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MEI Market Note 110: Overcoming the American Accent in Spanish

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Compared to English, Spanish has a much simpler phonological system: there are many fewer basic sounds (what linguists call phonemes) in Spanish than there are in English. So while the native Spanish speaker is faced with the challenge of learning many sounds that are not found in his language, the native English speaker has the opposite problem: how to unlearn—temporarily forget—three-quarters of the phonemes that he or she uses in everyday speech.

Consider: there are only five vowel phonemes in Spanish, but there are over 15 in English (Table 1). In Spanish there are 17 simple consonant phonemes, while in English there are 24. Doing the math, there are 85 basic Spanish syllables compared to 360 in English. Actually, the math is more complex; that is, once one takes into account the many double-letter consonants that are found in both languages (e.g., br, bl, cr, cl).

The native English speaker who approaches Spanish is tripped up by two initial difficulties: with just a few exceptions, the two languages are spelled with the same Latin letters, creating a horrible confusion regarding pronunciation.

This report will benefit the English speaker who has conversational ability in Spanish, advanced or otherwise. A close study will also benefit the Spanish-speaking student of English.

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