Talking Dictionaries And Language Learning

Is it worth the extra money to purchase an elecgtronic dictionary with sound?

The following comments have specific reference to learning Spanish but I believe they are relevant to the learning of other languages as well.

Some people (curiously and unfortunately, not all) who learn a new language are interested in achieving a good accent in their new language. Nevertheless, it is not well known that there are three components of the accent of a given language: the rhythm or intonation (the music) of the language, the links between the sounds, syllables, and words in an utterance, and lastly, the proper pronunciation of the sounds of the language. The lesson here is that the formation of the vowels and consonants of a language is only part of the task of learning that language. However, it is where most learners begin. Let’s look at the place of the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants of Spanish.

Many language experts believe that the intonation and linkage contribute more to speaking like a native than does the proper pronunciation of all the sounds. This can be seen in the manner in which the people of San José, Cost Rica pronounce the Spanish letter “ere”. For some strange reason, which I have not been able, to track down historically or linguistically, they pronounce the word “arroz” just like a Gringo would. Their double “r” is not trilled as in most Spanish speaking countries; it is not velar as it is in much of Puerto Rico. It is pronounced just as an untrained American would pronounce it. Yet, the person hearing this “error” has no doubt that the persons speaking are native speakers of Spanish. The flow of their speech is perfect and the listener just thinks, “I wonder why they pronounce that word that way…” In other words, often the pronunciation of the sounds is the least important element of speaking well.

Yet pronunciation is the place where the learner should begin. Habits of bad pronunciation once ingrained become automatic and are hard to eliminate, while errors of intonation and linkage can more easily be consciously detected and corrected in later stages of the learning process.

The person learning Spanish has one advantage over the person learning another language. The advantage is that most the vowels and consonants of Spanish are close to those of English, and their pronunciation is perfectly regular.

First of all, the vowels sounds represented by the 5 letters, a, e, i, and u, have five sounds. That’s right, five! It is not like the case of the many English vowel sounds represented by the same letters, such as rough, cough, though, and through, or the case of the same sound represented by different letters in the words, ache, weigh, pay, hey, jail, and tape.

The major difference is that the vowel sounds in Spanish are pure; they do not have the little “tail’ that English vowels have.

The consonant sounds in Spanish are largely similar to those of English. This does not mean that they are all the same! There are differences with the “l”, “b” and “d” sounds. The main difference with some consonants in Spanish is that they are not “aspirated”, that is they are not made with a puff of air, as are those of English. If you put the back of your hand in front of your mouth when you say “Papa” or “tonto” in Spanish you should not feel the same movement of air that you feel when you say “Pope” or “tent” in English.

These differences are real but fairly manageable by the learner who wants to start off right in Spanish. Once the differences are known they can be worked on. For example, it is relatively easy to leave off the English glide at the end of the Spanish vowels.

Progress can be made with written descriptions of the Spanish sounds. The sounds can be described by comparing them with close English words. And the ear can be trained by listening to native speakers. There are many speech samples on the Internet and most large cities in the United States have at least one Television channel transmitting in Spanish.

All of the above has the purpose of leading into the issue of the value of a “talking” dictionary. Many people who want to learn Spanish think that they need a talking dictionary. Often the learner thinks that this will provide an advantage in learning the language. However, it is a mistake to invest in a talking dictionary. The very best are very expensive and most of them, even the most expensive, have such small speakers that it is impossible to hear the fine points of the pronunciation of Spanish.

The learner very soon knows how to pronounce Spanish since the rules are 100% regular. What is need is the effort to actually pronounce the sounds. Many learners are ashamed of imitating the sounds of the language they are learning and they speak the new language with the same intonation, linkage, and pronunciation of their own native language.

The end result of the learner’s pronunciation (as of his or her overall accent) will be the result of his or her own ability and of the effort expended. The talking dictionary does not contribute anything to the equation. A good electronic Dictionary such as the Oxford Spanish English Dictionary, found at , will be all the learner needs.


About The Author

Frank Gerace has taught in Latinamerica and now teaches English in New York City. He provides resources on accent reduction and the proper American English accent at He also maintains resources for Spanish Speaking learners of English at

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