7 sounds that make Spanish speakers impossible to understand

Most people think that native speakers are hard to understand because they speak fast. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Natives do often speak fast, but they also speak with relaxed pronunciation.

Relaxed pronunciation is a language learner’s worst nightmare. Its what makes English speakers pronounce “want to” as “wanna” and “have to” as “hafta”, and is especially common when speaking quickly and casually. Most language learners are never explicitly taught the rules of relaxed pronunciation, which can make understanding native speech nearly impossible. Imagine you’re learning English and someone said to you, “dijoo wanna goda the showda morrow?” Try looking up any one of those words in the dictionary — you won’t find them.

Today we’re going to go over X of the most common relaxed pronunciations in Spanish so that you can recognize them the next time you hear an unintelligible native speaker.

But first….

Why listening comprehension doesn’t just get better with exposure

Well, it can, but it will be a very long and slow process. Saying “My listening comprehension will just improve with time and exposure,” is like a musician saying “My ability to recognize notes and chords will just improve with time and exposure”. Any serious musician who heard that would respond by saying, “You mean you’ve never done ear training?”

In language learning, we put so little emphasis on ear training that most people don’t even know that it’s possible to do ear training for another language! Check out my article on audio dissection, one of the best exercises for ear training in a foreign language.

Learning about relaxed pronunciation is a very important for ear training, because by explicitly learning how words and sounds change, your brain will recognize them more easily the next time you encounter them.

As you read this article, think of yourself as a musician doing ear training.

Check out the videos at the end of the article to see some of these relaxed pronunciations in action and to test your skills!

1. The missing final “s”

Probably the most common relaxed pronunciation in Spanish is aspirating the final “s”. Aspirating means that the “s” sound is replaced by the English “h” sound (lighter than the Spanish “j” sound), or is just silent altogether. I’ll denote the English “h” sound as (h). Here are some common examples:

  • estás → está(h) → está
  • quieres → quiere(h) → quiere
  • puedes → puede(h) → puede
  • amigos → amigo(h) → amigo
  • cosas → cosa(h) → cosa
  • buenas → buena(h) → buena
  • muchas → mucha(h) → mucha
  • les, los, las → le(h), lo(h), la(h) → le, lo, la
  • más → ma(h) → ma
  • todos → todo(h) → todo
  • mis, tus, sus → mi(h), tu(h), su(h) → mi, tu, su

It’s easy to see how this can be confusing for listeners, because the plural form of a word can sound exactly like the singular form! The next time you hear someone say “con toda mi amiga”, or “mucha persona inteligente”, make sure you think to see where you should be mentally filling in an “s”!

2. The missing middle “s”

Just as you can aspirate a final “s”, you can also aspirate a middle “s”, but usually only when it’s part of a consonant cluster like “st” or “sc”. Let’s look at some common examples:

  • está → e(h)tá → etá
  • escuela → e(h)cuela → ecuela
  • gusta → gu(h)ta → guta
  • pescado → pe(h)cado → pecado
  • estrategia → e(h)trategia → etrategia
  • rescatar → re(h)catar → recatar
  • desde → de(h)de → dede

The last example of “desde” changing to “dede” can really trip you up if you’re not expecting it. Same with “pescado” (fish) changing to “pecado” (sin)!

3. The missing “d”

Sometimes the “d” sound in the beginning or middle of the word can become very soft, or even disappear entirely. By “soft”, I mean that the tongue barely brushes against the teeth/mouth to make the “d” sound, compared to a “hard ‘d’” where the tongue makes sharp contact and the “d” is clearly enunciated. Let’s look at some common examples. I’ll denote the soft “d” as “(d)”.

  • todo → to(d)o → to
  • cada → ca(d)a → ca
  • puedo → pue(d)o → pueo
  • puedes → pue(d)es → pues
  • helado → hela(d)o → helao
  • estado → esta(d)o → estao
  • pasado → pasa(d)o → pasao
  • permitido → permiti(d)o → permitío
  • perdido → perdi(d)o → perdío

This change can be really confusing because the final morphed word can sound like an unfamiliar Spanish word. For example, hearing “perdío” can leave you wondering what form of the verb “perder” it is. Preparing for the missing “d” can help you avoid this confusion.

4. The missing middle “b” / “v”

Sometimes the “b” sound in the middle of the word can become very soft, or even disappear entirely. By “soft”, I mean that the lips barely come together to make the “b” sound, compared to a “hard ‘b’” where the lips make sharp contact and the “b” is clearly enunciated. Let’s look at some common examples. I’ll denote the soft “b” as “(b)”.

  • estaba → esta(b)a → está
  • llegaba → llega(b)a → llegá
  • había → ha(b)ía → haia/haya
  • para ver → para (v)er → paraer
  • tiene que ver → tiene que (v)er → tiene quer
  • tiene que haber → tiene que ha(b)er → tiene que aer

This change can be really confusing because the final morphed word can sound like the same verb but in a different tense. For example, hearing “está haciendo” makes you think of “he is doing”, but because of the silent “b”, it may actually be “I was doing”.

5. The missing middle “m”

Sometimes the “m” sound in the middle of the word can become very soft, or even disappear entirely. By “soft”, I mean that the lips barely come together to make the “m” sound, compared to a “hard ‘m’” where the lips make sharp contact and the “m” is clearly enunciated. Interestingly, the softer the “m” sound, the more nasally the surrounding vowels are pronounced. Let’s look at some common examples. I’ll denote the soft “m” as “(m)”, and nasal vowels as “vowel*”.

  • como → co(m)o → co* (here, the final “o” is pronounced more nasally than the “o” in “lo”, for example)
  • vamos → va(m)os → vao*s
  • pensamos → pensa(m)os → pensao*s

6. Forms of “haber”, and other words that start with vowels

The conjugations of “haber” to form the present perfect tense (“I have gone”) are very short, one-syllable words (he/has/ha/hemos/han), and they all start with a vowel sound. This means that they sometimes sound like they are tacked onto the end of the preceding word. More generally, words that start with vowels can often get squished onto the end of the preceding word, especially when the end of the first word and the beginning of the second word have a similar vowel sound or form a diphthong (two vowels that, when pronounced together, sound like a single syllable). Let’s look at some examples:

  • me/te/le he → me/te/le (the “he” sound gets absorbed into the “e” sound of the preceding pronoun)
  • te he dicho → te dicho
  • la ha → la
  • la ha hecho → la hecho
  • te/le hemos → temos/lemos
  • le hemos dicho → leemos dicho → lemos dicho
  • ya ha/han → ya/yan
  • ya han terminado → yan terminado
  • porque estaba → porquestaba
  • yo estaba → yostaba
  • para el → parel
  • para el día siguiente → parel día siguiente

7. Other relaxed pronunciations

  • exacto → esacto
  • exactamente → esactamente
  • excepcional → esepcional
  • con → cong
  • tienen → tieneng
  • quieren → quiereng
  • hablan → hablang
  • están → estáng
  • “para” → “pa”
  • para que → paque
  • para todos → pa todos → pa to(d)os → patos

Putting it into action

Now that we’ve learned about many of the most common relaxed pronunciations in Spanish, let’s listen to some native speakers and see how many we can identify. In the following two videos, I’ve listed some of the relaxed pronunciations that I noticed. See if you can hear the ones I’ve listed, and try to identify more — I definitely didn’t get all of them!

Interview with Messi

  • 0:55 — los problemas → lo(h) problema(h) → lo problema
  • 1:06 — todos los aspectos → todo(h) los aspecto(h) → todo los aspecto
  • 1:17 — cosas nuevas → cosa(h) nueva(h) → cosa nueva
  • 1:29 — muy diferentes → muy (d)iferente(h) → muiferente
  • 1:38 — en el pasado → en el pasa(d)o → en el pasao
  • 1:41 — en lo que está por venir más que… lo que hicimos, lo que logramos → en lo que (eh)tá por venir má(h) que… lo que hicimo(h), lo que logramo(h) → en lo que tá por venir má que… lo que hicimo, lo que logramo
  • 1:54 — cada tres días → ca(d)a tre(h) día (h) → ca tre día
  • 2:07 — el asado → el asa(d)o → el asao
  • 2:16 — comida que me gusta → comi(d)a que me gu(h)ta → comía que me gu(h)ta
  • 2:19 — helado → hela(d)o → helao
  • – tomaba → toma(b)a
  • 3:11 — para el día siguiente → pa(ra) el día siguiente → pa el día siguiente → pal día siguiente
  • 3:15 — cada uno en su lugar → ca(d)a uno en su lu(g)ar → ca uno en su luar

TEDx Talk from Mexico

  • 0:27 — mi experiencia y mi aventura → mi esperiencia y mi a(v)entura → misperiencia y mi aentura
  • 0:44 — pero no solamente estaba vendiendo galletas → pero no solamente (e)sta(b)a (ve)ndiendo galletas → pero no solamenta sta ndiendo galletas
  • 0:55 — yo estaba haciendo → yo esta(b)a haciendo → yo está haciendo
  • 1:04 — desde que tengo memoria, desde que tengo nueve años → de(s)de que tengo memoria, de(s)de que tengo nueve años → dede que tengo memoria, dede que tengo nueve años
  • 1:08–1:14 — lots of “estaba → esta(b)a à está” !
  • 1:16 — que me dejaba dinero → que me deja(b)a dinero → que me dejá dinero
  • 1:27 — sudadera → su(d)a(d)era → sua(d)era
  • 2:11 — agradecería → agra(d)ecería → agraecería
  • 2:42 — que estuvieron interesados → que (e)stu(v)ieron (in)teresa(d)os → questuyeron teresaos
  • 2:58 — ubicado → ubica(d)o → ubicao
  • 3:18–3:24 — rescatados → rescata(d)os → rescataos; maltrataban → maltrata(b)an → maltratán

My name is Akshay Swaminathan, and I’m interested in finding the most efficient ways to learn languages. Take a look at my website and YouTube channel for more language-related content.

Data scientist, global health researcher, language learner