Pronunciation Challenges faced by Spanish ESL Learners

 In Accents and Pronunciation, Classes

Native Spanish speakers face several challenges when learning English as a second language, not the least of which is proper pronunciation. Meeting the pronunciation challenges of a language not only allows you to communicate more effectively, but it also telegraphs a high level of competence in your fluency and understanding.

English is the language of global business, this perceived competence of your ESL skills benefits you at work, at school, and in your day to day interactions with native English speakers.

The Top 3 English Pronunciation Challenges

pronunciation challengesIntonation

Native Spanish speakers studying English often speak English with a flat intonation.  Their words lack the rise and fall of a more fluent speaker.  It can be confusing for a listener to distinguish exactly what you’re trying to communicate without the tone and pitch signals that confer importance on a word, indicate you’re done speaking, or even whether or not you’re asking a question.

I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him?  I love him?

Try stressing the underlined words, and let your tone rise on the question marks, and fall on the periods.  Do you notice how the meaning is different for each of the five sentences even though they contain the same three words?

Vowel Sounds

English vowel sounds pose a real challenge to Spanish-speaking ESL students because the length of a vowel sound isn’t significant in distinguishing between words in Spanish, and there are just 5 pure vowel sounds and 5 diphthongs in the language.

Spanish vowel    Phonetic pronunciation

a      ah

e      eh

i       ee

o      oh

u      oo

English, by contrast, has 12 pure vowel sounds and 8 diphthongs.  Spanish ESL students often pronounce the word “ship” as “sheep”—if you look at the vowel chart above, it’s obvious why this is a common error.  Some English vowels are long, and some short.  There are also sounds in English vowels that don’t exist in Spanish—the unstressed schwa “er” sound in “commuter” and the long “ur” sound in “fur”, “sermon”, or “her”.

To top it all off there are words that have similar, but subtly different vowel sounds that can be difficult to produce like “cat” and “cut”.

Tuning your ear to the subtleties of the English vowel sounds helps, but a more practical approach is to create a word chart and practice the phonetic sounds as often as possible.  English vowels require native Spanish speakers to use their tongue, lips, mouth muscles, and breath in unfamiliar ways.  Practice will make it easier to meet these pronunciation challenges.


J pronounced as Y.  V pronounced as B.  Ch confused with Sh.  The disappearing H.  Not to mention, the dreaded “Th” sound!  There’s no shortage of pronunciation challenges to be had for Spanish ESL students when it comes to the consonants in spoken English.

Here again, practice makes perfect.  Training your vocal muscles and familiarizing yourself with the consonant sounds can be fun.  Create tongue twisters and try out different regional American accents.  Here’s one I made from my list of troublemakers above—try it with a Texas drawl.

Joseph bought a very cheap yacht, he hated flashy, excessive things.

Make up a tongue twister of your own with the words that are the most difficult for you to pronounce, or tap the internet to find ESL tongue twisters to try.  Sites like and have lots of classic twisters that can be a great place to start.  Round up your study group and have at it.  You’ll all be laughing in no time.

Pronunciation is often the last thing Spanish ESL students focus on, but it is key to communication.  By mastering the basics of English pronunciation and meeting these pronunciation challenges, you’ll improve your listening skills and see gains in your fluency…and THAT leads to the blissful loss of the frustration of being constantly misunderstood!






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