Speaking Spanish like a native . . .

By the grace of G-d 
by Nathaniel Segal

  Improve your pronunciation of Spanish – smile and speak with a lisp

This normative pronunciation of Spanish (in the Americas) sounds like an English language lisp.  It also helps to form your lips in the shape of a smile.  Try smiling and speaking Spanish at the same time.  Of course, you can't smile and say the /ō/ and /ū/ sounds.  So then, adjust your lips into a circle.

I've watched the mouths of native speakers.  It seems to me as though their lips are in either of these two formations.  Their lips are either rounded or smiling.  There may not be much of a middle ground.

§  I really need to update the content of this essay.  I've now (2011) taken the full three semesters of college Spanish as offered by the University of Missouri - Kansas City.  My professors came from three Spanish-speaking regions.  One professor came from Argentina; one from Costa Rica; and one from Spain. §

I've heard Spanish on the radio and distinctly heard the lisp.

Besides this, I believe that a man's spoken Spanish differs slightly from a woman's.  The male speaks with more of a lisping sound than a woman.  Regardless, really try to use the "smile" muscles alternating directly with the "oh" muscles.  And try to quickly move from the rounded mouth to the smiling one.  It seems to me that there is as little middle ground as possible in Spanish.

I learned some Spanish when I spent a month visiting my son in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I heard the lisp very quickly.  At times, I was with Norté Americanos (folks from the U.S.A. or Canada) who were learning Spanish.  My son was spending his junior year of college abroad in Argentina.  He agreed with me when I mentioned to him that the native speakers of Spanish sounded as though they were lisping.

Take advice from my son if not from me.

The native speakers who I met generally spoke some English or Hebrew besides Spanish.  They helped me learn the Spanish language.  I spent a fair amount of time immersed with these speakers of Spanish.  I noticed the extreme lip movements when these native speakers were conversing among themselves.

Once toward the end of my visit, someone told me that I was speaking Spanish well.  I know that this remark reflected my imitation of their pronunciation rather than a proficiency in their language.

I couldn't (and still can't) count from thirteen to nineteen.  It's hard for me to tell time – unless I'm choosing días, tardes, or noches.  I was always asking, "¿Como se dice. . .?"  I did a lot of pointing at items in stores.  I learned quickly which was a men's room and which was for women, though.  Here in the U.S.A., we see the international symbols for men, women, and so on.  Argentinians use these symbols in the airport and in hotels for foreign guests but rarely elsewhere.

By the way, a men's rest room is for Caballeros – Gentlemen.

At the other end of the spectrum, I ordered tasteless egg noodles with plain tomato sauce in a restaurant because no one could explain in English what this exotically named dish was.  The gist in Spanish sounded as though the item was a delicacy.  Now why didn't I carry some sort of phrasebook with me?  Male machismo?

* * *

Spanish in the Americas ranges in a continuum of pronunciation and vocabulary from Mexico, to the Caribbean, to the Pacific coast of South America, until reaching the end of the earth – Argentina.

In Argentina, they call their speech Castellano while they speak Español in Mexico.  Consider the expression "yo me llamo."  In Mexico, one pronounces the letter 'y' as the 'y' in the English word "yes."  Moving beyond Mexico, the pronunciation is generally like the letter 'j' in "Joe" or like 'ch' in "church."

By the time you reach Argentina, they're saying "zho" where the 'y' sounds like the 's' in "measure."  In fact, the Argentinians use this same sound for 'll' – "zho meh zhamo."  The word 'Caballeros' is pronounced "ca ba ZHeh ros," and their language is "Ca steh ZHa no."  (I already knew that saying yo with the phrase"me llamo is redundant.)

Since my trip to Argentina, I found a used copy of a Mexican Spanish college dictionary.  This is a dictionary by and for speakers of Mexican Spanish.

I tried to find some words of Castellano in this dictionary, and they weren't there.

In Argentina, I learned to make and drink yerba maté (ZHER ba MA teh).  I brought home a package that had instructions for preparing the drink.  I looked up the longer words in my Mexican Spanish dictionary.  I couldn't find these words.  I tried an Italian-English dictionary since many Argentinians have Italian origins.  No luck.

What I have written is anecdotal.  Keep an open mind.  I may yet learn to speak Spanish tolerably well.  And I suppose that I would be better off learning Mexican Spanish.  However, I have a stubborn, contrarian streak in my personality.  I may try to really learn Castellano.  Then again, how do they speak in Cuba?  I'd like to be the first person on my block who has visited Cuba  (I think).

* * *

yerba maté - A stimulant herbal (yerba) drink from the maté plant, a member of the Holly family.  I'm not sure if the stimulating property is from caffeine or from another stimulant such as those found in tea.  This national beverage of Argentina and Paraguay is prepared by placing a metal straw fitted with a strainer – a bombilla – into a dried gourd.  Then you fill the gourd with the flaked leaves and sometimes with shredded bark of the maté plant and pour boiling water into the gourd.  You drink the hot beverage through the straw and keep refilling the gourd with hot water.  Relax and keep on drinking and refilling the gourd with hot water.  Pass it around to friends as you would with a peace pipe.

Copyright © 2001, 2011 Nathaniel Segal