More about the pronunciation of letters b and v in Spanish

A few years ago I wrote a post about the nature of letters b and v  in Spanish. The post explains in general terms, the nature of the sounds of these two letters in Spanish in relation with the positions in which they are found in a word. It also refers, in general terms, to the symbols employed, using the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent their sounds. However, that post needs to spell out other aspects such as: the listing in more detail of the particular situations in oral Spanish, in which letters b and v change in sound; the particular way they are pronounced in those situations; as well as providing a brief analysis of how the nature of the written Spanish structures affect the choice of pronunciation patterns.

So in order to not to repeat the main points explained in the referred post, I quote them here:

Using the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols, the Spanish letters b (‘be’) and v (‘uve’) are both represented by either /b/ or /B/. Therefore you must notice that the letters b or v can sound either /b/ or /B/ depending on where they are found in a word. As a result of this, neither of the two letters can exclusively be represented by only one of these two phonetic symbols.

The letters b or v, are pronounced /b/ in words with structures as those found in vino, beso or banco. But when these two letters are found in words such as oveja, cabra or abeja, their pronunciation uses /B/. This sound doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English, so the student very often requires expert help from a language professional in order to achieve acceptable pronunciation ability.

In other words, what I’m saying in the paragraphs above can be also explained as follows:

1. The Spanish letters b and v can’t be represented by an exclusive phonetic symbol of the International Phonetic Alphabet, because neither b nor v, have a fixed or only sound – as explained in this post.

2. The sound of /b/ is like b used in English words such as bank, box or base. (For Spanish examples, see the words used above).

3. Generally speaking, letters b or v in initial positions are generally pronounced as b (represented phonetically as /b/), like in the examples just given in number 2. However, it must be said here, that because of the nature of the Spanish word structure, a word that in isolation can be pronounced with /b/, can change into a /B/, Most commonly when such a word is accompanied by articles: For example the word boca in isolation is usually pronounced as /’boKa/, but if we add the articles la, or una, i.e., la boca, una boca, they are pronounced (including the articles) as /la’Boka/, /una’Boka/, respectively, because now they follow the structure vowel+consonant+vowel, as explained in 4, below.    

4. The sound of /B/ (which you must remember, can be applied in Spanish to either letters b or v) is approximately like a very soft /v/ – as pronounced in English. In general terms, in Spanish, when either letters b or v are placed in a cluster vowel+consonant+vowel, like in abanico or avión, b and/or v should be pronounced as /B/. When b and/or v,  appear in combinations br+vowel, and bl+vowel, the sound used is also generally /B/: examples, brasa /’Brasa/, brincar /Brin’kar/.

5. Used in oral language /B/ can be so soft to the point that sometimes it may be quite difficult to be heard by a learner of Spanish as a second language. Also I must add that as I have repeatedly told my students, proper pronunciation of /B/ may be achieved by constant exposure to the way in which any native Spanish speaker utters it in daily natural language usage.

I must also add that a fuller understanding of the nature of the sounds to which I’m referring to here, cannot be achieved without a basic understanding of phonetics i.e., of the phonetic symbols contained in the International Phonetic Alphabet as applied to Spanish and maybe also to English.


Is there a need in oral Spanish for using the Castilian Spanish sounds of letter z and the clusters ce/ci?

Letter z combined with any vowel and letter c in the clusters ce/ci are pronounced as [Ө] (the sound of th in the word thin) in Castilian Spanish. This sound is an intrinsic phonological feature of this language variety. American Spanish users do not normally use [Ө] in ordinary speech; these speakers replace the [Ө] with [s].

There are many reasons explaining why American Spanish users lack the phoneme [Ө] in their daily spoken language. It has been quoted that the main reason is related with the geographical origin of the people that first moved from Spain to the New World. Most settlers and bureaucratic aides in the colonial period came from southern Spain, an area where the sound [Ө] was not a native language feature.

In linguistic terms the sound [Ө], as used in Castilian Spanish for the combinations listed above, is a great asset if we take into account that the sound of a letter plays an important role in conveying meaning as well as for contributing to the enrichment of the phonological resources at the disposal of a given language.

In my teaching experience I have found quite challenging, for example, teaching about the difference between pairs like casa/caza or coser/cocer, without the help of [Ө]. A student learning Spanish as a second language may be confused when hearing a sentence such as ‘hoy voy de casa de caza’ or ‘mis pasatiempos favoritos son coser y cocer’, if the words here containing z and c are not pronounced with [Ө]. I usually explain to students that American Spanish speakers tend to use these kind of words in context  –or that they would normally explain further about what they mean –  therefore language misunderstandings are very unusual.

But when asked by my students about what would I recommend in relation with the problem presented by the necessity of distinguishing between [Ө] and [s] in situations such as casa/caza or coser/cocer, I tell them that they can always use the standard Castilian Spanish sound patterns. Most native Spanish language users should be able to understand and follow up the communicative process whenever [Ө] is used.

I’d like to write a few more paragraph about this subject matter, however, I’ leave that for another post.

On the usage of the preposition in and its Spanish counterpart en

All languages have some grammatical features for which learners find extremely difficult to achieve a complete command. The English preposition in is one of them. I must admit that after spending over half of my life in Australia I still find myself in many situations in which I can’t decide exactly whether to use either the prepositions in or on when they are required especially in the written language.

I could say that I’m now able to use English in an equal footing to Spanish my mother tongue – except of course in relation to the ubiquitous in! The other day I decided to look up in an English grammar textbook of my university days to refresh my knowledge on this preposition, thinking that I would be able to find a complete set of usage rules in a brief manner. To my surprise and bewilderment I was presented with so many entries about it that for a moment I thought that whole book was only about this preposition.

After that I decided that I didn’t have the time or the will to pursue a way to get to know all I need to know in order to possess a complete grasp of this grammar feature. I was really put off by it. I have found that there are other more useful ways for my particular case, to become a better user of in. One of those ways is paying particular attention to the language used by journalists or broadcasters. In spite of this, it can be at real trial for me when it comes to making sure that I’m using in correctly in most instances.

May be a reform of the convoluted rules on the usage of the preposition in can be a very welcoming relief for second language speakers of English like me.

For the English speaking student learning Spanish as a second language, usually there is not any major problem in connection with the usage of en. Some of them think that is quite strange that Spanish doesn’t have a preposition with the exact meaning of on as they know it. I repeat to them over and over how lucky they are when I tell them about the uphill battle that speakers of English as a second language like me have to face in relation to the preposition in.

But then there is always por and para, two Spanish prepositions that most English speaking background students find very difficult to use, even when they have achieved a high level of proficiency. This seems to be a reverse situation in relation to the difficulties the Spanish speaking background users of English find for in. But this is material for another post.

P.S: I always welcome any advice on ways of enhancing the ability to use in.  🙂

Does the term ‘Latino’ mean anything?

It is really sad and shameful to hear, or read that people who should know better – especially in the media – still insist on using the term “Latino” when referring to Latin Americans. This term is not only culturally inappropriate, but it also has the ugly undertones of a racist profiling of people.

The term “Latino” does not mean anything. I have written a post here some time ago, in which I list some reasons explaining why people, in particular journalists and broadcasters should stop using this term.

Whether we like or not the real name for the people from any country of Latin America is simply: LATIN AMERICANS.

New technologies and the fostering of minority languages

Last week I read an article in The Age that describes how a software program being developed by the State Library of Victoria is helping minority language groups to preserve and maintain their language and culture. Developing this type of technology can contribute to arrest the decline of many languages spoken by small ethnic groups.

By being able to use technological progress to aid the preservation of minority languages, humanity may be able to care for the treasure found in the rich linguistic and cultural contents of every language spoken in the world especially when a language is in danger of extinction. Preserving written forms of traditional oral stories are worth any amount of effort. These oral traditions are unique; they are able to explain views on life and reality unknown to most people.

The software being developed by the State Library of Victoria – according to the article mentioned above – is also providing the tools to write a language that has not yet had a written form. This aspect of technology, namely to serve the linguistic and cultural needs of minority languages, is even more important when we consider that every language through their particular grammatical structures convey a special form of codifying meaning.

Another welcoming feature derived from having useful technologies helping the preservation of languages with small number of users, is that such languages can be disseminated using the internet and by doing so have the potential to reach many of their users  or be readily available for people interested in language studies or that are learning about  particular features of not very well known languages.

Living in a global village and having with us the help of new technologies, I think is a great way of helping minority languages not only to be preserved, but also of helping them to flourish, spread, and be studied. Every human being will in the long term benefit by this process.

Let’s talk about the Spanish subject pronouns

Students learning Spanish need to have a clear understanding about the general aspects of the way in which subjects pronouns are used. This includes being fully knowledgeable about their written forms and meanings, the pronoun’s particular individual features as well as the relationship existing with the subject pronouns of the students’ mother tongues.

I want to focus on this post on the relationship between the Spanish subject pronouns and English subject pronouns – referred to from here as SSP’s/SSP and ESP’s/ESP, respectively.  In general terms, the SSP’s and the ESP’s have their equivalents in both languages. The exceptions are here the feminine plural forms – nosotras, vosotras and  ellas. There are also the situation related with the lack of English specific equivalents for usted, ustedes and the pair vosotros/vosotras.

The first person plural of the SSP’s has two forms in Spanish: nosotros (masculine) and nosotras (feminine). On the other hand, English does not have feminine ESP’s. Because of this feature of the English language, the same situation for vosotras, the second person plural and ellas, the third person plural, is observed. For the SSP’s pair vosotros/vosotras, beginner Spanish students need to be able to identify what their real meanings are in Spanish. This however, is easier said than done, as by general rule it takes a little while for learners to understand this particular concept.

The third person formal singular SSP’s usted is normally translated into English as you. This ESP is also used for the plural form. According to my own experience in the classroom some beginner learners of Spanish usually find it quite daunting relating to the differences between and usted or ustedes and vosotros.

In addition, some beginner students of Spanish sometimes can get confused by the written structures yo/you by supposing that yo means you ; they can also find ella ,the feminine singular third person SSP, difficult to fathom; or even thinking of the pair ella/ellas as structures that supposedly have feminine verb conjugation forms.

Once the students manage to sort out the obstacles presented by the aspects described above, they are able to move forward with ease.  Most students of Spanish at the intermediate level – in possession of a detailed knowledge of the special particularities of the SSP’s – should be able to use this grammatical feature without getting confused.

Through proper teaching and their own learning efforts, students can manage to establish a clear understanding of the basic usage and nature of the Spanish subject pronouns. I will come back to this subject on a future post.

Dalí Concocts a ‘Liquid Desire’ of Language and Culture at the National Gallery of Victoria

Last Sunday I went with my advanced Spanish class to see “Liquid Desire” an exhibition of an extensive collection of works of art by Salvador Dalí the celebrated Spanish surrealist artist at the National Gallery of Victoria. A full range of programs of this exhibition can be found at

This exhibition has brought to Melbourne many of Dalí’s work belonging to all the periods of his long and illustrious career. There are many things that I’d like to write about this prolific and complex artist and his work but I rather leave that for another occasion. What I want to concentrate on this post is about the language learning opportunities that exhibitions such as this can present for the Spanish student.

There are many ways to use works of art for language learning and teaching. In fact the National Gallery of Victoria runs special programs for schools. Tres Culturas Spanish was invited to participate in the educational programs organised for this particular exhibition.

Apart from those special programs, there are an immense amount of language activities that can be carried out based on art exhibitions. It is up to the teacher’s own creativity and imagination and the student’s enthusiasm to make the most of this particular learning field.

Students can write little essays in Spanish about the life of Salvador Dalí. Do an internet research in Spanish about any particular area of his personal or artistic life. They can go to the local library and try to find if they have any literature about the artist; or they may like to translate a small article or essay into Spanish. These are only some examples the list may go on and on.

For students with a high level of language proficiency it is possible to organise lessons that focus on oral work. Each student can talk about what he knows about the artistic work of Salvador Dalí or make a list of things about him that they would like to know more about, like the years he spent in exile in the United States; his collaboration with other artists or the very special relationship he maintained with Gala, his wife.

At the actual exhibition the teacher can use the names and titles of the art works as a further learning practice. For example finding out why a name or tittle is said in different ways in English and Spanish. Students can also write a list of terms that they encounter during their viewing at the exhibition and bring them to class for further analyses and discussion.

Finally, illustration of works by Dalí obtained during the visit to the exhibition can be used to create real or fictional stories about the artist, his life and times. The teacher can direct the students to write more complex stories or essays about the topic.

Salvador Dalí Liquid Desire is at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 4.