’s look at the word “invasive.” What’s the negative form? “uninvasive,” or “noninvasive”?! To negate a word, a variety of prefixes—like “non-,” “un-,” “dis-,” “in- and many others are often used. Lucky for you, in Spanish, this is much simpler. In a sentence, putting “no” before the verb will do the trick. For example, if you want to say “They say this operation is noninvasive” in Spanish, you would say “Dicen que esta operación no es invasiva.”
See what happened there? Yes, I omitted the subject. This is another way to show you how simple Spanish can be. The sentence’s subject often doesn’t have to be stated as in English. By using the proper conjugation, you already know the tense and the subject without explicitly stating it. The same thing happens with “it.” In English, when chatting with others, you say “What is it?”, and when describing the weather, you might say “Today it’s hot.”
This word is used all the time in English, but in Spanish, it’s found much less often. Let’s give an example: In English, you’d say something is blue by stating “it’s blue”, but in Spanish, you can just say “es azul”. Easy-peasy, right? And we’re just getting started. Another point worth reading is this one: in Spanish, there are way fewer prepositions.
If you're not a big fan of them, then this must be a language you must learn. In English, dozens of prepositions are used to determine the exact location in time and space of an object, but in Spanish, they play a much smaller role. For example, we may have to choose between “in,” “on,” and “at” in English while we just use the word “en” in Spanish.
Here are a few examples to make this point even clearer:
Estoy en mi habitación. (I’m in my room)
El gato está en la alfombra. (The cat is on the carpet)
Hay alguien en la puerta. (There’s someone at the door)
The word “de” in Spanish can also be used to mean “from,” “in,” “of” and in some cases, even more in English. Here are a few more examples:
Soy de Argentina. (I am from Argentina).
Estoy en Jamaica. (I’m in Jamaica).
La isla de los árboles perdidos (The Island of Missing Trees).
See? Learning Spanish might not be so hard after all.
To make this clearer, I'll tell you one more thing: spelling in Spanish is way easier than in English. The spelling of the latter can be irregular, difficult, and unintuitive. Take "thorough", for example. No matter how many times I see it, it always makes me shudder. Spanish, on the contrary, has regular spelling rules. Once you learn each letter’s sound, spelling out a Spanish word by sounding it out is very simple.
Before practising some spelling, let’s first take a look at the Spanish alphabet for a bit:
A — ah
B — beh
C — seh
D — deh
E — eh
F — effeh
G — heh
H — ah-cheh
I — ee
J — hota
K — kah
L — el-leh
M — em-meh
N — en-neh
Ñ — eñ-yeh
O — oh
P — peh
Q — koo
R — er-reh
S — es-seh
T — teh
U — ooh
V — veh (Latin America) or ooh-veh (Spain)
W — doh-bleh-veh (Latin America) or ooh-veh-doh-bleh (Spain)
X — ehk-kis
Y — ee-gree-eh-gah
Z — seh-ta
Great! Now we know the Spanish alphabet, we can begin dealing with some of the spelling differences between English and Spanish. The following are some of the most important and common mistakes Spanish learners tend to make, but not you, that’s for sure.
Mixing up the b and the v
In English, b and v make distinct sounds, but not in Spanish. In the latter, they sound exactly the same. The letter v is pronounced like the way you say b so you better not be tempted to give them the same sounds as they have in English.
Let’s try practising with two examples:
Vamos a la playa: let’s go to the beach
Bueno, me voy: well, I’ll go
Do they sound the same? Then you’re doing a great job. If they don’t, try not to think about the pronunciation of these letters in English and keep on practising. I’m sure you’ll make it.
Thinking the tilde in ñ is optional
I want to make this point very clear: no, no, no, and no. This fancy word with that little squiggly line is there for a reason. Thanks to it, you get an entirely different letter with an entirely different sound. You just have to place your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your upper, front teeth, say n, bring your tongue down and say “yah”. This is much simpler than pronouncing the RR, so don't worry. Let's try practising with two more examples:
I assure you you’ll want to excel at pronouncing ñ. If not, you’ll probably reconsider when you try to tell someone you are 25 years old (Tengo 25 años) and instead tell them you have “veinticinco anos” which means something entirely different (and somewhat disgusting). When using a computer, one of the biggest issues is when it comes to typing an ñ when you have an English keyboard. On a Mac, press alt-n to form the tilde, and then press the n key a second time to insert an n under the tilde. On a PC, hold down the alt key and the ~ key to form the tilde, and then press the n key to insert an n under the tilde.
Forgetting the silent h
The Spanish silent h is something most English learners struggle with. In Spanish, let’s say you have to act like the h wasn’t there at all. One example can be the verbs that are conjugated in the past perfect or pluperfect. These use the auxiliary verb Haber (again with a silent h.)
Let’s give a few examples to practice:
Me he secado el pelo. (I’ve dried my hair)
Es una lástima que no hayas venido. (It’s a pity you had not come)
La profesora ha dicho que te sacaste buen puntaje. (The teacher told me you got a good score)
Las chicas se habían organizado cuando llovió. (The girls had already organized themselves when it rained)
Si me hubiera dicho, habría sabido. (If he had told me, I would have known)
Of course, Haber is not the only word beginning with a silent h. Here are 10 more:
Hablar (verb) — To speak
Hasta (prep.) — Until
Hoy (noun) — Today
Hacer (verb) — To do, to make
Helado (noun) — Icecream
Hambre (noun) — Hunger
Hora (noun) — Hour
Hogar (noun) — Home
Hermano/a (noun) — Brother/sister
Hijo/a (noun) — Son/daughter
Forgetting accent marks
Lucky for you, there’s a rule for knowing which syllable gets the stress in a Spanish word. In most words, the stress is on the second-to-last syllable. This is the case for examples such as ventana (window), espejo (mirror), cajero (cashier), and so on. The only exceptions are words like pared (wall) or cantar (to sing). They all end in consonants other than n and s. If you hear a word that strays from this pattern, you need to put an accent mark like in café (coffee), canción (song), marrón (brown), árbol (tree), etc.
Now, you may ask, but how do I know where to put it? Well, you just got to listen for the stressed syllable and place the accent mark above that syllable's vowel as in the last-mentioned examples. Bear in mind that in Spanish, leaving off an accent mark can completely change the pronunciation and meaning of a word. For example, let’s take the word tráfico (traffic: noun). This word can also mean traficó (trafficked) and trafico (traffic: verb in the present tense).
Rules are not that difficult to master, and as there aren't as many, why wouldn't you learn them? I hope these tips and examples help you pave your way to keep learning Spanish. If you follow every step, you'll notice better results, and little by little, you will be able to be a fluent Spanish speaker.