Every language has its own prosody – the patterns of stress and intonation–. That’s why when we are in a foreign country we can recognise our compatriots by hearing them speaking even if we don’t hear what they say.
In this post you will learn:
- The intonation in Spanish
- Five tips to improve your pronunciation and intonation in Spanish, including techniques to practice active listening and suggestions to do passive listening, filler words in Spanish and how to nurture your inner voice in Spanish.
- Rules of intonation in Spanish
Intonation in Spanish
Spanish has its own music, its own cadence. In Spanish we speak “llano” .
Hablar llano means ‘to speak straight’. which is true. But not only are we direct and straightforward, also our intonation is “llana”, that is, the words are stressed in the penultimate syllable.
Almost 80% of all the words in Spanish are stressed in the penultimate syllable and that creates a distinct rhythm. And then, almost the 20% remaining is stressed at the end. There is a miserable 2% of words that are stressed in the antepenultimate syllable (the third from last).
So this gives you an idea of where to put stress in the words no matter what unless stated otherwise. * I’ll get to this in a minute (in point 5, to be precise).
And why there are so many “llanas” words in comparison with other romance languages like French or Italian?
We don’t know why but we know that in the process from Latin to Spanish, all the vowels that were not stressed, disappeared.
It’s also known that when a language disappears, for whatever reason, it leaves its trace in the prosody of the favoured language, so when Latin-Spanish was chosen over the native languages, those must have left the intonation.
In connection to the underlying native languages of the people, you know the intonation and rhythm of Spanish have so many variants between Spain and Latin America and also between the different regions.
How to improve my pronunciation and intonation in Spanish
First and foremost, listen.
Intersperse moments of passive listening with active listening in Spanish. There is no need to spend hours of active listening, although if you have the energy for it, by no means.
What works best is being constant in your practise.
· Passive listening
Listen to conversations, to TV-shows, radio, songs… anything you can find. Listen while driving, on the way to work, while working-out, cooking… Any time!
As a teacher, though, I can tell you that not all listening is effective in equal manner. Passive listening is helpful, but it won’t make you fluent. That being said, passive listening will help you to learn Spanish native sounding expressions, like “venga, vamos” (come on), or “voy yendo” (I’m going)… It will also help you to get used to the rhythm and intonation. So, it is useful, of course!
· Active listening
But do not forget active listening. Choose something you like and are interested to in order to feel motivated.
I have a couple of active listening techniques for you:
- Dictations: Write what you hear. You’ll need the written version as well (subtitles or transcripts).
- Shadowing: You repeat what the speaker say. If there are parts that you don’t understand, listen again and again until you do. If you still can’t understand, have a quick look at the subtitles or transcription. Shadowing technique explained here.
2. Nurture your Spanish inner voice
Think in Spanish.
We all have an inner voice in our mother language and we also have an inner voice in every language we learn.
The problem is that very often we learn in a way that focuses in responding verbally before we even have anything to say. We don’t give ourselves enough thinking time and we are trained to respond quickly. Hello educational bias towards extroverts! 👋🏽
In the same way that when you read out loud, you don’t normally understand or get as much information than when you do it silently. It’s not useful to engage in quick immediate conversation all the time.
When you haven’t developed an inner voice in the target language, Spanish if you are reading this, there is a missing element in the whole internalising and expressing the language.
Think before you speak!
Take a breath and allow your brain to take in the information (verbal or written) and also to produce it by your inner voice first.
It’s also useful to think in Spanish. Dedicate few minutes every day to think in Spanish and listen to yourself. Get to know your Spanish inner self!
3. Use filler words
They are little words we use that don’t have a real meaning, the sentence keeps the meaning without them, but that make you sound like a native. Like in English you have “well”, “uhm” or “right”, we have the equivalent in Spanish.
Besides being the key to sound like a native Spanish speaker, they also buy you time to think. Remember, the inner voice I mentioned before?
My most favourite filler word of all is “pues” closely followed by “vale”. If you are learning Spanish with me, you will hear me saying “vale” a bazillion times.
It’s used to answer a question you were not expecting
- ¿Te vienes al cine?
- Pues…. Venga, vamos
To agree without a lot of enthusiasm
- ¿Te vienes al cine?
It is used to attract someone’s attention
- Me apetece tomar un café.
- Oye, ¿porqué no vamos a esta nueva cafetería que han abierto?
Used to think, like “um”.
- El amigo de Juan me pareció un chico muy interesante. ¿Lo veré en la fiesta?
- Eh… no creo que venga.
4. Look for Spanish rhymes
A way to develop your inner voice in Spanish while increasing your vocabulary is to search for rhymes in Spanish. How to do that?
Pick a word you know and you know how to pronounce.
Go to a rhyming website for Spanish and type “camino”. You can search for a consonant rhyme (the entire ending) or assonant rhyme (only the vowels). Once you clicked search you will be presented with a list divided in 2 syllable words, 3 syllable words… and so on.
Choose some words that you are attracted to because they look nice, you are curious about or you feel they could be useful in your speech.
Read your list of words in your mind. Let the visual input tell your inner voice who they sound. Listen to your inner voice several times.
5. Identify Spanish rhythm and cadence
Spanish is a syllable-timed language, that is that, unlike English which is stressed-timed, every syllable has the same length. This, in conjunction with some rolling “r” sounds, is why Spanish sounds like a machine gun.
- separate the syllables and pronounce them separately.
- mark the syllables that are stressed (if there is an accent mark, that’s where the stress goes, if there isn’t you need to remember what we said before about “palabras llanas” with the stress in the penultimate syllable .
Rules of intonation in Spanish
- If the word ends in -s, -n or a vowel, the stress goes in the penultimate syllable.
- If the word ends in any other consonant (except -s and -n), the stress is in the last syllable.
- If the word has an accent mark, the stress goes there.
If you want personalized help to sound like a native Spanish speaker, I can help. Mastering the rolling R or the harsh J sound is closer than you think. You can book a 90 min session with me to work precisely on what you need. This session includes a self-study workbook (+ audio files) with vocabulary building techniques and ways for sounding Spanish.