Spanish Pronunciation: The Three Golden Rules

Written by   (author of Obvious Conclusions)

Speaking Spanish should be easy. Normally, they pronounce each letter as it is. With me, the problem often lies in emphasis, in stress. Where should you place the stress on a particular word in Spanish?

In my first month Living In Uruguay, I was off to meet my friends in a salsa club on a street called Rincon. I knew that I was near the place, but I could not locate the street. I saw this amiable older women and I politely asked:

Me: Dónde está la calle Rincon? (Where is the street Rincon?)

OW (older women): Lo siento. No sé. (I am sorry. I do not know.)

Me: Vives a cerca de acá? (Do you live around here?)

OW: Si, vivo ahí. (Yes, I live right there.)

Ok, so she lives right around here but she has never heard of the street. Not possible. I must be doing something wrong. Ah-hah, I remembered. I probably pronounced the “i” like an American as in the word bit. I need to pronounce it correctly, like in the word beet. I also need to make sure that I pronounce the “o” as the “o” in no, not like we might say, Rinkahn. Another try:

Me: “REENcohn.”

OW: “No, todavía no. Lo siento.” (No. Still no. I am sorry.)

Argghhh-still nothing. What am I doing wrong? Your tendency here may be to think that she really doesn’t know. Or, even sillier, that her Spanish might not be that good…that she’s the problem. If you think this (as I have on a few occasions :)), you are being a stupid American. Spanish is her native language and you’re not that good yet!

It is then that I remembered the three golden rules of stressing, or emphasizing, a word in Spanish. One last try…her patience is wearing thin.

Me: “ReenCOHN?”

OW: “Ah, si ReenCOHN, Es la próxima calle.” (Oh, yes, Rincon, it’s the next street.)

I could scarcely tell the difference in how I was pronouncing the word. But for her, it was the difference between understanding me and wondering what language I was trying to speak.

I then remembered an explanation that a friend had given me about the importance of stress in a word. It’s so innate in our native language that we never pay any attention to it. But, this man said, imagine if the song “Que Sera, Sera” was pronounced “Que serA, serA (like Sarah)”. And this explanation made perfect sense to me.

So, without further ado, here are the three rules for emphasizing words in Spanish.

  1. If a word ends in a vowel, n, or an s, the emphasis is on the penultimate (second-to- last) syllable.
  2. With all other words that end in consonants (that are not n or s), the emphasis is on the last syllable.
  3. If a word has an accent mark (often called a tilde in Spanish), ignore all other rules and place the stress where the accent mark is.

The bottom line is that you have to practice and listen a lot.

I have several recordings (see links below) that will certainly help you with your Spanish pronunciation. Listen to the readings and practice your speech as you listen. This is the best way to learn Spanish–you’ll be an expert in no time. :)

And did I finally find the salsa club located on Rincon street? I did…and I realized that Rincon is actually written Rincón!

Spanish Recordings for Practice

Spoken Spanish: Essays, Viajar de forma diferente (Paulo Coelho)

Spoken Spanish: Essays, Engañarse a sí mismo (Paulo Coelho)

Spanish Pronunciation: Spanish Readings of Paulo Coelho Essays

How To Learn Spanish:   This page has great links to videos that will help you learn Spanish.


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Richard Cummings

Richard Cummings is writer, traveler, and web content developer.

Get your copy of his latest book entitled Obvious Conclusions, stories of a Midwestern emigrant influenced and corrupted by many years living in San Francisco and abroad. It just received its first outstanding review "...reminiscent of David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs" on Amazon UK.
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Richard CummingsSpanish Pronunciation: The Three Golden Rules

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