When North Americans (a. k. a. Gringos) learn Spanish there is a peculiar accent that distinguishes them from most European or native speakers. For the most part, that’s OK, and people still understand and generally don't mind.
However, if you're like me then you don't just want to learn Spanish, you want to learn it well. This includes proper pronunciation. You don't have to wait until you master the grammar and vocabulary to learn to enunciate like a local. Right from the very start you can, and should, get into the habit of proper articulation. Actually, the beginning is the best time to do it. If you wait too long and develop bad habits, these will be much harder to break as time goes on.
So what is the secret to losing the “gringo" accent? There is no quick and easy way. To illustrate, imagine yourself using certain muscles for the first time in completely new and different movements. At the start they hurt, but with time and practice they start working with your body the same as the other muscles do. The same thing happens with learning a new language: you are training your ears, mind, and mouth (with it’s various muscles) to work in unison in a new way of speaking. The following tips will help you get a jump-start on greatly improving your accent.
1. Train Your Ears
To start, one has to train his or her ears to the sound of Spanish as spoken by locals. This training can be carried out by carefully listening to recordings such as music, radio, television, movies, books on CD, and other media. Pausing the recorded media, if possible, at certain points and trying to repeat a small passage, phrase, or word, as closely as possible to the recorded voice. Practice this consistently and immerse yourself in listening to authentic native speakers and singers. Even when you can’t concentrate put the recording (whether it’s music CD, TV show, movie, etc. ) in the background. It is amazing what the brain can pick up, especially when it is relaxed. “Learn Spanish” lessons are great in this respect; especially if they come with a CD you can play in your car or home sound system.
2. Let yourself be corrected
If you have friends that are native Spanish speakers then have them correct your errors in enunciation. Ask them for help. As soon as you’re corrected, repeat the word or phrase as close as you can to the correction made by your friend. Again, consistency in practice is essential. Don’t let your friends feel bad for correcting you nor get into the habit of letting you slip with mistakes because they can “still understand you”. Remember what your goal is: lose that gringo accent.
3. Learn the alphabet well
The beauty of Spanish is not only its pleasing, almost melodic (or poetic), sound, but in its consistent sounds. This makes for faster learning of the alphabet and developing reading skills. People generally tend to learn to read Spanish coherently long before they develop their comprehension. So learn the pronunciation of each individual letter in the alphabet and learn it’s sound in written words.
4. Learn to say the vowels and diphthongs
Generally, the areas where English-speaking people give away their accent is in their pronunciation of the vowels and diphthongs. They get close, but that English accent creeps in there. Vowels are a, e, i, o, u, and diphthongs are vowel combinations such as ae, ia, ei, oi, etc.
The sounds are always the same, unlike in English where they change depending on words and accompanying letters. For example, “i" is always pronounced “ee", as in “seen" not as in “sin". (Did you notice the difference? Keep saying both words until you do. ) By being consistent in enunciating the vowels, such as “i" in this example, across all the words, your accent will become less pronounced. Also, when vowels are combined (i. e. diphthongs) they create a unified sound. Therefore, “ia" becomes “yah", not “ee-ah", “ei" becomes “eyh" not “eh-ee", “oi" is “ohy" not “oh-ee", and so on.
5. Learn to roll your R’s and double-R’s
Another dead give-away of the Anglo (or gringo) accent is the inability to roll your R’s. This is where most European students of Spanish have an advantage over North American students. In most European languages the R’s are already rolled but not so in English, unless you’re from Scotland or Ireland.
Have you heard of this popular joke: “What did a Scotsman say to his wife? – Answer: Honey, I love the way you roll your R's. " If you can say this joke with a Scottish (or Irish) accent then it’s pretty funny (R's sounds like another word).
Anyways, the point is this: how can you learn to roll your R's? It’s difficult to do so if all your life you’ve never rolled them. Neither is it easy to explain. However, hope is not lost and many have learned to roll their R’s. We will try the best we can to help you get the basics of it.
To roll the letter R, you enunciate it with your tongue at the front of your mouth, as opposed to the back as with English. So, your tongue is at or near the front of the mouth, at the top, relaxed, slightly bent. Then extra burst of air should make it vibrate and when you use your vocal cords, you should be producing the rolled “r". As you force air between your tongue and the top roof of your mouth, tense the tongue slightly. Keep practicing it by trying to imitate a motor engine. The double-R is the same sound, but little longer, approximately twice as long as the single R.
6. Practice Practice Practice
Put what you learn in practice as soon as possible, right away, in fact. Learning a new language is like learning to play a musical instrument. In order to learn a musical instrument a person has to practice playing it every day for at least 20 minutes. You can say the same for learning a new language. Practice reading it out loud everyday for at least that long. Speak as often as possible in Spanish. Use the words you have learned in conversation, even if you have to resort to English words in order to make your sentences complete.
In review, to improve your pronunciation, enunciation (and to help you lose that gringo accent) put into practice these 6 points:
1. Train your ears by listening to native Spanish conversations, music, etc. , daily.
2. Let yourself be corrected when you make errors and encourage those who are fluent to correct you.
3. Learn the sound of each letter in the Spanish alphabet.
4. Focus on hitting the vowels and diphthongs “dead-on" in your pronunciation.
5. Learn to roll your R's.
6. Practice everyday by reading out loud and speaking for at least 20 minutes.
In time you will find yourself more comfortable, more confident, and more articulate in speaking Spanish.
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