Learning a new language has its ups and downs, and Spanish is no exception. While learning Spanish is entirely manageable, there are some uniquely tricky words that you should be on the lookout for.
Although Spanish isn’t even one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, there are plenty of words that will make your head spin. Getting ahead of the curve and tackling these hard Spanish words will help prevent any embarrassing situations. Not only will you know what they mean, but you’ll also be able to pronounce them expertly, thanks to our pronunciation guides!
In addition to expanding your vocabulary, nailing the toughest words will make every other word seem like a piece of cake. If you’re an intermediate Spanish learner, one of the best ways to push past the intermediate plateau is to learn some advanced words. By training yourself at a higher level, you will ensure that everything else seems relatively easier.
Also, any time you spend working on your pronunciation is time well spent. If you read our guide to learning Spanish fast, you already know that working hard on your pronunciation will pay off down the line. Research shows that mispronouncing words early on will make it harder to correct your speech down the line. That’s why mastering these challenging words and sounds now will help you tremendously with the rest of your Spanish vocabulary.
So, if you’re feeling up for the challenge, make sure to grab some snacks, brew some coffee, and settle in for a fun ride!
What makes Spanish words more difficult to pronounce for English speakers?
Spanish and English have a lot of similarities, but pronunciation is not one of them. While many English words may be spelled similarly to Spanish words (and vice-versa), these languages have entirely different pronunciation systems.
However, I do have good news for you. Everything in Spanish is pronounced exactly as it is written. So, if you can read a word, you can say it aloud!
The problem is that many people don’t spend enough time drilling the most common Spanish sounds and keep relying on their native language pronunciation. This is true even for Spanish heritage speakers who may know how to speak the language but struggle with pronouncing basic words. For example, check out the following clip of a young Selena from the 1997 movie.
Selena (1997) - Be Who You Are Scene (1/9) | Movieclips
In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how to expertly pronounce some of the hardest words and sounds in Spanish.
How is X pronounced in Spanish?
If there was a chameleon of all Spanish letters, it would certainly be the letter X. This mysterious letter can seemingly take on any possible sound, from sh to s to ks to even j sounds. Here’s a quick guide on how to deal with it:
- Words that start with X. Spanish doesn’t have that many words that start with X, and the few that do are quite obscure, such as xilófago (xylophagus). However, if you spot a word that starts with an X, the safe bet is to pronounce it as if it started with an S.
- X before a vowel. Generally, an X before a vowel will be pronounced like a -ks, such as in exacto or conexión. Some people may also pronounce an X before a vowel as if it was an S, so don’t be surprised if you hear someone pronounce exacto as eh-sac-toe!
- X before a consonant. Words with an X before a consonant almost always have a -ks sound, such as in exportación and expectativas. Like words with an X before a vowel, some local accents may also pronounce it as an S.
- Mexican words with an X. Mexico is a noted exception to these rules, namely due to the indigenous origins of these words. If you’ve heard México in Spanish, you know that the X sounds more like a Spanish J or an English H than an X. This rule is generally applicable for any word of Mexican origin, including Oaxaca and Xalapa. However, there are always exceptions, such as Xochimilco, where the X sounds like an S.
How is G pronounced in Spanish?
G is another word in Spanish with a little bit of an identity crisis. It sometimes sounds like an English G, while it sometimes sounds like a Spanish J. So, what gives?
Luckily, there are a few hard and fast rules that will help you know how to pronounce the letter G in each situation.
The letter G sounds like a Spanish J (as in Javier) when it is:
- In front of the vowel E, such as in coger (coh-hehr).
- In front of the vowel I, such as in urgido (oor-he-doe).
The letter G sounds like an English G (as in goose) when it is:
- In front of a consonant, such as in agnóstico (ag-nohs-tee-coe).
- In front of the vowel A, such as in gato (gah-toe).
- In front of the vowel O, such as in goma (goh-mah).
- In front of the vowel U, such as in Guadalajara (goo-ah-dah-lah-hah-rah).
As you study more and more Spanish, you’ll be able to pronounce Spanish words with G like a pro. In the meantime, these handy rules will help you figure out how to pronounce any word with the letter G in it!
How is J pronounced in Spanish?
Unlike its copycat cousin G, the letter J is pronounced pretty consistently across the board. In Spanish, the letter J is pronounced like a strong English H. Think words like jalapeño (HAH-lah-peh-nyoh) and Javier (HAH-ree-air). You definitely don’t want to pronounce the J in jalapeño like an English J–people won’t understand you!
How is K pronounced in Spanish?
The letter K in Spanish is pronounced almost exactly like the letter K in English, and it only has one sound. Unlike the letter C, which has two different sounds (potentially more depending on the region!), you don’t have to worry about different pronunciations when you see a word with the letter K, like kilo or Tokio.
How is Ñ pronounced in Spanish?
Ñ is the one letter in the Spanish alphabet that is not in the English alphabet. While other languages like French and Italian have equivalent sounds, English doesn’t have a sound that is the same as or even similar to the letter Ñ.
The best way to think of it is kind of like the gn sound in lasagna. However, that’s still not very accurate. So, the best way to learn how to pronounce the letter Ñ in Spanish is by watching the following short video.
How to Say Ñ | Spanish Lessons>
How is R pronounced in Spanish?
R is one of the hardest letters to pronounce in Spanish. First, we have the infamous rolling R, which is often cited as the single hardest Spanish sound to learn for non-native speakers.
In reality, it’s not that difficult a sound to emulate. Many languages have rolling Rs, including Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, and Hindi–but not English. Since this sound is absent from English, it’s one of the hardest for English speakers to emulate.
Here are a few things that will trigger a rolling R sounds in Spanish:
- A single R at the beginning of a word. Words can’t start with a soft R sound, so any word that starts with an R will have a rolling R sound, such as Roberto, rana, reino, etc.
- A single R immediately after an N, L or S. Any time an R immediately follows an N, L or S, you’ll need to roll the R. Some examples of this are sonrojar, enredoso, alrededor, and Israel.
- Double Rs. There’s no clearer sign that you need to roll your Rs than when you spot a set of two Rs. Double Rs are only used in situations when a soft R sound is possible. Sometimes, the difference between a soft or rolled R could change the meaning of the word, such as in pero (but) and perro (dog).
To roll your Rs, all you have to do is touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, just behind your top teeth. Then, blow air through your mouth but try to only separate your tongue from the roof of your mouth just a tiiiiiny bit. The air will cause your tongue to flap against the roof of your mouth, thus creating the rolling R sound.
How is H pronounced in Spanish?
If you thought the last two letters were on the complicated side, then I have good news for you: the H is completely silent in Spanish! You never want to pronounce the letter H in any Spanish word, even if the English-speaking part of your brain is telling you that hospital and hotel need to do right by the H at the beginning.
The only exceptions are when the H is part of a two-letter sound, such as in:
- Ch. The Spanish Ch sounds like the English Ch, such as in chocolate.
- Sh. The Spanish Sh sounds like the English Sh, such as in sushi.
Top 10 hardest words to pronounce in Spanish
- IPA: ferokaˈril
- Pronunciation: feh-ro-kah-reel
This word is the stuff a Spanish learner’s nightmares are made of. It has not one but two sets of double Rs! So, if you can’t roll your Rs to perfection yet, this word will keep you honest. Plus, the -il ending adds a challenging twist at the end, keeping your tongue busy after that second set of double Rs.
- IPA: desaroʝaˈðoɾes
- Pronunciation: des-ah-ro-yah-doh-rehs
If you don’t have a lot of patience to pronounce long words, you’re going to have to muster up as much as you can for this one. While not one of the longest words in Spanish, this multi-syllabic word will take you on a rollercoaster ride as you work your way through six syllables, a set of double Rs, and a set of double Ls. Buckle up!
- IPA: aeɾoˈpweɾto
- Pronunciation: ah-eh-roh-poo-ehr-toe
This word is challenging to pronounce, even for native speakers. Just as in English, the aero prefix means “air”. So, “aeropuerto” (aero-puerto) literally translates into airport (air-port). However, Spanish has another word for air: aéreo. This is commonly used for anything related to air transport, such as transportes aéreos.
Thus, many people end up saying “aereopuerto,” when what they really mean to say is aeropuerto. Don’t fall for this rookie mistake, and you’ll be well on your way to speaking Spanish better than many native speakers!
- IPA: ronroneˈaɾ
- Pronunciation: ron-ron-eh-ar
This word is challenging, once again thanks to the Rs. However, it doesn’t have any double Rs. As you know now, you don’t necessarily need double Rs to trigger a rolling r. So,in the word ronronear, you have two hard r’s and one soft Rs, with the last R being the soft one. Can you identify the pronunciation rules we laid out in the section above?
- IPA: oɾnitoˈrinko
- Pronunciation: or-nee-toe-reen-coh
The platypus is an odd fellow, with a name that perfectly matches its quirky vibes. The same is true for Spanish, though the word ornitorrinco may have slightly more chaotic energy. Thus, this word landed right in the middle of our ranking for the hardest words in Spanish.
- IPA: otorinolaɾinˈɡoloɣo
- Pronunciation: oh-toe-ree-no-rah-leen-goh-loh-goh
Medical terms are notoriously hard to pronounce in many languages, and Spanish is no exception. An otorrinolaringólogo is an ENT doctor (ears, nose, and throat), which is an abbreviation for the full name “otorhinolaryngologist.”
While English smartly uses the acronym ENT to avoid having to pronounce this word, I regret to inform you that otorrinoralingólogo is widely used in Spanish. So, if you feel that you may have a throat or ear infection, you may have to hunker down and learn how to pronounce this word before going to the hospital.
Luckily, there’s a great song that will help you recall the pronunciation of this word without any problems. Legendary Mexican singer Laura León managed to turn this spooky word into a wonderfully-catchy chorus.
Laura leon El Otorrinolaringologo
- IPA: beɾˈɣwensa
- Pronunciation: vehr-goo-ehn-za
This word is hard to pronounce because it has four tricky sounds:
- A soft R
- A G
- A Ü with diéresis
- A Z
Once you get a handle on all four of these sounds, though, it’s not too tricky a word to pronounce. Just make sure to think about how you need to pronounce each of these components!
- IPA: ˈbeɾðe
- Pronunciation: ver-deh
This is the shortest word in our top ten rankings, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging to say out loud. This word belongs in the top ten hardest words to say in Spanish list simply because of the deadly -rd combo.
You might think that you’ve nailed down your Rs. You might think you’ve got no problem pronouncing your Ds. But a combo of the two can make even native speakers quiver.
This combo is so hard to say out loud because it really is a tongue workout. Rolling your R and having to immediately press it against your front teeth will have you feeling like you’re at the gym!
- IPA: xiˈɾafa
- Pronunciation: he-ra-fah
The J sound in jirafa will trip up lots of Spanish learners, particularly English speakers. If you’re just getting started on your Spanish-learning journey, you may have looked at this word and thought, “oh, easy! It’s just like giraffe.” And that’s part of the reason why pronouncing this word is so tough.
In Spanish, the J sounds more like an English H. That makes this word he-ra-fah, as opposed to gee-raff, as in English.
- IPA: aɣuˈxeɾo
- Pronunciation: ah-goo-heh-ro
If you’re looking at this word and don’t even know where to start, we don’t blame you! This word has a lot of different things going on, but the pronunciation guides above will help you break it down.
- G. The G in this word is followed by a U, so it’s pronounced like the English G in giant.
- J. The J in Spanish sounds like a hard Engish H, as in jalapeño.
- R. The single R is in between two vowels, so it is a soft R.
Put that all together, and you get ah-goo-heh-ro. Not too bad!
More difficult words in Spanish: Honorable mentions
Spanish is a complicated language that–unfortunately–has many complicated words. So, if you’re looking for a list of the most complicated words in Spanish, here are over 90 of the hardest words in Spanish for you to feast on!
Hardest Spanish tongue-twisters
Naturally, a language with many difficult words to pronounce will also have some fun and complex tongue twisters. Spanish tongue twisters–or, trabalenguas–are a great way to practice your pronunciation. Saying these out loud over and over will help your mouth get more comfortable with producing Spanish sounds. Don’t be shy, and take some time to give these trusty tongue twisters a try!
|R and R cigar, R and R barrel, how fast the sugar-loaded railroad cars run
|Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, qué rápido corren los carros cargados de azúcar del ferrocarril
|ˈere kon ˈere siˈɣaro | ˈere kon ˈere βaˈril | ewˈe ˈrapiðo ˈkoren los ˈkaros kaɾˈɣaðoz ðe aˈsukaɾ ðel ferokaˈril
|eh-reh cohn eh-reh see-gah-ro, eh-reh cohn eh-reh bah-reel, keh rah-pee-doe coe-rehn lohs cah-ros car-gah-dos deh ah-zoo-car del feh-ro-cah-reel
|Three sad tigers ate wheat in a wheat field on three sad plates
|Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal en tres tristes trastos
|ˈtɾes ˈtɾistes ˈtiɣɾes tɾaˈɣaβan ˈtɾiɣo en un tɾiˈɣal en ˈtɾes ˈtɾistes ˈtɾastos
|trehs trees-tehs tee-grehs trah-gah-bahn tree-go ehn oon tree-gal ehn trehs trees-tehs trahs-tohs
|The king of Constantinople is looking to de-Constantinopolize himself, whomever can de-Constantinopolize him will be a good de-Constantinopolizer
|El rey de Constantinopla se quiere descontantinopolizar, el que lo desconstantinopolizare buen desconstantinopolizador será
|el ˈrej ðe konstantiˈnopla se ˈkjeɾe ðeskontantinopoliˈsaɾ | el ˈke lo ðeskonstantinopoliˈsaɾe ˈβwen deskonstantinopolisaˈðoɾ seˈɾa
|elle ray deh cohn-stahn-tee-no-plah seh key-air-eh dehs-cohn-stahn-tee-no-poh-lee-zar, elle keh loh dehs-cohn-stahn-tee-no-poh-lee-zar-eh, boo-ehn dehs-cohn-stahn-tee-no-po-lee-zah-door seh-rah
|The dog of San Roque has no tail because Ramón Rodríguez has stolen it
|El perro de San Roque no tiene rabo, porque Ramón Rodríguez se lo ha robado
|el ˈpero ðe ˈsan ˈroke ˈno ˈtjene ˈraβo | ˈpoɾke raˈmon roˈðɾiɣes se lo ˈa roˈβaðo
|elle peh-ro deh san roh-keh no tee-eh-neh rah-bo, pore-keh rah-mohn roh-dree-gehz seh lo ah ro-bah-doh
|Little by little, Paco packs the cup a little bit.
|Poco a poco, Paco empaca un poco la copa.
|ˈpoko a ˈpoko | ˈpako emˈpaka wm ˈpoko la ˈkopa ‖
|poh-coh ah poh-coh, pah-coh ehm-pah-cah oon poh-co la coh-pah
|Pablito nailed a nail on the bald head of a bald man.
|Pablito clavó un clavito en la calva de un calvito.
|paˈβlito klaˈβo wn klaˈβito en la ˈkalβa ðe wn kalˈβito ‖
|pah-blele-toe clah-voh oohn clah-vee-toe ehn la cal-vah deh oohn cal-vee-toe
|When you tell stories, count how many stories you tell, because if you don’t count how many stories you tell, you’ll never know how many stories you’ve told.
|Cuando cuentes cuentos, cuenta cuántos cuentos cuentas, porque si no cuentas cuántos cuentos cuentas, nunca sabrás cuántos cuentos cuentas tú.
|ˈkwando ˈkwentes ˈkwentos | ˈkwenta ˈkwantos ˈkwentos ˈkwentas | ˈpoɾke si ˈno ˈkwentas ˈkwantos ˈkwentos ˈkwentas | ˈnunka saˈβɾas ˈkwantos ˈkwentos ˈkwentas ˈtu ‖
|coo-ahn-doe coo-ehn-tehs coo-ehn-toes, coo-ehn-tah coo-ahn-toes coo-ehn-toes coo-ehn-tahs, pore-keh see noh cooh-ehn-tahs coo-ahn-toes coo-ehn-toes coo-ehn-tahs, noon-cah sah-brahs coo-ahn-toes coo-ehn-toes coo-ehn-tahs too
Tips to improve your Spanish pronunciation
If you’ve tried to follow our pronunciation guide above, but somehow still can’t get the sounds just right–do not panic! Nailing the pronunciation of a new language takes lots of pratice, so make sure to take it slow and don’t stress too much about pronouncing everything perfectly right away.
Here are some tips that will help you improve your pronunciation in Spanish.
- Go slow. Take your time pronouncing those complicated words. Break them up into syllables, and be mindful of every vowel and consonant. There’s no need to rush it!
- Focus on Spanish vowel sounds. One of the easiest giveaways that you’re not a native speaker is the incorrect pronunciation of vowels. Nailing the vowels will help you improve your pronunciation tremendously. Luckily, there are only 5 of them!
- Record yourself. Nothing will help you understand where your faults are better than recording yourself. Use your phone or computer to record yourself saying a complicated Spanish word and then play it back. You’ll be able to identify where your shortfalls are!
- Lean into the pronunciation rules. While too many grammar rules can be scary, you shouldn’t think of them as your enemy. The good thing about Spanish pronunciation is that these rules make reading out loud very predictable. Think of them as your friends!
- Learn some slang. Some of the hardest Spanish words to pronounce are hard simply because they’re slang. But that shouldn’t make them difficult! Check out our ultimate guide to Spanish slang for help mastering those complicated words.
We salute you for tackling the hardest Spanish words head-on
Jumping right to the hardest words in Spanish can feel like you’re going into the lion’s den. But, getting over these hurdles early on will make the rest of the words on your Spanish journey seem like a piece of cake. So, we applaud you for facing this challenge early on!
And, if you’re still hungry for more Spanish topics, check out our Spanish blog. We regularly publish challenging content that will help you push your Spanish further, like our guide to possessive adjectives in Spanish and our guide to weather expressions in Spanish. And best of all? They’re all free!