How to sound more like a native speaker of Spanish
July 11, 2007 12:50 AM   Subscribe

How can I eliminate my American accent when speaking Spanish?

My Spanish-speaking friends have commented that I don't have a "gringa accent" when I speak, but I'm well aware that I could further improve my accent.

How can I clean up my Spanish pronunciation? I've found this website, and I plan to use it to repeat and imitate sounds, but are there books/websites/programs specifically targeted at accent reduction for non-native speakers of Spanish?

Along those lines: is there (perceived to exist) a neutral accent in the Spanish language? Or a country that has a more generally understood way of speaking?

Any tips on accent reduction in general would be welcomed.
posted by bijou to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Or a country that has a more generally understood way of speaking?
Colombian Spanish sounds the best and clearest to people in the Americas, and not bad to Iberians, as I understand it. I have a personal aesthetic preference for Andaluz, but I don’t actually understand it, hah.

I haven’t formally tried recording myself and trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, but I’m sure that would help. What I actually do is pay attention to the stuff that isn’t normally described in language textbooks; if you get that right, if you say -ao for -ado and "dy" for "ll"/"y" in the right places now and then, (and maybe even "eh" for "es", but I’m not sure Colombia does that), it marks you in the mind of the listener as someone who has learned things informally, which works against the "foreign accent" impression.

Also, and obviously, make sure you’re getting all the individual sounds correct; are your <r> and <rr> as native speakers do them? Are you certain your vowels are not diphthongs where they shouldn’t be (that is, most places)? Is the rhythm of your speech syllable-timed? (I understand that some of Mexico does stress timing, but you don’t want that, since it’ll sound gringo unless you have a strong Mexican accent otherwise.) You’re probably getting these things right anyway, if you’ve been told you don’t sound like a gringa, but pay attention all the same.

(I’ve been learning it for about two years now, and my Spanish accent is clear but not remotely native. I had a near-native French accent for a while, but it’s not as stellar any more. I’m told my German is clear but evidently non-native, but that it’s not clear what my first language is; people suggest Swedish, which I take as a compliment. My first language is English.)
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:13 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: My first language is English and I learned Spanish for five years in high school; I teach English to non-native speakers now.

Aidan speaks the truth when he talks about dropping/adding sounds in some words - last night I was out for Mexican food with my family and asked for some agua de jamaica, but it sounded like (and forgive my attempt to transliterate it here; stressed syllables capitalized) AH-wa de ha-MY-ka.

Two cheap/free suggestions:

1. Expose yourself to as much Spanish-language music as possible, and sing along. This is actually really easy to do if you get a shower radio/mp3 player; it helps you wake up in the morning, it's only ten minutes a day, no one else hears you, and after a few months, you'll probably have songs stuck in your head all day, which is good; perhaps that's your brain trying to get ever-closer to the actual pronunciation.

2. If you have access to a big-city/state-wide public library (and you almost certainly do - check out this thread), check to see if they have online access to Rosetta Stone language software, which I just started using to improve my French; there's a review about it here on a non-commercial website. I recommend it because there's a section of each lesson where you are asked to copy the pronunciation of a native speaker via your computer's microphone, and your speech is actually compared to the example using a little sound-wave map thing and rated for accuracy using a color-coded meter. It absolutely does not feel like drudgery!

The Los Angeles Public Library has access, and there's no residency requirement, either, so the next time you're in town (which, by the way, is a great way to practice your Spanish), just pop into a branch (the Central Library downtown is open 7 days a week!) and get a card for free.

Finally: I teach people of all skill levels in my language classes, and there's always a bit of a battle between emphasizing fluency or accuracy in each lesson. The best way to improve both, I think, is to speak and listen to Spanish as much as possible; your accent will refine itself the more you're in a Spanish-speaking environment.
posted by mdonley at 3:48 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I lived in Mexico for a few months and everyone though I was German, not American. "Why?" I asked. "Because you have some problems with your vowels, but unlike Americans, you almost say your R's right!" they said. So watch out for the hard American R versus the soft, almost L-sounding Spanish R. In Mexico, even single R's are slightly rolled in words, though not at all to the extent of RR.

My roommates usually laughed at my LL's (my "galleta" apparently sounded more like "gaeta" than "gayeta") and my O's (my lips purse to much and my O's sound very American).

I like mdonlely's recommendation to listen to Spanish-sounding music, but pick one country and try to stick with it; Ella Baila Sola lisp their C's and Z's in the Iberian style, not to mention some of the grammatical differences (usted/vosotros delineation), Shakira has heavey J-sounding LL sounds in the Colombian (Venezuelan? Can't remember what she is, but the J gets stronger as you go south) style (also, some central/southish Americans use the "vos" pronoun), and Julieta Venegas has a very Mexican accent. Puerto Ricans will drop end consonants more (some of what you're describing?). I think in general the vowels will stay about the same, but if you're worried about sounding more "authentic", only pick one region to sound authentic in. :)
posted by olinerd at 5:01 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: I lived in various South American countries. More than accent I found larger differences in intonation and speech rhythms - Argentinian or Rio Platense Spanish really sticks out in this way. Personally my ear is used to Spanish from Peru southwards, so for example Mexican or Puerto Rican Spanish sounds really "off" to me.

Have you asked your Spanish-speaking friends in what specific ways your accent sounds non-native? It could be what olinerd above says, and perhaps what sounds fine to a Colombian doesn't sound so to a Mexican. Or it might turn out to be more of an issue of intonation or how you stress certain parts of words or phrases. Anyway I think I'd go with olinerd's advice to pick one country or region :)

Some South American countries respond to the Iberian accent the way some Americans do to British accents, finding it more posh, attractive, etc., but some won't understand a word you're saying.
posted by needled at 6:00 AM on July 11, 2007

One tip from my past Spanish teacher was to make sure that every vowel sound only has one sound.

That is, in America, the "oh" sound is pronounced like "ough" in "bough" (almost having two distinct sounds, oh and ooo). In Spanish, "oh" is just "oh" (the closest word I can think of would be mo', as in "mo' money mo' problems").
posted by Zephyrial at 6:25 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

My second language is German not Spanish, but what fools the German-speakers into thinking it's my native language is first, a really good command of the language's rhythm and colloquial and slang speech, and never ever messing up the grammar. Even though I know my accent isn't perfect, the fact that I get these two things right has actually gotten me into arguments with people where they insist I must be lying about being a native English speaker.
posted by nax at 9:28 AM on July 11, 2007

There is no such thing as a "neutral" accent for all the varieties of Spanish: any native speaker is more or less recognisable by their accent and dialectal variations. However, every country has a more standardised and higher-status variety. You can find it in easily repeatable nuggets in TV ads.

Thus I would advise you to pick one variety that you like (Mexico, Argentina, Spain are my favourites, but don't be swayed by my opinion: I just happen to be Spanish with Mexican and Argentinian friends), find ad compilations, and repeat the slogans at the tv set trying to enunciate in an exaggeratedly tv-person way. Your diction will improve, and your intonation too.
posted by kandinski at 9:36 AM on July 11, 2007

Best answer: Soy gringa de biologia, pero hispana de corazon. Mientras estaba en Mexico, tome unos cursos de la fonetica y la fonologia del idioma espanol. Me ayudo inmensamente a perfeccionarmelo bien como nativo. Si te puedes ir al extranjero, sugiero que te inscribas en cursos asi.

I am a gringa by birth, but hispanic by heart. While I was studying abroad in Mexico, I took some phonetics/phonology classes with Mexican university students. That helped me a bunch to perfect my sound to the extent that people confuse me for being Mexican (even with bright blonde hair and hazel eyes). If you can travel abroad, I recommend that you take a course like that.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:03 AM on July 11, 2007

I'd ask your friends to point out what you most need help. Nothing will take the place of a personalized touch. Some aspects you may have already mastered while others you may need more help in than others.

I have tried to help out a few friends in the past who are learning Spanish and want help on their pronunciation. Here's a couple common things:

- Soften your consonants. As someone mentioned above a 'd' is not a hard 'd' but closer to 'th'. Same is true with other consonants such as 'b'. Can you say the word "adobado" without letting your tongue touch the roof of your mouth? Thats a lot closer to how a native speaks.

- Keep your vowels short. It's 'ah' and 'eh.' It's not 'cer-VAY-za', it's 'cer-veh-za.'

- Keep a light touch on that 'r' as well. The word 'caro' can be pronounced by keeping the tip of your tongue in the front of your mouth. Don't let it recede to make that guttural sound.

- Get someone to listen to you and make sure your syllables are correct. This is definitely a one-on-one thing.
posted by vacapinta at 10:07 AM on July 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

As far as a "perceived neutral accent goes," I don't know the answer to that. But I would say that if you are learning Spanish so that you can better communicate with Spanish speakers in the U.S., you should try to learn Mexican Spanish. Let's say that Columbian Spanish has the most neutral accent. Well, if you're going to be speaking to Mexican immigrants or Mexican tourists/visitors 80% of the time, then it would behoove you to speak Mexican Spanish rather than Columbian Spanish. Now, if you're planning on traveling a lot or doing a lot of business with customers throughout Latin America, then it would be nice to speak Spanish with a "neutral accent."
posted by HotPatatta at 10:50 AM on July 11, 2007

I'd like to say that people learning Spanish make way too big a deal of the differences between Spanish in different countries. TV-Presenter Mexican is almost exactly like TV-Presenter Colombian is almost exactly like TV-Presenter Argentinian. And that is the Spanish you will be taught.

Ok, I exaggerate, they're not exactly alike but the differences are minor in the context of learning Spanish. Also, the regional variations in Mexican Spanish, for example, from the Border to Mexico City to Veracruz are greater to my ears than the differences between the TV-Presenter form of any two Latin-American countries.

I exempt the Spaniards from the above point. Their Spanish really is wierd and different. :)
posted by vacapinta at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2007

What kandinski said: there's no "neutral" spanish.
posted by signal at 11:13 AM on July 11, 2007

One tip from my past Spanish teacher was to make sure that every vowel sound only has one sound.

That is, in America, the "oh" sound is pronounced like "ough" in "bough" (almost having two distinct sounds, oh and ooo).

A vowel with two sounds is called a diphthong, as Aidan Kehoe mentioned in the first answer.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:48 AM on July 11, 2007

One other common gringo mistake: pronouncing spanish dipthongs as 2 sounds. For instance, "Dios" is 1 syllable, not 2.
posted by signal at 3:08 PM on July 11, 2007

One thing I've noticed in my own Spanish (Mexican-American) as opposed to my parents (Mexican) is I tend to slur some Spanish words, which sounds like an American accent. (Mexican) Spanish is cleaner, crisper, more smoothly lyrical to my ears than English. Sounds coming from the back of my mouth or getting "caught" in my teeth/sides of mouth make me sound American.

And of course the vowel thing is a biggies, nothing aggravates me more than English-speakers being taught that everything in Spanish ends in -ay.
posted by lychee at 6:51 PM on July 11, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Just hearing some of you talk about the things you've struggled with yourselves brought up some salient points for me (my 'll' is not as crisp as it could be, for example). I've got plenty to work on now!
posted by bijou at 8:22 PM on July 11, 2007

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