Mastering the Spanish Accent

18 May 2021

Tips and tricks for improving your accent in Spanish

Good news for expats living in Spain – it is, in fact, possible to change your pronunciation and accent as an adult. Whether your goal is to be better understood, less embarrassed, or even get them to stop asking you where you're from, feel the empowerment that comes from learning to choose the way you speak. Here are key tips and tricks from a professional expat accent coach.

When you find that your foreign accent is too thick for people to understand you, THAT’S when we should start paying attention to improving our clarity with pronunciation.

Mastering your Spanish Accent as an Expat

I have good news for Spanish expats! It is in fact possible to change your pronunciation and accent as an adult!  

And no, you don’t have to be in a relationship with a Spanish person or even have Spanish friends to do so.

The most empowering thing for me as a language learner was realizing that I had the power to choose the way I wanted to speak and how I wanted others to perceive me in my non-native language. I could define my own identity in Spanish while maintaining anything that wasn’t a priority for me to change about my accent. It’s up to you, it’s your choice!

While pronunciation is important for clarity, it’s certainly not the most important aspect of taking your Spanish language skills to the next level. Your personal relationship with the language is arguably the most critical aspect to sounding and feeling authentic when speaking. Confidence in your skills will always take you further than speaking with a specific accent, excellent vocabulary, or perfect grammar.

Here are three aspects to consider and start training your tongue and brain to think about and use your Spanish in a more natural way so that you can own the room when connecting with others in Spanish!

Train your ear

To be able to produce different sounds, we need to be able to hear them first! A great way to practice this is training your ear with different Spanish accents and comparing them. Once you can hear someone and identify if they are most likely from Galicia, Cataluña, the Basque Country, Andalucía, etc. you’ve stepped into another realm of language learning! Now you’re starting to pay attention to all those nuances that we often don’t learn in a traditional language classroom. Analyzing those differences on your own and understanding them will help you big time in social situations where you find it’s taxing to keep up with so many Spanish accents, especially if you live in a large city. Watching the Spanish movie “8 Apellidos Catalanes” is a great way to practice! You’ll hear accents from Sevilla, the Basque Country, Barcelona, and Galicia! If you can’t hear the differences on your own, looking up a 10-minute YouTube video explaining different Spanish accents will give you some clarity. 

Retraining your muscle memory

Here are some examples of techniques that I use daily with my language clients to help them master their foreign accents in English. Why do I recommend these methods? Because they are EXACTLY what I used to neutralize my foreign accent and sound and feel natural in Spanish. Your mouth, tongue, and jaw are all muscles, and therefore can be retrained to follow different phonological patterns when speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t worry at all about your accent if it doesn’t get in the way of your daily communication. However, many when initially moving to Spain will be accustomed to the frustration of having to repeat themselves or pronounce words differently for Spaniards to understand them. When you find that your foreign accent is too thick for people to understand you, THAT’S when we should start paying attention to improving our clarity with pronunciation. The great part is, there are simple tricks that you can start implementing NOW to boost your Spanish and sound drastically more natural! Here are examples of three important consonant sounds that you can begin working with.

The “T” and “D” sounds – Relax them

For native English speakers, you’ll find that your “T” and “D” sounds come off quite strong. If you say words like “take” or “dog”, the tongue should be hitting your upper palette, the roof of your mouth.

In Spanish, the placement of these sounds shifts. Touch your tongue to the back of your top teeth for making the T sound. This results in a much softer sound. Try saying “tengo tres tazas” this way and feel the difference!

The Spanish D sound is one that we have in English as well, it’s just represented by a different letter! For this sound place the tip of your tongue slightly underneath your upper teeth. This will create the same sound as the TH in English used in words like “the” or “they.” Try saying “dos dientes” with this new tongue position to hear the change!

The Spanish R Sounds

For this sound, the tip of your tongue should touch the roof of your mouth and make a flapping motion. In words like “pero,” “carne,” or “árbol,” this will be the same as the sound that we use in American English for the “T” sounds in words like “butter” or “party.”

The strong Spanish R that we see at the beginning of words like “rojo” applies the same concept of using a flapping motion touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Only this time, you have multiple flaps occurring at a quicker speed. This may simply take strengthening of different tongue muscles to get it right. Try looking up a Spanish R tongue twister and try it a couple of times each day to build up those muscles! Consciously relaxing your tongue while practicing will help you with the flapping motion.

We yearn for the day when FINALLY no one asks us, “where are you from?” directly after introducing ourselves.

Building New Habits

To form new habits with these sounds, try reading out loud in Spanish for 10-15 minutes per day slowly, focusing on the sounds that you find most difficult to pronounce. Record yourself reading on the first day, then again after two weeks of reading practice. You’ll be impressed by your growth and start to find it easier to make these sounds in daily conversation as well!

An additional technique is to train yourself with imitation exercises. Find videos of a Spanish speaker or actor whose accent you absolutely love and imitate them speaking. Practice repeatedly copying their intonation, word stress, and sound patterns in various situations. Do this especially for words or phrases that you hear pronounced differently than how you typically pronounce them. The more your train yourself to do this, the easier it will be to pick up on things in daily conversation and apply them to your own speech. It will take practice, however, so be diligent and practice for at least 10 minutes a day to achieve more noticeable results in your speaking habits.

Accent forms part of your identity

Understanding this concept is a key factor in finding your authentic voice in any foreign language. Especially in a place as linguistically diverse as Spain, trying to adapt the way we speak as an expat can feel frustrating. Oftentimes we just want to blend in, we don’t want anyone to assume we are foreign. We yearn for the day when FINALLY no one asks us, “where are you from?” directly after introducing ourselves.

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing that someone asks where you are from. The strong sense of regionalism in Spain is something that Spaniards wear with pride! They are proud of the way they speak and where they come from, so why shouldn’t we feel the same? Spaniards often identify certain character and personality traits with people from different regions of the country, and they are sarcastic and playful with their humor when talking to people from other cultures. If this happens to you in your conversations, don’t be offended! This is a sign that you are being accepted into the social circle. If your accent comes off quite strong, remember that it’s a part of your identity that you can show off whenever and however you want. Just like we play with language, the words we use, and how we say them in our native languages, we can do that in Spanish to feel closer to the Spanish identity that most resonates with us.

Transforming your accent requires dedication, time, and endless hours of work, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be enjoyable! Play with your language, celebrate your small wins and accomplishments, and feel free to adapt your speaking patterns in a way that both improves your clarity AND helps you sound and feel more effortless when speaking.