A solid Spanish accent, like Alfred Molina uses to portray Diego Rivera in “Frida,” makes a performance all the more believable. A questionable one, however, like Al Pacino uses as Tony Montana in “Scarface,” can detract from an otherwise impeccable performance. But what separates good Spanish accents from bad ones? Here’s everything you need to know about the pronunciation and inflection of Spanish accents, plus tips on how to nail one before your next audition.
“Modern Family” Courtesy ABC
While there are dozens of different types of Spanish accents and dialects depending on region and sociocultural factors, experts name six primary accents: Castilian, Mexican, Rolo, Rioplatense, Chilean, and Caribeño. Here’s a breakdown of each accent’s nuances, with speech examples from the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA).
Castilian: The Castilian accent represents the most unaltered form of the Spanish language. Castilian Spanish is recognizable by the way it substitutes the letters “z” and “c” before vowels with a “th” sound.
Mexican: Mexican Spanish is faster-paced than other accents and usually includes a stressed syllable at the end of each sentence. It also is peppered with slang and adaptations of English terminology.
Rolo: Although Colombia contains multiple accent types, the most common one is the Rolo accent used in the country’s capital and most populous cities. Rolo is slower-paced and somewhat clearer than other Spanish accent iterations.
Rioplatense: If you like a little crossover with your Spanish accent, then this Argentinian one with a sprinkle of Italian musicality is for you. Unlike other Spanish accents, the double L (“ll”) is pronounced with a “sh” sound rather than a “y” or “j” sound.
Chilean: The fast-paced Chilean accent pronounces the “ch” sound as “sh” and omits those pesky “s” and “d” sounds from most words.
Caribeño: Caribbean Spanish is even faster than Chilean Spanish, so pretend that you’re in an Amy Sherman-Palladino show and speed up your speech. Caribeño speakers also omit “s” and “d” sounds, and often shorten words to talk even faster.
Mexican Spanish and Caribbean Spanish are the most commonly spoken variations in the U.S., with Mexican Spanish usually used as the standard dialect in the U.S. education system. This means that if you’re asked to perform a Spanish accent for a production filmed in the U.S., it’s most likely to be a Mexican Spanish accent.
“Scarface” Courtesy Universal Pictures
Change your pronunciation in the following ways to deliver an authentic-sounding Spanish accent:
Exchange long vowels for short ones: English uses both short and long pronunciations for vowels, but Spanish only uses short vowels. So for words such as “evolve” and “bone,” switch out the long vowels with short ones and say “eh-volve” and “bahn.”
Use the silent “h”: The “h” is silent sometimes in Spanish, so leave out some “h” sounds at the beginning of words to sound more convincing. “Hello” might be “ello,” “helium” becomes “eelium,” and “hand” is “and.”
Switch out “j” and “x” for “h”: Fear not, the “h” sound is not left out entirely. Substitute the “h” sound for some “j” and “x” sounds—think of the way “jalapeño” is pronounced. You might say “hustice” instead of “justice” and “mohie” instead of “moxie.” Just don’t go overboard—this should be an occasional switch, not for every single “j” and “x.”
Switch out “ll” with “y”: Spanish accents use a “y” sound for the double “L.” This means that native Spanish speakers speaking English sometimes will use the “y” sound in words that English speakers would use an “L” sound. Instead of pronouncing “allergies” like “a-ler-geez,” for example, they might say “a-yer-geez.”
Switch out “n” with “ñ”: Spanish uses an “nya” sound on the accented “n,” or eñe. A piñata is pronounced “pin-yah-ta,” not “pin-ah-ta.”
Switch out “rr” with a rolled “r”: The double “r” indicates that it should be rolled in Spanish, so native Spanish speakers talking in English might use a rolled “r” instead of the “r” sound. Try rolling your “r” for words with a double “r” such as “current,” “hurrah,” and “burrows.”
Stress certain syllables: If a word ends in a vowel, stress the penultimate syllable: “banana” is “baNAna.” If a word ends in a consonant, except for words ending in “n” and “s,” stress the final syllable: “freedom” is “freeDOM.”
Glide vowels: Any time two vowels are next to each other, including when one word ends in one and the next word begins with one, merge them as one. Standard American English includes several merged vowels, or diphthongs, such as “loin” and “round”; you don’t pronounce the “o” and “i” separately in “loin,” or the “o” and “u” separately in “round.” Instead, the vowels merge as one combined sound. Apply that to other words with double vowels that are not diphthongs in English, such as “piano” and “naïve.” Instead of pronouncing them as “pee-ah-no” and “nay-ih-ve,” try using the inflections “pyah-no” and “nyeeve.”
Speak quickly: Try speeding up your speech, particularly if you’re striving for a Mexican Spanish or Caribeño Spanish accent, since native speakers of these usually speak very quickly.
“Roma” Credit: Alfonso Cuarón
- Study Spanish language: Learn about Spanish phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary to gain a more robust understanding of its accents. Watch Spanish films, TV shows, and YouTube videos; tune in to Spanish radio; explore educational language apps such as Duolingo, LingQ, and Drops; and spend time with native Spanish speakers.
- Study Spanish accents: Further immerse yourself in the sounds of Spanish accents. Beyond IDEA, check out films and TV shows that depict authentic accents, such as “Roma,” “Cane,” and “Narcos.” Take note on what works, what doesn’t, and any other thoughts on the accents.
- Practice: The more you practice your Spanish accent(s), the more realistic yours will sound. Strive to be sensitive to issues of diversity and authenticity, and practice your accent alone, with friends and colleagues, and in front of strangers. Gauge their reactions and respond accordingly.
- Do a trial run: Before auditions and performances, spend as much time as possible testing out your accent. Dialect coach Sammi Grant recommends talking in the accent for at least 20 minutes so that you can maintain it during your performance.
- Keep it consistent: If you forget to roll your “r” or accidentally pronounce a double “ll” as “l,” just keep it moving. Even if your accent doesn’t sound completely correct, the show must go on—and casting directors will likely be more impressed with your dedication to the craft than concerned about a flub or two.