As an English teacher, I always remind my students that the smallest detail in English matters a lot, whether it’s using an article or correctly pronouncing an unassuming letter like H.

Dropping the H sound or pronouncing it when it should be silent can have unsavory consequences.  For one thing, frequent mispronunciation can call attention to itself and distract the listener from what you are saying.

Misusing the H sound can also change the meaning of the word you meant to use. You might say, for instance, “I ate apples,” when you meant to say “I hate apples.” The listener would then understand that you like apples--and may give you more apples to eat!

It’s common among Spanish speakers to mispronounce the H sound. As an English teacher, I have found that it is a hard habit to break. However, when corrected, my students quickly find that their English sounds more natural and they can communicate more effectively.

What’s the problem?

It helps to understand why you’re struggling with pronouncing the H sound correctly. Here are some possible reasons.

1. The Spanish H is silent. When used as the first letter in words like habas, haber or hasta, the H is treated as though it were not there. The only time the H comes in handy is when it is used after C to produce CH words in Spanish.

2. The H sound is represented by a different letter in Spanish: jota, or the Spanish J.

3. The English H is not as hardened as the Spanish J. In English, the H sound is more like the sound you make when you sigh.

Meanwhile, the Spanish J involves what is called a “velar fricative.” The sound is a lot stronger, like combining a hard K and an H, for example.

4. This may sound confusing, but the H sound does fall silent in English. This phenomenon is commonly known as “H dropping.”

When words are blended together in a sentence, the H sounds are hardly pronounced.  For example, “Have you seen her?” would sound like “Ave you seen ‘er?”

In many cases, the H is dropped in elisions. This means that a sound is omitted when speaking for purposes of speed and economy.

When you adopt the speed of normal English conversation, you’ll have that natural rhythm as well.

For example, he, her, and him usually take on a weaker form:

I've seen ‘im (him) before.
Tell ‘er (her) that I called in to ask.

Without elisions, speech may sound stilted and unnatural.

So what’s the rule then? When you’re struggling with achieving clear pronunciation, forget about elisions. But they will come in handy when you’re on your way to achieving fluency.

5. Finally, there are words in English that require a silent H. For example: heir, honest, hour, honor, and herb. When you see such words, note that they are exceptions to the rule, so don’t make the mistake of pronouncing the H.

Yes, English is complicated like that. But don’t let that stop you.

What can you do to improve?

Pronunciation errors can become habitual over time--but developing a new habit can combat a bad one. Here are some things you can do to improve your pronunciation of the H sound.

1. This is a controversial, but effective tactic for Spanish learners who want to speak English fluently: Replace the H with the Spanish J in written form.  

Write down a set of words that start with a silent H. Replace the H with a Spanish J and then read the words out loud repeatedly.

For example: ajead, jover, jeavenly, jeard, jave, joliday, jotel, jorrendous, jorrible, jorrid, Jortensia, jurdle

Then, replace the J with an H and read your list of words again. Perform this exercise daily.

2. Another solution would be to practice blowing into your cupped hands softly, as if warming them on a cold day. Then take your list of H words and speak them into cupped hands.

3. Third, practice elisions and acquiring a natural rhythm in speech. One of the best ways to do this is by watching English movies or TV shows and copying what characters say and how they say it. This requires strong listening skills.

4. Finally, listen to yourself. Use your phone’s voice recorder and record yourself speaking.

To begin, try these sentences:

Have you seen her?

Come here and take a look.

He didn’t have the heart to say what was truly on his mind.  

Do it once. Then do it again. And again!

For additional review, here’s a video on how to pronounce the H sound:

Contributed by Lolita Villa

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