Tricky Sounds: Saying the Letters B and V in Spanish
The letters "B" and "V" have probably been the most frustrating for me in my Spanish language learning journey. As a native English speaker, my brain is so wired to pronounce the strong /v/ sound when I see this letter in a word.
Why are these sounds so difficult to differentiate?
Science says that older language learners have a tendency to use their existing sound systems. This means that older learners have to work extra hard to "pay attention to sound contrasts that don't occur in their first language. Babies and younger learners, however, don't usually need this type of training. Their brains and sound systems are still flexible enough to be able to hear and process sounds like native speakers do" (King & Mackey, The Bilingual Edge, page 66). What does this mean? While native Spanish speakers can likely tell the difference between the "B" and "V" sound in everyday speech, it is much harder for older, non-native language learners to hear and process these differences in sound. Our brains simply weren't trained to tune into them at an early age.
I've had several conversations now with native speakers in different countries and everyone seems to feel a little differently about how to think of the way these letters are pronounced. Why the picture of my kitten? I promise I will get to that in just a moment.
My friend in Spain explained to me that these letters are pronounced very similarly in Spanish. B is bilabial meaning that it is a sound created with both lips together (like P), but sounded. V on the other hand is labiodental, meaning the sound is formed with our teeth up and lips down. She explained to me that while theoretically there is a difference, they are pronounced very similarly. As a child, she remembered feeling like she would never be able to tell when she was supposed to spell a word with a "B" or a "V" letter. It reminded me of my daughter's latest spelling mix-ups in English. Now that she has learned the phonogram "ph" she keeps spelling words with "ph" instead of just "f." I think there must be little tricks like this in every language!
Awhile back I had drawn the conclusion that "B" and "V" are both pronounced /b/. Then I was corrected by a native Spanish speaker in Mexico. She explained to me that while the sounds are very similar, she wouldn't consider them exactly the same. The "V" is pronounced as a softer /b/ than the "B" letter's /b/. She would describe making the "B" sound as putting your lips together as if to block the air and then releasing the sound. The "V" sound can be thought of more as though you are trying to feel your top teeth touch your lower lip as you push the sound through.
I think I was being told the same thing by both of my friends, it just depends on how you want to think of the sounds. Technically, the /b/ and /v/ sound in Spanish are different. For practical purposes, if you are a native English speaker, I think you can consider them as both making a /b/ sound to help frame it within our existing sound system. Especially if you are working on breaking yourself of the English /v/ sound.
Here is an amusing story for you: When I was in the midst of writing Volume One, we got a new kitten. Nobody could decide what to name her, so I finally decided on Vida. Why? So I could force my kids and I into practicing the Spanish "V" sound!
Meet Vida (bee-dah):