Spanish Speaker's English Pronunciation Analysis

17 February 2016, Jasmine Mally


In this work I will be analyzing a non-native speaker’s pronunciation of a passage. This passage is used due to the variety of sounds and potential areas of pronunciation issues it presents that may not happen if the speaker’s natural speech were to be analyzed.

Subject Background

The subject I chose to work with is a native Spanish speaking friend from Bogota, Colombia, whom I will call David. He is a first generation college graduate with a degree in pedagogy of social science.

He studied English while in public school due to its mandatory nature from which he claims he learned nothing. He then studied for three years in a language school in Bogota. He has not traveled abroad but tries to practice his English with native speakers when he can. He also gives basic English lessons to Colombians part-time and he is a full-time Spanish speaking customer service employee at call center in Bogota.

When I spend time talking with David we usually speak in Spanish because it is easier to communicate. He struggles with listening in English and his pronunciation of English may reflect why listening may be difficult for him in certain aspects.

Diagnostic Passage List

  1. When a student from another country comes to study in the United States, he has to find out for himself the answers to many questions, and he has many problems to think about.
  2. Where should he live?
  3. Would it be better if he looked for a private room off campus or if he stayed in a dormitory?
  4. Should he spend all of his time just studying?
  5. Shouldn't he try to take advantage of the many social and cultural activities which are offered?
  6. At first it is not easy for him to be casual in dress, informal in manner and confident in speech.
  7. Little by little he learns what kind of clothing is usually worn here to be casually dressed for classes.
  8. He also learns to choose the language and customs that are appropriate for informal situations.
  9. Finally he begins to feel sure of himself.
  10. But let me tell you, my friend, this long-awaited feeling doesn't develop suddenly, does it?
  11. All of this takes willpower.

Analysis of Vowel Pronunciation Table

Sentence # non-standard SAE Distinction
1 “country”
1 “comes”
1, 6, 8 “to”* /tu/ /tə/ u/ə
1 “answers”
3 “better”
6 “manner”
/ˈbe. ɾɛɪə˞/
7 “of”* /ɑv/ /ə/ ɑ/ə˞
4 “just’
8 “customs”
4 “studying” /ˈstʌ.din/ /ˈstʌ.di.ɪŋ/ in/i.ɪŋ
5 “cultural” /ˈkul.du.ɹæl/ /ˈkʌl.tʃə˞.əl/ u/ʌ
7, 8 “for”* /fɔ˞/ /fə˞/ ɔ/ə
8 “appropriate”* /ə.proʊˈpɹeɪt/ /əˈproʊ.pɹi.ət/ Stress and dipthong
/eɪ/ instead of /i.ə/
10 “develop” /diˈvel.əp/ /dɪˈvel.əp/ i/ɪ
11 “willpower” /ˈwɪlˌpoʊə˞/ /ˈwɪlˌpaʊə˞/ o/ʊ

Vowel Analysis

The most common pronunciation error for David is on the segmental level of vowel distinctions. Spanish has eight basic vowel distinctions (Giacomino, 2012) while Standard American English (SAE) has twelve (Ladefoged & Johnson, 2011). Comparing all of the vowel differences David produced versus SAE pronunciation, the phonemes he did not produce in certain words are not used in Spanish: /ə/, /ʌ/, /ɪ/, and /ʊ/. He pronounced them using vowels that are also used in Spanish. However, he does not do this for all of the words; he is capable of producing the SAE vowels not used in Spanish. These segmental differences do not make him unintelligible, but a listener may have more difficulty understanding what he says due to these small differences in vowel quality. He becomes less intelligible when word stress becomes an issue. For example, he pronounced “appropriate” distinctly in a few ways; First, he changed the vowel sounds in the last two syllables by using a diphthong instead of two separate vowel sounds, /pɹeɪt/ instead of /pɹi.ət/; therefore, he reduced the syllables from four to three; lastly, he stressed the last syllable instead of the second: /ə.proʊˈpɹeɪt/.

The schwa has a high rate of frequency in SAE and David’s pronunciation reflects Spanish’s low rate of schwa use by clearly pronouncing most vowel sounds. David did not utilize the rhotacized schwa for “-er” in the words “answers”, “better” and “matter”. This syllable in these words is unstressed and produces /ə˞/ in SAE. He clearly pronounces /ɛɪə˞/ which parallels the Spanish pronunciation of “-er”. David pronounced a few function words throughout the text as if they were stressed. The words “to”, “for”, and “of” use the schwa in SAE when they are not stressed, and in the context of the passage they are not. However, the subject stresses these words more than a native speaker would which is a suprasegmental issue. Furthermore, David’s pronunciation of “cultural” shows more Spanish like vowel pronunciation: /ˈkul.du.ɹæl/. For the unstressed vowels in the second and third syllables he employs /u/ and /æ/ instead of /ə/. Goodwin (2014) states that correctly pronouncing sounds in stressed syllables effects intelligibility. Not implementing the use of the reduced vowel /ə/ makes word stress less defined. The subject does not reduce many unstressed vowels in his speech so it is somewhat harder to understand him.

Analysis of Consonant Pronunciation Table

Sentence # non-standard SAE Distinction
1 "study" /ˈstʌdi/ /ˈstʌdi/ Inserting /ɛ/ before initial /s/
1 “himself” /hɪmˈsel/ /ɪmˈself/ Omitting final consonant
sound in consonant cluster
1 “the”
8 “clothing”
5 “cultural” /ˈkul.du.ɹæl/ /ˈkʌl.tʃə˞.əl/ d/tʃ
transfer of /ɹ/
from end of syllable to
beginning of following one
6 “to” /tu/ /t̬ə/ Assimilation of /t/
to a voiced alveolar stop
8 “situations” /sɪ.tuˈeɪ.ʃn̩/ /sɪ.tʃuˈeɪ.ʃn̩z/ t/tʃ and omission
of final /z/ after /n/
10 “awaited” /əˈweɪ.ɾəd/ /əˈweɪ.ɾəd/ t/ɾ

Consonant Analysis

His pronunciation of “cultural” changed more than the vowels. One difference was that he said the “r” in a different syllable. In SAE, /ɹ/ is placed at the end of the second syllable in /ˈkʌl.tʃə˞.əl/, hence the rhotacized schwa. He employs Spanish phonology which naturally places a consonant that is between vowels to the beginning of the following syllable and not the end of the previous (Salcedo, 2010). He also changed sounds that Spanish does not use such as /ð/ in “the” and “clothing” to /d/. Certain consonant clusters were pronounced differently such as the plural sound /z/ in “situations”, he ended the word with /n/. In Spanish, the final /s/ is proceeded by a vowel and not a consonant cluster. Therefore, words ending in a consonant followed by /s/ or /z/ are not as easy for Spanish speakers to produce. The subject again left off the final consonant sound in another final consonant cluster /lf/.

Another common difference between a native Spanish speaker’s pronunciation of English and SAE is the tendency to place /ɛ/ before words that begin with /s/. David only did this once during the passage in “study” -- /ɛˈstʌdi/. There were other small differences in his consonant pronunciations which can be seen in the chart above. An additional pronunciation feature that I would like to discuss will transition us to the linking section that follows. The influence of the phonemes next to another may change the pronunciation of that phoneme slightly which is seen in the pronunciation of “to” in sentence six. The phoneme proceeding the /t/ is a bilabial nasal /m/ which is voiced, this voicing generally continues as “to” is not particularly stressed in the sentence. The /t/ then also becomes voiced which sounds like /d/, also transcribed as /t̬/.

Analysis of Connected Speech Table

Sentence # non-standard SAE Distinction
3 “would it” /wʊd ɪt/ /ˈwʊ.dɪt/ Linking
4 “spend all” /spend ɔl/ /ˈspen.dɔl/ Linking
5 “which are” /wɪtʃ ɑə˞/ /ˈwɪ.tʃə˞/ Linking and
6 “first it is” /fɜrst ɪz/ /ˈfɜr.sdɪ.dɪz/ Linking
9 “of himself”
1,2,3,4,7 “he”
4 “his”
6 “him”
/əv hɪmˈself/
Linking and initial /h/
no initial /h/
7 “of” /ɑv/ /ə/ Loss of /v/
5 “Shouldn’t he” /ˈʃʊ.dn̩.ti/ /ˈʃʊ.dn̩i/ loss of final /t/
before linking

Analysis of Connected Speech

Connected speech occurs more frequently in natural speech but also applies to the fluid reading of a text, even when read at a fairly slow pace. The lack of employing features of connected speech is a characteristic of English pronunciation that can give the listener a clue that the speaker is a non-native speaker but it should not hinder comprehension. A non-native speaker that does not link words in speech, such as David, may have trouble when listening to native speakers who often produce connected speech because words that are easy to understand in isolation may be “unrecognizable in connected speech” (Goodwin, 2014). David clearly separates his words, where in SAE words that end in a consonant sound followed by a vowel often combine into one syllable resulting in two words that sound like one word or two words with the final consonant of the first shifted to the beginning of the following word which is illustrated in the chart above. In the latter part of the chart “he”, “his”, “him” and “himself” employ the use of reduction where the /h/ is dropped when it does not follow a pause. Then, the /i/ or /ɪ/ naturally links to the proceeding phoneme which is illustrated in the chart for “of himself”, /ə.vɪmˈself/ and applies to “he”, “his” and “him” as well. Other forms of reduction are found in sentence seven “of” where the /v/ is dropped, and in sentence five “shouldn’t he” where the /t/ is dropped. However, as different people pronounce words differently it is not certain this will occur all the time. Not dropping certain sounds in certain places does not inhibit communication; therefore, this should be a minor concern for pronunciation. Still, being aware of these aspects is helpful for the language learner’s listening comprehension. He does not have to incorporate these features into his speech but being aware of and noticing this phenomenon can improve his listening skills.


Sentence # non-standard SAE Distinction
6 "First it is" /fɜrst ɪz/ /ˈfɜr.sdɪ.dɪz/ Omission of “it”,
see linking as well
if he were to reduce

David accidently skipped the word “it” in his reading of the passage. This seems to be a natural Spanish speaking occurrence of what he may produce in his own speech. Spanish verbs often occur without a subject pronoun before them. Furthermore, this pronoun does not hold much emphasis, nor meaning as what “it” refers to is explained later in the sentence. The listener is not left confused of what “is not easy”.

Analysis of Intonation

David somewhat changed his pitch along his sentences but also spoke in a slight monotone because he read most of the syllables with the same amount of length and stress. This lack of stress variation makes it more difficult for the listener to pick out the most important information. Giving less stress to different vowel sounds and function words was discussed previously in the vowel section and is also depicted in the chart above for “problems to think about”. Here he gave “to” the same stress as the content words. Another issue in this portion was his abrupt fall in pitch at the end of the sentence. In SAE “think” rises slightly after “to” and drops gradually in the last word, while David produced a sudden drop in his pitch on the last syllable instead of a gradual fall from the beginning of “think”.

Implications and application

For many of these pronunciation differences, in order to make changes to a learner’s pronunciation, that individual must first recognize these features in the variety of English the learner wants to acquire. The first step in making pronunciation changes is to be aware of the issue that is being focused on. One way to practice this is to use authentic speech from movies, commercials, radio, and other sources where students can listen to native speakers. The students can be given a transcript of the speech and they mark where words are linked, or where they hear /ə/, or whatever the focus of the lesson is (Goodwin, 2014). This way, they can become acutely aware of that feature which should improve their listening comprehension and understanding of how and when to use these features of speech. Once they observe the spoken material and analyze it, imitating with the same text through shadowing or mirroring can be a useful practice for pronunciation (Goodwin, 2014). These practices are useful for many pronunciation factors on the segmental and suprasegmental levels. However, more attention can be given to segmental details according to the learner’s goals.

David wants to sound more native in his speech so minimal pair exercises may be useful for him to practice non-Spanish sounds. First, identify and discriminate them from the sounds he is already familiar with, then have him be able to produce them in the appropriate places himself. Through controlled exercises and continued practice these features should transfer to his speech over time. However, his pronunciation on the segmental level is not unintelligible. If the goal is communication, excessive time and effort is not needed in every area unless the speaker is unintelligible or the person’s pronunciation goals go beyond the communicative level.


Giacomino, L. (2012). "Comparative analysis of vowel space of L1 Spanish speakers and general American English. Linguistic Portfolios, (1), 1-14

Goodwin, J. (2014). Teaching Pronunciation. In M. Celce-Murcia, D.M. Brinton & M.A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (136-152). Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

Ladefoged, P., Johnson, K. (2011). A course in phonetics. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Salcedo, C. S. (2010). The phonological system of Spanish. Revista de lingüística y lenguas aplicadas, (5), 195-209.