Knowing how letters are pronounced is only one aspect of learning Spanish pronunciation. Another key aspect is knowing which syllable should be stressed.
Fortunately, in Spanish the rules for stress (also known as accent) are straightforward. In fact, there are only three basic rules that cover nearly every word:
- If a word without an accent mark ends in a vowel, n or s, the stress is on the penultimate (next to last) syllable. For example, toro, computadora, joven and zapatos all have their accent on the next-to-last syllable. Most words fit this category.
- A word without an accent mark that ends in other letters has the stress on the last syllable. For example, hotel, hablar, madador and virtud all have the accent on the final syllable.
- If a word isn't pronounced according to the above two rules, an accent is placed over the vowel of the syllable that gets the stress. For example, común, lápiz, médico, inglés, and ojalá all have the stress on the indicated syllable.
The only exceptions to the above words are some words of foreign origin, generally words adopted from English, that retain their original spelling and pronunciation. For example, sandwich is usually spelled without an accent over the initial a, even though the stress is as in English. Similarly, personal names and place names of foreign origin usually are written without accents (unless accents are used in the originating language).
Note also that some publications and signs do not use accent marks over capital letters, although it is better to use them when possible.
You should be aware that sometimes accent marks are used only to distinguish two similar words, and they don't affect pronunciation (because the marks are already on a syllable that is being stressed). For example, el and él are both pronounced the same way, even though they have quite different meanings. Similarly, some words, such as que and quien, use accent marks when they appear in questions, but usually not otherwise. Accents that don't affect pronunciation are known as orthographic accents.