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The Music of the Spanish Language

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A women from Mariachi band in Tlaquepaque, Mexico
Credit: Sarah Johnson

Hola,amigos. Today, we are going to talk about music, and not just any kind of music, but the music of the Spanish language. Many of you have studied Spanish at school, and some of you are still learning the language. Spanish is a beautiful language, and when we speak, we sing. But we also articulate the words we speak in the way we pronounce the vowels.

Each of our vowels has one sound only, except the letter “e.” It has two different sounds, and to be honest, they sound so similar that it is almost irrelevant to us. At times, our students are able to hear the difference in the sounds better than us.

You might be saying, well, that isn’t musical at all if the vowels have one sound, and only one. Where then does the music come from? Let us explain.

As Spanish and English teachers, we understand the differences between the two languages. English, for example, is not a phonetic language. However, when it comes to Spanish, it is spoken phonetically and musically. In reality we do not speak, we actually sing.

First and foremost, in English the sound of the vowels (in many of the words) are hardly pronounced. Whereas in Spanish vowels are what we pronounce the most, so we hear them more. For example, in Spanish the word Salmón is pronounced as it looks, but in English we write it Salmon, but the only words we hear are “Samn.” I love to mention this because when I lived in London, I was at the Sainsbury supermarket and I wanted to buy some Salmón, it took more than 20 minutes for the employee to understand what I wanted. I had to write the word Salmon for her. I was almost angry, asking her, of course, in my poor English, why she could not understand me. I told her that I had checked the word Salmón in the dictionary and to my surprise it was the same as in English, so I assumed it was pronounced the same as in Spanish: sahl móhn. After this experience, I decided to open my ears to hear the sounds of language much more carefully, and yes, I realized the big differences between the two languages.

In my Spanish classes, I love to use the word “embellish.” I had been looking for that very word forever, I wanted to find a word that completely describes what we do with the sound of the vowels. I used to use the word “enlarge” until one day my student mentioned the word `embellish´ and my heart started beating rapidly. I knew she just gave me a very important word that would explain what we do with the sound of our vowels in Spanish. The relevant meanings of embellish for my students are: enhance, exaggerate and stretch.

We embellish the vowels in Spanish so much that, when we ask our students to pronounce the words emphasizing the vowels, or embellishing them, they feel shy, thinking, by doing so, they will exaggerate.

But this is where the music comes out in each word. There is not a word that we will not embellish. Remember, when we separate the words in syllables, the separation falls always on a vowel, not a consonant, as in English. For example: ca-sa (house). It does not matter how many syllables in the word, the separation will always be on the vowel, so we pronounce the word cah sah.

Secondly, the sounds of the consonants are very different in both languages. In English the only sounds you hear in many words are the sounds of the consonants, like in ¨Salmon/Samn.” In Spanish, there are four strong consonants: the letter “g” combined with the vowels “e” and “i” like gente (people) and girasol (sunflower); the letter jota “j” like Julio (July); the letter doble ele “ll” like lluvia (rain); and, the letter igriega o ye -y- yo (I) like Mayo (May). Other than that, all the rest of the consonants are very subtle. Sometimes we think we have them to glue the vowels.

It is magic how a very complex word can be so easily pronounced if we separate it into the right syllables and embellish the vowels after every consonant. For example, the word malavarista: maa laa vaa ris ta. See how we separate the word: consonant-vowel-consonant. The letter “a” must be pronounced exactly as the word bla – bla- bla. Open your mouth exactly as in the word – bla – bla- bla – If we start following these examples, you will realize that Spanish is far easier than you thought.

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