But it’s English!

Posted by on October 12, 2010

Spanish English month continues with a guest post by Valerie Collins on pronunciation. Valerie is a writer and linguist, a former translator, and co author of In The Garlic: Your Informative, Fun Guide to Spain.


I’ll say it upfront and get it out of the way. After 37 years in Barcelona, Spanish English still drives me crazy. First, the pronunciation. Spaniards basically can’t handle stop consonants, final consonants, most consonant clusters, various fricatives and affricates. Which doesn’t leave very many. Andalucians are notorious for dropping the remaining ones and using ‘h’ instead of ‘s’, so imagine what they manage to do to English.

Vowels are another stumbling block. Spanish only has the ‘pure’ vowels ‘a e i o u’ plus a few simple diphthongs, nor does it have the schwa (neutral or atonal vowel). So, famously, chip and cheap, ship and sheep (and you name it) are indistinguishable. And unlike English, Spanish is syllable timed, so their speech sounds like rapid machine gun fire.

No prizes for deciphering these*:

Piha ehpreh (fast food company)
Boornimut (seaside town in UK)
Gwindous (operating system)
Estarbu (chain of coffee shops)

And then there’s the famous initial ‘e’ – the one characteristic feature that mimics will fix on to produce a Spanish-sounding accent. As in the famous tourist board slogan: Espain is different.

So, who’s your idol? Merrill Estree? (stress the last syllable.) Bruh Esprinnestin? Lor Rollinn Estonn?

As everywhere, English has had a huge influence on Spanish, with many words entering the language, despite the losing battle waged by the Real Academia Española. These words have been Hispanicised, which is perfectly natural. The problem arises when Spaniards use them in English.

“This car it has eyervah?” [‘Eye’ as in eye.]
“What? Qué”?
“The car. Has EYERVAH?”
“Look, I’m really sorry and I apologise if I’m being dim, but I don’t understand.”
“But it is English!”
“Whaaat? Hang on …  Aaah!” [Slaps forehead]. “You mean AIRBAG!”

I have to say, though, that after 37 years, I often no longer remember what the English is supposed to be in the first place. Take the capital of Poland, for example. When I flew there from Barcelona to visit my younger son, the Spanish pilot announced in English that we would shortly be landing at the airoport (sic) of Barsof. And Barsof it has been in my family ever since.


* No prizes but here are the answers just in case you were wondering…

Piha ehpreh = Pizza Express
Boornimut =Bournemouth
Gwindous =  Windows
Estarbu = Starbucks

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Comments (23)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jussara Simões, Damien Hall, Fabio Fischer, Jussara Simões – LSP, Macmillan Dictionary and others. Macmillan Dictionary said: http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/but-it%E2%80%99s-english But it's English! […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention But it’s English! | Macmillan -- Topsy.com on 12th October, 2010
  • I lived in Oviedo, Asturias, northern Spain for 4 years. and learn Spanish from post beginner level up to a highish intermediate depending on the conversation!. I found the use of the English “-ing “was very common such as in “parking” so the carpark became “el parking” sports clubs could also be called “sporting” plus the name.

    Posted by VLESTER on 13th October, 2010
  • Hm, I’m afraid you are not really refer to Spanish-English. Instead you should label it as Andalusian-Spanish-English. You should try to write an essay about Basque-Spanish-English, Catalan-Spanish-English, and so on. Since Spain is not as uniform as it is supposed to be, people have their own way of mistreating/inventing English.
    Just think for a moment: how does a Scots, a Londoner, Australian, NewYorker, (etc) invent the Spanish or the French or whatever they are learning.
    Don’t take me wrong. Though the article is very fun, it lacks generalization beyond the limits of the Andalusian-Spanish domain: the words you mention have been andalusised. Just have a trip around the whole country and see!!

    Posted by Agusti Lloberas on 13th October, 2010
  • I would say people are making a big effort to talk to you and you should appreciate that! It’s very unfair of you to be so cruel when they are just trying to be nice or trying to learn your language! How rude!

    Posted by Marisa on 13th October, 2010
  • Hello! I’m catalan and I’ve been teaching english in Barcelona for 20 years now. I agree with Agusti Lloberas :Valerie, dear, your article is really funny but it’s not real. You should travel around Spain . Then you’d find two things: 1. Most people don’t know a single english word except Winston or Marlboro, maybe. 2. People in what is commonly called Spain speak languages in the first place, other than spanish. So you can find many different ways of english-speaking, as you can find them around the world, even in english-speaking countries. Be kind. We try hardly.

    Posted by Pepita Gall on 13th October, 2010
  • @ VLester Yes, indeed, there are lots of them. The latest one I added to my collection was is ‘balconing’ – the sport of jumping off a balcony into swimming pool.
    @Agusti Lloberas Yes, of course. I live in Barcelona and Catalans do speak English in a different way, although I have still found many people here pronounce English in this way. This was a very general – and humorously exaggerated – overview, and I hope to write about the others in the future.
    @Marisa I am sorry you think this is rude. I was being humorous. I would hardly have lived here for 37 years if I didn’t love the place and the people!

    Posted by Valerie on 13th October, 2010
  • @PepitaGall Thanks for your comments. See my reply to Agustí.

    Posted by Valerie on 13th October, 2010
  • Well, I don’t mean that Valerie is being rude. NO. The article is just the same kind of conversation different English teachers may have about their students. My only objection was that the article was just about Andalusian-english. Maybe I forgot to include something like :).

    Posted by Agusti Lloberas on 13th October, 2010
  • Dear Valerie,

    I appreciate your commets are humorous and meant to provide just a glimpse at the problems we have here as EFL teachers, but I think you are giving up too easily. I don’t have 37 years of experience, but I have rarely met a student whose pronunciation I have been unable to correct… and I teach in Granada (universally recognised in Spain as the worst Spanish accent of all).
    Yes there are some attrocious pronunciation errors. But then how good is your Spanish accent? I know folk who have been here for years and still speak perfectly good Spanish with very strong English accents. (i.e. they pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘hola’!!… Paella is pa’ella and not pa’eya… etc.)
    The trick I use is to tell my students to THINK BRITISH – Imagine you have an iron rod up your bum and then listen to Radio 4.

    Actually very effective!!

    Posted by Daniel Ross on 13th October, 2010
  • I also think you are being rude. We are definitely trying hard to learn your language otherwise I wouldn’t even be on this website. You Spanish must be excellent since you are judging…

    Posted by Cruz on 13th October, 2010
  • @Daniel Thanks for your comments. And your advice 🙂 I’m not a teacher now. If you take a look at our website (and our book), you’ll see we make a great deal of fun of our own difficulties with Spanish.
    @Cruz Again, I am very sorry that you have interpreted as rude what is a humorous look at the difficulties caused by the very different phonologies of Spanish and English. And yes, of course it cuts both ways. Most native English speakers have a very difficult time pronouncing Spanish. We make fun of ourselves in our book.

    Posted by Valerie on 14th October, 2010
  • Nice…I’m excited about getting involved in this overly heated debate.

    @Pepita ’20 years ESL Teaching Experience’ Gall – I wonder how many times, in your English language learning, you were told about the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘hardly’. This mistake highlights exactly the kind of limitations many English learners put on themselves by, in my opinion, not trying hard enough.

    @Daniel Ross – I would be very enlightened to hear much more about your techniques in correcting Spanish learners’ pronunciation errors. I don’t quite understand your “THINK BRITISH” approach. I think though that I disagree with it on the basis that it doesn’t make sense.

    For the record: I speak very limited Spanish but what I do know I produce with great Spanish pronunciation. Spanish is an easy language to repeat and really pronunciation shouldn’t be a cause for concern. I think you are confusing pronunciation with accent though, which is not at all important for a Spanish learner of English.

    Posted by A Craw on 14th October, 2010
  • I don’t think people in Andalucia speak English worse than in Cataluña or others parts of Spain.

    Posted by El amigo de las tormentas on 14th October, 2010
  • I think people in Andalucia may have more difficulties with the pronunciation.

    Posted by Valerie on 15th October, 2010
  • Ehem. Both of you are wrong. No one is supposed to have more difficulties than nobody else. Everyone has their own difficulties: Andalusian have theirs, Catalan have theirs, … Chinese have theirs. Many of them can be shared with other linguistic communities and many of them can be community-specific. If you want to be scientific you must be thorough!!
    Anyway, perhaps we are going too far with this arguments because Valerie’s intention in her article seems to be more jokingly than scientific.

    I’m beginning to feel guilty for having introduced the topic. 🙂 !!!



    I don’t think people in Andalucia speak English worse than in Cataluña or others parts of Spain.
    Posted by El amigo de las tormentas on 14th October, 2010

    I think people in Andalucia may have more difficulties with the pronunciation.
    Posted by Valerie on 15th October, 2010

    Posted by Agusti Lloberas on 15th October, 2010
  • Ok, I’ve read the comments around, and it really shows how people are concerned about their own issues. First things first, I agree with Valerie. Regardless of the region, there are a few common traits in pronouncing English across Spain. Also, even if you’re the greatest teacher of all, some things can never be corrected. Congratulations if as an English teacher you can guide your students through kind of correcting their accent.

    And remember this is humorous!!! Settle down people, this isn’t rude. I’m sure Valerie will have a go at her own British accent in Spanish. I have friends of many different nationalities, and we just make of fun of different pronunciations, intonations, and the rest.

    Posted by Ed on 21st October, 2010
  • Thanks for this, Ed. I’d certainly be the first to fall around laughing at my own mistakes in Spanish and Catalan.

    Posted by Valerie on 21st October, 2010
  • Just love all this heated debate. I know Valerie and actually she has a brilliant Catalan accent! Not the point, I know. She was, of course, taking an exaggerated jokey view of Spanish-English pronunciation. Having taught English in Galicia, Catalunya and now for the last number of donkeys years in Andalucía, can’t really say whether anyone has more or fewer problems getting their mouth / tongue around English sounds – except that Catalans do have an advantage having the schwa sound in their own language. I recently covered some high level proficiency classes and was struck how the students’ generally-on-the-way-to-proficient level of English was marred by relatively poor pronunciation. (And I’m not being picky here, honest, and I don’t mean accent, I mean mispronouncing individual sounds with enough frequency so as to distract from the clarity of their message). Part of the reason is because they didn’t start learning English at an age when they could pick up sounds almost effortlessly, but – and shoot me if you will – partly because their teachers have not paid enough attention to pronunciation. Not one of them. for example, was familiar with the phonemic script – an invaluable tool for correction / self-correction / being able to know the pron of a new word without hearing it – the only way when dealing with a language like English where the sound-spelling relationship is so all over the place. It is easy and fun to teach and to keep using in class – and once students (and teachers!) have learnt it they’ve
    got a tool for life.

    Posted by Theresa on 12th November, 2010
  • I am a 66 year old Catalan who has lived in England for over 40 years and worked both for the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and Comercial Department of the Spanish Embassy in London. For a few years now I have been trying to teach Castilian Spanish to the British…. I have found that the Brits have almost the same problems the other way round. Why can’t you Brits pronounce the R’s at the end of words, instead what you do is elongate the last vowel, very confusing when you do the same when trying to speak Castilian Spanish, and what’s your problem with the double or strong R. You are simply incapable of pronouning it at all. So Rioja (You drink plenty of it..) becomes Rioca or Rioka. Hablar, cantar and all other infinitives don’t translate as to speak etc., but become the 3rd person singular ie: he/she speaks etc.

    So you see we all have our problems when trying to speak another language and it all takes time and plenty of study and practice.

    What a pity I cannot hear you speaking Spanish to judge your standard after all these years of living in Spain. I have come across plenty of ex-pats who have lived in Spain for as many years as you or more and they can’t utter a single simple sentence in Spanish.

    Maria del Mar McGlinchey

    Posted by McGlinchey on 11th January, 2011
  • Revisiting – I just want to say: THIS WAS A HUMOROUS ARTICLE. And yes, I make even more fun of expats.
    Have a nice day.

    Posted by Valerie Collins on 7th October, 2014
  • Ooh, some very bad-tempered comments here on what is so clearly a humorous post (and one I hadn’t read before, so thanks for commenting Valerie and drawing my attention to it). I taught English in Italy and the UK for several years. In Florence I had a charming and diligent student who could never get his tongue round the word ‘road’ however hard he tried. You see, he had seen it written down first, and so regardless of how many times he heard the correct pronunciation he would always say ro-ad, two syllables. It was quite endearing.

    Posted by Liz on 7th October, 2014
  • I’m having a problem understanding the bad tempered comments here too. It’s clearly a very affectionate piece, written with tongue firmly wedged in cheek. And Brits are even better at sending themselves up than sending anyone else up. We can dish it out and we can take it. How I cringe when I ask expats who have been to the Balearics where they have been for their holidays and they insist on saying ‘Madge-orka.’

    Posted by Sandra Piddock on 13th October, 2014
  • To say nothing of Eyebitza.
    BTW: offended commenters might also do well to ask why on earth I have stayed so long here if, as they assume, I take such a dim view of the place. 🙂

    Posted by Valerie Collins on 13th October, 2014
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