Iberian and Latin American Spanish: Activity for Pronouncing the Theta Sound

There are many countries in the world that speak Spanish and accents can differ widely. Beginners may not realize that certain words sound completely different in Iberian Spanish as compared to Latin American Spanish. One of the main distinctions between these two dialects is the pronunciation of the -s-, the -z-, and the -c-.

People in Spain have a distinct way of pronouncing these sounds, known as the “theta”. Focus on the word “ciudad”, or city, as an illustrating point. A Spaniard would pronounce “ciudad” as (thiudad), using the “theta” sound. It is comparable to a lisp in English.

On the other hand, in Latin America we hear the word “ciudad” pronounced (siudad) .It’s more of an “s” sound, whereas in Spain it is a hard “T-H” sound, like the T-H of “think”, but not the soft T-H of “that”.

Pronunciation Activity

Divide students into two groups. One group will play the role of Spaniards, and the other group will represent South Americans. The goal of each group will be to pronounce words correctly according to their group. The teacher should create a list of words on the blackboard that focus on the pronunciation of the -s-, the -z-, and the -c-. For instance, the instructor could use some of the following words:

ciudad (city), cicactriz (scar), bicicleta (bike), sirena (siren), zoológico (zoo), lápiz (pencial), seguro (sure), celebrar (to celebrate), cielo (heaven), castillo (castle), resumen (summary).

Practice

Call on students from each group (Iberians, Latin Americans). Give them a word to pronounce and correct them as you go along. Focus on the "theta" sound as well as the soft "c" sound that is heard in Latin America. For instance, notice that the word "ciudad" is spelled with a "c". The letter "c" often gives us an "s-sound" or the "theta" in Spanish. However, we also hear the hard "c" that sounds like a "k" in certain words, like with the masculine noun "banco" (bank). Here is a helpful rule to teach students as you wrap up:

When the letter "C" is followed by an "A, O or U", then the C sounds like a K; and if the letter C is followed by an "I or E", then the C is soft, either like a TH (theta) in Spain, or an S in Latin America.