Learning Spanish (and other things)


I just started a new series of Spanish classes and, as always, I explained to the new students that one of the major differences between our two languages, English and Spanish, lies in the different sounds—simple and combined—that exist between them.

There are 23 sounds, or phonemes, in Latin American Spanish, and 24 in the language as spoken in Spain. There are 57 or more in English, primarily because it is possible to change the sound of vowels when they are alone and when combining them. Those sounds may also depend on the regional accent of the speaker, something that would never occur with a Spanish-speaker, regardless of where he or she lives. Nevertheless, both languages use the same written alphabet, although ironically, English has fewer functional letters. (In Spanish, “ll” and “ñ” also function as letters distinct from “n” and “l,” for example.)

English is not a Romance language, though it took its alphabet from the French. Because of its complicated phonetics, English can combine consonants and vowels to obtain its many different sounds; this is impossible in Spanish, in which each letter has only one sound, eliminating the possibility of double letters or combinations of letters to obtain or omit different sounds. As a result, it is much easier to write and pronounce Spanish than English.

Many English speakers perceive Spanish as melodic, a notion that comes from the five basic sounds of the five vowels of the alphabet: unique, unmistakable and unchanging. These indispensable sounds are the same today as they were in Cervantes’s day. 

English also uses vowels in all its words, and does not give only two or more sounds to each of them, or one sound to two combined vowels, either by themselves or paired with consonants; rather, the language can also give equal phonetic force to those consonants, enabling them to have their own independent sound in a word. This, too, is impossible in Spanish, which requires that consonants be accompanied by vowels to form syllables. For example, words in English that start with the combination “sp,” as in “special” and “Spanish,” or that end in “nt,” as in “consonant” or “important,” in Spanish require an initial or ending vowel so that those consonants have a clear sound in each syllable of the words. Thus, we have “es-pe-cial,” “es-pa-ñol,” “con-so-nan-te,” and “im-por-tan-te.”

This brief and possibly confusing explanation may help English speakers understand the differences between pronouncing Spanish words and English words. An English speaker can learn to pronounce Spanish words and sounds relatively easily, since English already contains most of those sounds, while a Spanish speaker has to learn many new and difficult sounds in order to pronounce English correctly; his or her accent in English will be determined by those five vocalic sounds of his or her Spanish.

To this we must add the sociocultural factors of the learner, such as origin, age, educational level, etcetera. A Mexican or Central American immigrant who leaves his country because of poverty, lack of opportunity and formal education will surely face greater challenges than a better informed and educated gringo, although both will have to deal with the lengthy study of a foreign language, which requires consistency and infinite practice.

Other important things to consider when embarking on the acquisition of a second language are innate learning abilities. Some of us are better in physical movement, others in mental or logical performance, and yet others excel in crafts or rhythmic and musical endeavors. 

Still, at birth we all possess the skills, however undeveloped, to learn a new language. As adults, our ability to recognize sounds and reproduce them in order to have specific meanings becomes more or less complicated. In theory and practice, students of another language encounter difficulties in distinguishing, understanding and reproducing new sounds, in addition to the various codes and grammatical subtleties that often differ from those of their own language.

Together with the difficulty in speaking and understanding English, many immigrants also face an enormous amount of disinformation and lack of information regarding the function of the social, cultural and institutional life of this country, from the standards and requirements necessary to work and travel on streets and highways to the common-sense grasp of customs, laws and political, judicial, educational and commercial systems.

Students of Spanish, for their part, have to realize that if they want to truly communicate with these immigrants and have a mutual understanding, it’s not enough to be fluent in Spanish, celebrate Cinco de Mayo or el Día de los Muertos and eat tacos with salsa. They must also understand the reasons that brought these immigrants here; the nature of their places of origin; their social, religious and community customs and habits; and their limited ability to understand the systems and language of this country. Then, and only then, will we be truly communicating.


Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico. The Spanish version of this column is available online.