A Guide to Practical Spanish Language as a Skill-Set - Lesson 1: The Holy Grail - ITS Tactical

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A Guide to Practical Spanish Language as a Skill-Set – Lesson 1: The Holy Grail

By Jose J. Soto

Spanish LessonThe ability to speak a second language is becoming an increasingly important skill-set. There are many ways to learn a language, from the not-so-good (software-based), to the best (immersion). This article should be used as a starting point to develop your skills in the Spanish language, but should not be your only resource. Interaction with native speakers, television, movies, radio shows and constant practice, should all be part of the learning process.

I don’t have a degree in Spanish or teaching, but I served as a Spanish Instructor at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy for four years and I’ll share with you the methods I learned and practiced at the time. My job as an Instructor was to prepare agents so they could conduct field interviews and interrogations in Spanish. Based on my experience over the past sixteen years, I believe adults are just as capable of leaning a new language as kids, but unlike adults, kids don’t worry about making mistakes or the perception of ridicule.

In this first lesson, which I call The Holy Grail, we’ll focus on pronunciation, which relies heavily on proper pronunciation of the vowels in Spanish. I’ve met people with many years of Spanish education who still can’t nail down the vowels. Practice the sounds and you’ll be able to properly pronounce any Spanish word.

I. Vowels and Special Characters

Good news: Unlike English, the sound of the vowels in Spanish never changes; ever. It doesn’t matter where they fall in a word.

  • A (ah) like the a in “car”
  • E (eh) like the e in “net”
  • I (ee) like the i in “vaccine”
  • O (oh) like the o in “order”
  • U (oo) like the oo in “soon”

The Y (yeh), while not technically a vowel, can be used as a vowel, and sounds like the Spanish I. When used as a consonant it sounds like the y in “yes”.

Special Characters

The Spanish alphabet includes the Ñ, which sounds like the ny in “canyon”. The letters C and H are used together in Spanish much like the Ch in “chug”.

There are also two letters in Spanish that double up to give them a different sound:

  • The first is L, which when doubled up (LL) sounds just like the Spanish Y when used as a consonant. It also sounds harder when spoken by people from southern Spain or the Caribbean.
    • Examples: llave = key and llorar = to cry
  • The second is R, which when doubled up (RR) sounds like a harder R. The R in Spanish is trilled, and the RR even more so. Practice rolling the R and you’ll be fine.
    • Examples: pero = but and perro = dog (male)
  • The H is always silent.

II. Diphthongs

Diphthongs are a combination of vowels in one syllable. The strong vowels are A, E, and O, while I and U are weak vowels. Diphthongs are formed by a strong vowel followed by a weak vowel, a weak vowel followed by a strong vowel, or two weak vowels.

  • AI or AY (like the y in “bye”)
    • Examples: aire = air and hay = there is / there are
  • EI or EY (like the ey in “they”)
    • Examples: rey = king and veinte = twenty
  • OI or OY (like oy in “boy”)
    • Examples: voy = I am going and oigo = I hear
  • AU (like ow in “cow”)
    • Examples: autor = author and causa = cause
  • EU
    • Examples: Europa = Europe and europeo = european
  • UA
    • Examples: cuatro = four and cuarto = room / fourth
  • UE
    • Examples: puerto = port and puesto = post (assignment)
  • UO
    • Example: cuota = quota or share
  • IA
    • Examples: diamante = diamond and hacia = toward
  • IE
    • Examples: piernas = legs and viejo = old
  • IO
    • Examples: palacio = palace and precio = price
  • IU
    • Examples: ciudadano = citizen and triunfo = triumph
  • UI
    • Examples: ruido = noise and cuidado = care


  • UE and UI following a Q or G are not diphthongs, and the U is silent, unless it is a Ü.
  • When the weak vowel has a written accent, it becomes a strong vowel, thus breaking the diphthong and forming two syllables.

III. Syllabication

The principles of dividing words into syllables are:

  • A consonant goes with the following vowel.
    • Examples: Pis-to-la = pistol and Brú-ju-la = compass
  • Two strong vowels are separated.
    • Examples: Ca-er = to fall and Le-er = to read
  • Two consonants between vowels are usually separated
    • Examples: Mar-ti-llo and Tor-ti-lla
  • Diphthongs and triphthongs are not separated.
    • Examples: Puer-to and Jui-cio
  • A prefix forms a separate syllable.
    • Examples: Ex-tra-er and Con-se-guir


  • A consonant followed by R or L is not separated from the R or L, unless it’s RL, SL, TL, SR or NR.
  • The letters LL, CH or RR are considered as one letter in Spanish and thus are not separated.

IV. Accentuation

Words ending in a vowel or “N” or “S” receive the stress of the voice regularly on the next to last syllable.


  • a-mi-go = friend
  • fe-cha = date (calendar)
  • ri-fle = rifle
  • pis-to-la = pistol

Words ending in a consonant other than “N” or “S” receive the stress of the voice regularly on the last syllable.


  • mo-rir = to die
  • bus-car = to look for
  • mu-jer = woman
  • ob-ser-var = to observe

Words stressed contrary to the aforementioned rules bear the written accent over the vowel of the syllable to be stressed.


  • ac-ción = action
  • for-ma-ción = formation
  • fá-cil = easy
  • di-fí-cil = difficult

Certain words bear the written accent to distinguish them from other words spelled similarly and pronounced similarly, but having an entirely different meaning.


  • él = him el = the
  • sí = yes si = if
  • tú = you tu = your
  • dé = give de = of, from
  • mí = me mi = mine

The written accent is used to distinguish the exclamatory or interrogatory from the relative use of pronouns and adverbs.


  • ¿Cuándo vuelve Bryan? = When will Bryan return?
  • Cuando Bryan vuelva tomaremos cerveza. = When Bryan returns we will drink beer.

The written accent over a weak vowel breaks up a strong/weak or weak/strong diphthong and results in two separate syllables.

  • Example: pa-ís = country

V. Punctuation

Punctuation is the same in both English and Spanish with the following exceptions:

  • An inverted question mark ( ¿) at the beginning of a question as well as the regular question mark (?) at the end.
    • On a keyboard this is ALT + 168 or shift + option + ? on a mac
  • An inverted exclamation mark ( ¡) at the beginning of the interjection as well as the regular exclamation mark (!) at the end.
    • On a keyboard this is ALT + 173 or option/alt + ! on a mac
  • The days of the week and the months of the year are not capitalized.
  • The pronoun “yo” (I) is not capitalized, except at the beginning of a sentence.
  • An adjective of nationality is not capitalized.
    • Examples: Yo hablo español = I speak Spanish / Hablo con un mexicano = I am speaking to a Mexican.

The following abbreviations are capitalized.

  • Ud. (usted) = you (formal)
  • Uds. (ustedes) = you (plural)
  • Sr. (señor) = Sir
  • Sra. (señora) = Madam
  • Srta. (señorita) = Miss

The next article will focus on parts of speech, adjectives, conjunctions and interjections, before moving to the Spanish sentence. Now go watch some Mexican soap operas (the visuals help), question your Spanish-speaking friends and start practicing. The best way to learn a new language is to dive into it until it becomes an effective tool in your tool bag.

¡Hasta luego!

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: You can also check out the Border Book in the ITS Store, if you’re interested in a field guide that focuses on the Spanish you’ll need to know to protect yourself and teaches English speakers to clearly communicate with uneducated or educated Spanish speakers.

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  • Matt in NC

    Good article. I ‘ve been wanting to try to learn Spanish for a while now, and this is a very good introduction to doing so. Looking forward to more of these articles.

    • Jose J. Soto

      Thanks. Stay tuned for more articles. And check out the Border Book in the ITS store.

  • Tyler

    Thank you! This is great. As someone who took Latin in HS, I can scrape by reading Spanish and get a very rough translation sometimes… but the pronunciation stuff is good help to go to the next level and speak/listen. Gracias!

    • Jose J. Soto

      Thanks. Glad it helps.

  • decepticon

    I speak Spanish and have visited several Spanish speaking countries. I have also learned to speak Portuguese (as spoken in Brazil), since that is where I would bug out to, if a major move was called for. I have a few friends there and could set up housekeeping in a fairly remote, rural area pretty quickly.

    In addition to language skills, I also believe it is important to keep up-to-date passports current for you and all the members of your immediate family. Even now, the wait for processing can be long. In a time of significant trouble, when the government offices are flooded with passport requests, already having one in hand instead of standing in line with thousands of others desperate to leave could be critical.

    Of course, my preference is to stay firmly planted right here. But I am practical enough to recognize that might not be possible, depending on circumstances. Although some of my ancestors are Native Americans, many others had to find the courage to leave their homelands and troubles behind to relocate to this continent. I hope I could be as brave as they were, if faced with similar circumstances.

  • Halligan Hooligan

    Deception, dude you just hopped on another train headed the opposite direction and lost me!!!!!!

  • Logan Anderson

    I will definitely follow this series very closely, I’m in a high school spanish class and this first post helped me review basics of the language.

  • kikearturo

    Hello. I’m a spanish latin native and is funny see us trying to learn english and you trying to learn spinsh, but that’s the world today.
    However if you in USA need to leave your country for any reason (natural dissaster, terrorism, war or etc) Mexico, Republica Dominicana, Puerto Rico are your best choice for weather and nearly, so learn some spanish its a good idea.

    Suggestion: Visit and sign up in some spanish web site. We latin people are pretty nice people and we will accept happy your entry.

    saludos amigos

  • Luis Gil

    Very interesting series! If you have any question about Spanish I can help you.
    Best regards from Spain ;D

  • Great article and a very efficient way to introduce a slightly harder language like spanish.

    Bravo Zulu!

  • Kaine

    great post. Plz have more articles like this. I started studying Spanish 3 months ago. And I now use Spanish flashcard app of Superflashcard to study Spanish. I could remember and apply your article by creating my flashcards based on your content.

  • Rks1157

    I was a failure with three years of Spanish in the classroom. Later, I invested in the Berlitz language tapes (total immersion) and they made all the difference in the world for me. Within a few weeks of listening to them during my daily commute I was able to converse on an elementary level and I got the idea to invite some of my non-English speaking neighbors for dinner and games (yahtzee) a few times a month. It was really awkward at first but it as also a lot of fun and very worthwhile as it exposed me to slang that wouldn’t be found in the coursework. It was only a few months before I was able to converse with clients in Puerto Rico and Mexico. I would never say that I became fluent but I learned enough that I could get by if stranded in another country.

    Like many skills, if you don’t use it you lose it. My vocabulary has diminished greatly over the years from lack of use. I think I am going to follow the author’s advice and start tuning in on the telenovelas (soaps operas) and see what I can get back.

    I look forward to the future articles.

  • Mic87

    I loved this article. I had one of the best opportunities ever to experience Mexico for 2 years. I was in Chiapas, and it was beautiful. If I ever had to bug out, it would definitaly be for that part of the world.(SoMexico, Guate, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc.) People trying to learn spanish might take up teaching english in one of these countries, during a summer, because white people are generally accepted, and everyone in these countries wants to learn english. The way we look at a second language for scholarships, resumes, etc; is nothing in comparison to how they see it.
    Great article, with great facts. I love the way you explain diphthongs and the accent marks, i have never been able to do that.

    The only other thing that i would stress is, that not all words are universal in this language. There are so many different types of slang, its like what we have in the US, but exaggerated.
    One regularly used word in Southern Mexico, might be a vulgar word in Northern Mexico; even sometimes just a state over.

  • Jose – Great article! I lived in Puerto Rico for several years and this was a great refresher for me. More importantly – I train a counter drug unit in firearms and maritime tactics that deploys to South America. They have recently gotten away from teaching their guys Spanish. Do you have any good resources for training these guys LE Spanish? I try and throw out the little I remember during training, but obviously they need more. Thanks for your help brother!

  • Gene Martin

    Thanks for making this series, I hope you will do a lesson on conjugating in the near future. I’m looking forward to your future in depth articles!

  • Will

    Do you have any advice for conversation practice? I practice speaking with a friend of mine, but how do I utilize it to become more comfortable implementing new grammar and forms? Should I focus on anything instead of just trying to converse?

  • KeetenAllenWilliams

    @Mic87 LDS Mission? Estuve en Chile por dos años también.

  • AnhamMahna

    @Will When I was in undergrad, my brilliant Spanish teacher told us that once a week, we would go to an old folk’s home and speak spanish with one of the residents. Fortunately for me, my grandmother lived nearby (she’s Mexican, as am I, but my Spanish stank), so I got to visit her once a week. My Spanish improved by LEAPS and bounds! The best way to learn a language is to speak it. And when you combine it with an act of charity, it’s great for all involved. 🙂

  • dementeddigital

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