I’m coming up on 20 years in Chile, and I speak Spanish all day, every day. Sure, I still have an accent, but it rarely gets in the way—except when a diphthong is involved!
The dastardly diphthong is the sound produced when two vowels buddy up in the same syllable and get so tight they morph into a whole new vowel sound (sounds almost biological, doesn’t it?). We have our share in English, such as in words like “cloud” (see? Say it slowly—there’s an ah sound teaming up with an u to make an ow) or “coin” (when o dates ee and they make little oy’s). (You can Wiki up the full list for English, Spanish, and more languages here: “Wiki:Diphthongs”)
Spanish has more diphthongs than English does, which means it has vowel sounds we don’t have in English, which is where pronunciation problems come in. In fact, in my experience (as a speaker and listener), vowels seem to cause more headaches than consonants (I’ve got a good story about that—tell you later!**)
Spanish speakers are quick to point out that English speakers say “No-u” or “Hello-u,” for example, and if you listen closely, sure enough! There it is! (so much for that “long o” we learned about in grade school). Spanish speakers come up short at the end of a final o, so it sounds more like “No/” when they refuse something, although most seem to emulate and even exaggerate the final u when speaking English and call out Hel-lo-uu!
Ahem, back to the point… which is that I have mastered the pronunciation of the difficult Rodrigo—ok, mastered might be an exaggeration, but at least it’s been a long time since anyone has looked at me funny when I say it. Río Tinguiririca now rolls effortlessly (and gleefully) off my tongue, and I can even refer to my ENT as an otorrinolaringólogo without stumbling if I take it slow, but the other day I made said something about a “neurólogo” (neurologist) and had to repeat it several times! Jeesh! Reminded me of trying to buy a Beatles tape (back in the day) and the clerk came back with a group called Virus, which is pronounced bee-duus in Spanish and apparently sounded the same to her…
Something about Marchant Pereira (My Favorite Language Trick)
There’s a street near the Pedro de Valdivia metro stop called Marchant Pereira. See that diphthong in there? That e and i right between the two r’s? No easy feat for an English speaker. First, the r’s sound like flapping d’s (think of how the old stereotypical English butler would say “Yes, indeed. Vedy good sir” and you’ll see what I mean. And then there’s that wrapped-into-one ay-ee between them. Talk about tying a gringa tongue in knots! For years, every time I tried to say it (and for some reason it used to happen fairly often), someone would correct me. So that’s when I learned a great trick.
Whenever I had to refer to the street I would say “Esa calle, mm, Marchaaant…” and stretch it out as if I was trying to remember, and someone would always finish it for me! It was brilliant! I could then just go on with whatever I was trying to say and skip the mini pronunciation lesson!
And that reminds me of another story, which I’ll tell you right now, because this one is related. Back when I was still teaching ESL (a looong time ago), I had a student who was an eminence in his field, but who was particularly challenged by English. He, like many Spanish speakers, it seems, had a problem with words that have both an s sound and a th sound, as in “something” which very often comes out “thumsing.” So we were working on that, because, well, how could I let this very intelligent many go around saying “thumsing”?! So we practiced…
Repeat after me:
Some (to which he dutifully replied some)
No, try again… Some (some)
And he looks me straight in the eye and says:
So back to the present, and here I am again with the damned diphthonged up eu sound that’s driving me nuts. Trying to coax the ay and the uu to cozy up into one sound is hard! Making me neura, even neurótica, and causing so much neurosis that it must be neurodegenerativo and I can’t possibly be neutro!
(Wait… should that be “neutra“? Nooo! I’m using up all my neuronas on diphthongs today and can’t even think about Spanish language gender issues!)
Okay, so now I’ll tell you that story: Years ago I taught English as a Second Language to Spanish-speaking adults. One day we were working on pronunciation and identifying problem areas, such as the difference between sh and ch, s and z, and b and v, because in Chilean Spanish the two sounds tend to be pronounced the same (ch, s, and b, respectively). I explained that my philosophy was not to worry about differences in pronunciation that do not impede understanding, where upon almost on cue one of the students gave me the perfect example of when it does. He nodded thoughtfully and said, “Yes, but bowels are the problem.” (oops!)