Question: My college Spanish professor says that the gua in Guatamala, guacamole, etc., is pronounced "wa." I want to believe her if for no other reason, I think the words sound better that way. But a friend with a different instructor insists that the correct pronunciation is the English guttural "gwa." Who is right?
Answer:They both are!
In general, the g is pronounced much as it is in English, although softer. When it comes between vowels, it typically becomes soft enough to sound like an aspirated "h," the same as the Spanish letter j. For some speakers, the sound, even at the beginning of a word, can become so soft as to be unnoticeable to English speakers, and perhaps even inaudible. Historically, that's what happened with the Spanish h. Succeeding generations made its sound softer and softer, eventually causing its sound to disappear.
The "standard" pronunciation would be to sound out the g, but more softly than in English. But pronunciation does vary with region, and speakers in some areas often do drop the sounds of some letters. My advice is to follow the advice of your friend's instructor — except when you're in your own class!
Incidentally, some speakers of English (I'm not among them) pronounce words that begin with "wh" with an aspirated "h." For them, "witch" and "which" are not pronounced the same. For those who do distinguish the two sounds, the "wh" is something like the way some Spanish speakers pronounce the first sounds of gua, güi or güe. That's why some dictionaries give güisqui as the spelling of the Spanish word for "whisky" (although usually the English spelling is used).