Sounding Spanish by Rocco San Filippo - Profesor/a de inglés

Sounding Spanish

I was born and raised in northeast New Jersey (on the border of New York City) which is one of the parts of the United States with the highest concentration of immigrants. The vast majority of my friends growing up where either born in a foreign country or were first generation Americans. This means that ever since I was a small child, I've heard the English language spoken by those who did not speak it as their first language.

Almost 10 years ago, I moved to Spain to become an English teacher and after the birth of my son 15 months ago, my Spanish speaking wife and I have decided to switch from Spanish to English in the house so that our children would be able to communicate with their American family. So, if we add up the years of listeing to my friend's parents, many of whom were from Galicia or South America, my 10 years of teaching English in Madrid and 15 months worth of English conversations with my wife, I have accumulated a lot of hours hearing the English language spoken by native Spanish speakers. That's thousands of hours of listening to hundreds of people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Amongst those hundreds, including those who have been living in the United States for 30-40 years, I have met exactly 2 who spoke English to such a high level that they were indistinguishable from a native speaker, not counting bilinguals (someone with an English speaking parent or someone who's life circumstance had them move to an English speaking country as a baby). That's 2 out of the hundreds of Spanish speakers I've interacted with who were able to achieve the goal of native like fluency. That's not to say that I haven't been tricked into thinking that speakers of other languages were fellow anglosajones. I've met tons of Dutch, German, Polish, Swedish, Norweigen and Danish speakers who spoke with flawless American or British accents. That's also not to say that I haven't met Spanish speakers who knew English just as well, if not better, than the average person walking around downtown London or New York City. Acquiring a native-like, or even a very good English accent, just tends to be a bridge too far for the average Spanish speaker so I've decided to look into a few possible explanations of why that might be the case and what (if anything) can be done to fix it. By no means am I an expert on the topic but after spending so many years listening to friends, co-workers and students make the same mistakes over and over again, I think I have a pretty good understanding of why they  just can't help “sounding Spanish” when they speak English.

Your phonetic database 

The most common explanation and the “elephant in the room” when it comes to ESL teaching is phonetics, those weird looking symbols that your English teacher I'm sure has drawn on the whiteboard in one of your courses. I'm not going to bore you with a technical description of monothongs or dipthongs, but trust me, English has a lot more sounds than Spanish does, particulary vowel sounds. From a practical standpoint, English has between 14 and 20 (it varies from speaker to speaker) while Spanish has just 5. For example, we differentiate the way the I is pronounced in bit vs the way it's pronounced in bite. Anyone who's done more than a few English courses has had this explained to them ad naseum, but it very rarely, if ever, does anything to actually help the students be able to pronounce the sounds that are missing from their “database”.

If we think of our brain like a hard drive, our database of sounds are essentially “files” that include all of the sounds present in your native language. When learning a foreign language that uses sounds that are outside of your database you must learn to hear and produce those sounds, thus creating a new file. This is obviously much more difficult than simply repurposing an already existing file and does get more and more difficult to do as we grow older. This is particularly difficult for Spanish and Japanese speakers whose languages use a relatively small set of sounds. On the other hand, speakers of slavic languages tend to have an easier time reproducing the sounds of foreign languages due to the wide variety of sounds already present in their native tongue. Studies have shown that around the age of 6 months that database begins to solidify and we start losing the ability to pick up sounds that we hadn't been exposed to. The inability to hear a sound makes it very difficult to reproduce it when speaking. For Spanish speakers this tends to be an issue with the aforementioned vowel sounds whereas speakers of Asian languages might have more difficulties distinguishing between the L and R sounds. To a Japanese speaker, for example, the words lake and rake sound identical.

Does this mean that it is impossible to acquire these sounds later in life? Of course not, it is just much more difficult and requires lots and lots of listening and practice. The 2 Spanish speakers that I mentioned earlier who spoke English with impecable American accents; 1 moved from Argentina to NYC when he was 8 and lived there until coming to Madrid at the age of 15 and the other, from Zaragoza, played online video games with people from all over the world for an ungodly amount of hours. Both grew up monolingual Spanish speakers and both acquired an unbelievable accent through many many hours of exposure and practice. So it is possible.

Can a teacher help me improve my accent?

Yes and no. Native like pronunciation and intonation are also extremely difficult to actively teach, and therefore learn in a classroom. This is not to say that it is impossible for an English teacher to teach pronunciation effectively, it just happens to be a very specific skill and a speciality that is more common in acting and vocal coaches than it is in language teachers. In the book Fluent Forever Gabriel Wyner writes about his experience both as a language learner and a professional opera singer, an experience that illustrates this point perfectly.  Gabriel grew up a monolingual English speaker in the United States and had very little interest in learning foreign languages after having failed to learn Russian so miserably in high school.  As fate would have it, he went on to become a professional opera singer where he would have to perform in several foreign languages, including Russian.  As an opera singer it is absolutely imperative that you are able to sing without a foreign sounding accent so, after a lot of hard work, he learned how to.  At the conservatory where Gabriel studied, he took intensive courses on the phonetics of German, French, Italian and, of course, Russian.  He learned how to reproduce the sounds of these languages in a way that made him indistinguishable from a native speaker (or singer, in this case) but he never actually learned how to speak them.   He would later go on to become quite proficcient in all of them, but throughout his singing career, he had no idea what the lyrics to any of the songs that he performed on stage actually meant.  Thanks to his highly specialized professors, he was able to master the phonetics of these languages without having to learn any of the grammar or vocabulary.   

Any English teacher who's gone through a TEFL certification course can explain the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and how the “I” in bit is not pronounced the same as the “I” in bite, but this typically does very little to teach the student how to actually produce the sound neccessary to say “The dog bit me” without the listener understanding “The dog beat me”. From experience, phonetics, as taught in most language classes,  tend to help students visually separate a word's pronunciation from it's spelling but do very little in terms of helping them actually improve their accent. There's no stronger evidence for this than the fact that the vast majority of native Spanish speaking English teachers, who have studied the English language and it's odd phonetic system ad naseum, are typically themselves unable to replicate the vowel sounds that differentiate bit and beat, neat and knit, beach and ….you know. (Don't worry, you say “beach” for both). So, does this mean that non-native English teachers aren't as good as good as those of us who just so happen to have grown up in an English speaking environment? No, of course not. In fact, I believe that it's often much better to learn from someone who has actually learned the language from scratch rather than from someone who had never deliberately gone through that learning process. Have you ever tried to teach a non Spanish speaker to roll their Rs to make the rr sound? Think about how you'd explain to someone how to reproduce that sound without just making it yourself and telling them to repeat after you. How many “pedorretas” do you think you'd have to hear before you realize how difficult it is to teach someone to do something that comes natural to you?

You can google “how to speak English like a native” but what you're going to see are mostly click baity youtube videos and blog articles that explain some “tricks” to sounding native. Most of which I'm sure are well intentioned and some do give some pretty sold advice, but a lot of them tend to focus on aspects of English that are not unique to the English language. The linking of consonant sounds for example. While it's true that English speakers will join consecutive consonant sounds in a sentence like “This Saturday” so that it sounds like “This aturday” with only 1 S sound or shorten common phrases like “Have to” to “Hafta”, it's also true that these sorts of linguistic shortcuts happens in all languages and comes as a result of having reached a level where phrases like those come out naturally. Anyone who speaks Spanish to a decent level, for example, will naturally begin dropping letters in words like “todo" , "para" and "comprado" or so that it sound like to' , pa' and comprao.  These aren't tricks that we (non native Spanish speakers) learn to make ourselves sound less foreign when we speak Spanish, they're just natural shortcuts that our mouth makes when we're able to vomit out frases like “voy pa' yaor “que sí, he comprao to” (after your partner asks you for the 3rd time if you were able to buy everything on the shopping list).

The truth of the matter is that there really is no trick to acquiring a native like accent in English or any foreign language. It simply takes a lot of exposure, a ton of practice and overcoming some of the psychological elements that are associated with accent acquisition (a topic for another time). So if yo've been studying English for many years and you still think that you "sound Spanish", don't worry, you're definitely not alone..  Besides, is it sounding Spanish really such a bad thing?   

Before clicking out of this and going to watch videos of foreigners trying to say “perro”, I want you to honestly ask yourself this question: If I could magically make my Spanish accent dissappear right now, would I?

This isn't quite as straight forward of a question as it might seem. Your natural response might be a resounding “CLARO QUE SI!!”, But I'd like for you to consider the benefits of speaking a foreign language with a non-native sounding accent. I'll cover some of them in a future post, but I'd love to hear what you think. So feel free to drop me an email at , leave a comment down below or, if you'd really like discuss this, or any other topic that comes to mind, book a class with me here and we can speak online:

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