Lessons from our workshop “How Gringo Is Your Spanish?”

How we don’t hear another language as it is spoken

Listening how a language is spoken

I tell the workshop participants that I cannot hear Spanish for you. The best I can do is to give them tips as to what to listen for. Through exercises and examples, I try to bring about, in each participant, a personal realization of his or her deafness regarding Spanish pronunciation.

“If you don’t realize that you are ‘hearing’ only your Anglicized version of Spanish, then you will never hear Spanish as it is spoken by a native speaker; and you will never speak Spanish without a gringo accent.”

This initial deafness can be overcome, but only with instruction; time alone will not help, as the following examples illustrate.

In conversation recently with a Western Canadian oilman in Houston, I was explaining how the Spanish word for “five,” cinco, is universally mispronounced by native English speakers. I said, “As there is no /ng/ sound in Spanish, the word cannot be ‘sing.co’ but something else like ‘seen.co.’” His reply was unexpected: “I think that Spanish speakers have adopted our way of pronouncing this word, as I’ve always heard ‘sing.co.’”

My good friend Alejandro has lived in New York City or in nearby New Jersey for much of the past twenty years, and his wife is Anglo-American and a native English speaker. In the New York metropolitan area, the common expression for going to Manhattan is “to go to the city.” We may imagine that Alejandro has heard the word “city” pronounced with an American accent at least 100,000 times during this long period. So it caught my attention that at dinner at home recently he referred to his childhood home as Mexico ‘See.tee.’

Japanese has several sounds that are difficult to hear for native speakers of Western languages.  One of these is an intentional omission of sound, a brief pause, like a musical rest note.  The Japanese word for this phonetic feature is sokuon, and each of the two syllabaries has a symbol called a tsu, represented asっ(Hiragana) and ッ(Katakana).

Another mystery (for Western ears) is the treatment in Japanese of a final /n/ as a separate syllable (called a mora, a unit of speech-time).  In this way, one word that refers to Japan (日本), “Nippon,” has four syllables (morae), not two, as it would appear to the eyes of foreigners who are at home in the Latin alphabet.  The pronunciation would be ‘ni.っ.po.n’ (にっぽん).

Japanese also has long and short vowels that have phonemic contrast: saying a word with a short vowel instead of a long vowel changes the meaning of a word. A good example is ‘Fuji san,” meaning “Mount Fuji. Once, years ago, I introduced a Japanese woman to an American fried as “Fuji san”; but she at once corrected me: “My family name is Fujii. You have introduced me as the name of a mountain.”

What these examples tell us is that we don’t register another language as it is spoken by a native speaker: instead, we remix the sounds and put them into the phonological categories of our native language. I had heard cinco at least 100,000 times before I realized that I had registered its pronunciation using English sound-categories, unconsciously inserting /ng/ where there was none.

Alejandro is hearing the vowel of “it” in “city” but unconsciously files it in his phonetic memory as the vowel of sí.

One lesson to be drawn from such stories is that having a native speaker as an instructor is no guarantee that you will aurally register the sounds of that language; and no guarantee that you will break out of your Anglocentric phonetic prison.

To start correctly listening to and pronouncing Spanish, study our MEI Market Note 110: Overcoming the American Accent in Spanish.

Written by

Mexico Energy Intelligence

Baker & Associates offers niche-market business and policy intelligence related to Mexico's oil and gas, power and chemical industries. Over 1,000 reports have been issued in the last 20 years. Subject matter expert and publisher George Baker, who directs the firm, has carried out consulting assignments starting in the late 1970s at the height of the Oil Boom in Mexico. He brings bilingual and bicultural skill-sets to understanding and responding to challenges of business and public policy, coupled with a deep familiarity with the history and idiosyncrasies of the Mexican operating environment.