Spanish Accent Marks and Symbols: Tips for Authentic Pronunciation

If you’re new to learning Spanish and want to sound more authentic in your pronunciation, SSH is here to help!  Today, we’ll learn about Spanish accent marks and symbols. And don’t miss our recent post with seven ways to learn Spanish with your preschooler.

You’ve likely noticed that written Spanish involves more than just letters. This may seem a little intimidating at first!  Luckily, Spanish is a very structured and consistent language, so once you’ve learned the basic rules of accent marks and symbols, they’re easy to apply.  Read on for tips on Spanish accent marks and with a little practice, you’ll sound more like a native speaker than an American!   

¿Upside Down Symbols? ¡How Unusual!

Spanish question mark and exclamation mark

Those unusual question marks and exclamation points quickly catch the eye of an English reader, but have no fear!  Their purpose is exactly the same as in English – they just point out a question or an exclamation. The difference is that in Spanish, the marks appear at both the beginning and the end. The opening marks look ‘upside down’ compared to English (¿ and ¡) and the closing marks (? and !) are the same as in English.

You might also be surprised to see these mid-sentence.  Unlike in English, the Spanish symbols can highlight just a questioning phrase or an exclamatory phrase (vs the whole sentence).

Si no quieres ir, ¿por qué no te quedas en casa?  If you don’t want to go, why don’t you stay at home?

Accent Marks – Small But Mighty

Accent marks make foreign writing look even more foreign.  Some languages have all kinds of accent marks, but Spanish keeps it simple.  You’ll be happy to know the accents are only written above vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and they’re always written in the same direction (bottom left to top right, like á).

To understand why we use accents, let’s head to the chalkboard to learn two general rules of pronunciation in Spanish: 

  1. Words that end in consonants (except for n or s) are stressed on the final syllable.  Examples:  feliz (feh-LEES), español (ehs-pah-NYOL)
  2. Words that end in vowels (plus n or s) are stressed on the second-to-last syllable. Practice saying these examples – they’re familiar even to beginners! 
    • helado (ay-LAH-do) – ice cream
    • cerveza (sehr-BEH-sah) – beer
    • piñata (pee-NYAH-tah) 
    • mañana (ma-NYAH-nah) – morning/tomorrow

These are general rules and, just like in any language, there are always exceptions.  But don’t let that stress you! (Pardon the pun). Accent marks make these cases easier to handle.  Whenever a word doesn’t follow the rules above, an accent will tell you which syllable to emphasize.

For example:  Teléfono (teh-LEH-foh-noh) and fotógrafo (foh-TOH-grah-foh) end in vowels but they don’t follow the rule.  The accents tell you where the emphasis falls in each word.

Accent marks also help you sort out the meanings of homonyms (words that sound alike and are spelled alike).  For example, si (without an accent mark) means “if” and (with accent) means “yes”. 

, me gustaría ir a la fiesta pero solo si tú vas conmigo.  Yes, I’d like to go to the party, but only if you go with me.

Another way accents help is to show tenses, as many conjugated Spanish words are spelled alike:

Roberto habló (Robert spoke) 

Yo hablo (I speak)

N and U Are All Dressed Up!

Two other characters that stand out in written Spanish are the ñ (eñe) and the dots that sometimes appear above a ü (diaeresis). These little add-ons are small but important! In fact, the ñ has its own place in the Spanish alphabet as the 15th letter in line. 

To compare the sound of the fancy ñ with the regular n, let’s look at the word piano (which is spelled and sounds the same in both English and Spanish).  An n without a tilde (~) sounds just like an English npiano (pee-ah-no)

When you add the ~ (tilde) to the n, the sound changes to “ny”: 

mañana (mah-nyah-nah) – morning or niña (nee-nyah) – girl

The dots above the u operate in a similar way.  They change a hard g sound to a gw sound.  It’s a little more complicated than that, but for starters, you can hear the sound in the Spanish word for penguin, pingüino (peeng-gwee-no).

Type Like a (Spanish) Pro

For a little homework assignment, try typing Spanish characters on your computer keyboard. Here’s a link to show you what keys will do this!

Practice Makes Perfect

This might seem like a lot of info to digest, and grammar is not much fun in any language!   But we hope this gives new Spanish learners a boost of confidence in their pronunciation and a little familiarity with the written language. Don’t be afraid to practice speaking and writing any chance you get, with your kids, our staff, your neighbors, or even complete strangers!  

So, what do you think?