10 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Learning Spanish
If you’re a native English speaker learning Spanish, you’re probably saying to yourself right now “There are plenty more than ten common mistakes…” And while I know from personal experience that that’s true, here are the ten most common. Master these and you’ll be halfway to conversing with taxi drivers in Bogota or that cute museum tour guide in Seville.
1. Pronouns Galore – In English, a sentence doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t include the pronoun. Something like “petted the dog” is incomplete. In Spanish, on the other hand, the verb form clues listeners in on the pronoun, so actually saying the pronoun just isn’t needed. In fact, using pronouns often sounds old-fashioned or too formal to native listeners. English speakers learning Spanish, forget those yo’s, tú’s and el’s unless you are really trying to emphasize the pronoun!
2. Gender Confusion (Noun Style) – Not that kind of gender confusion. English nouns don’t have a gender, so it’s often confusing when trying to figure out whether an inanimate object is “el” (masculine) or “la” (feminine.) The rule of thumb is that words than end in “a” are feminine while the rest are masculine, but if you rely on that rule then you’ll still be wrong more often than not. For example, words that end in “ma” (with the exception of mamá) are usually masculine despite ending in the letter a.
3. More Gender Confusion (Adjective Style) – Gender in Spanish is so confusing it deserves two entries! Another common mistake when it comes to gender is forgetting that an adjective must agree with the subject it is modifying. For example, la camisa blanco (“the white shirt”) would be incorrect because the adjective (blanco) should agree in gender with the subject (la camisa.) The proper way to describe the table would be to say la camisa blanca.
4. English Adjectives – In English, we say “cold water” or “friendly dog” but in Spanish, those adjectives come after the noun, not before. The correct way to say cold water would be agua fría (literally in English, “water cold.”) It can be tough for native English speakers to remember this “backward” construction.
5. False Friends – There are plenty of cognates between English and Spanish, but some of those cognates are “false friends.” They appear to mean the same thing in both languages, but they actually don’t. For example. Librero in Spanish means bookcase while it’s tempting for English speakers to think that it means library. One of the most embarrassing mistakes you can make is to incorrectly use the word embarazada. English speakers who think that word means “embarrassing” will be embarrassed to realize that it actually means pregnant!
6. Confusing Ser and Estar – What could be so confusing about two verbs that both mean “to be”? Oh yeah, a lot. In general, ser refers to permanent states of being (physical appearance, personality, job, permanent characteristics of an object) while estar refers to more transient states of being (location, how someone feels right now.) But don’t stop learning there, because there are plenty of instances where you will have to choose whether to use ser or estar. Dario on YouTube can get you started:
7. Being Polite – There are plenty of pitfalls when it comes to being polite in Spanish. For example, it can be difficult to determine whether to use the tú form of a verb (informal) or the usted form (formal.) The general rule of thumb is to use usted with people who are older than you or have power over you, but its easy for native English speakers to choose just one verb form and then use it with everyone. This can lead to being too informal and irritating elders or being too formal and earning strange looks from peers.
8. Speaking the Wrong Regional Dialect – To be fair, this is not the fault of the Spanish learner. Generally, they learn the dialect of their teacher. But someone who learned perfect Castillian Spanish in her college classes is going to have a very hard time understanding and making herself understood on the class study abroad trip to Mexico. Spanish is different from country to country and region to region and no matter who prepared you think you are when you arrive, you’ll find differences in pronouns, pronunciation, slang and other aspects of Spanish that you’ll just have to learn on the fly!
9. Pronunciation Errors – Though words in Spanish begin with an “h” the “h” is never pronounced. For example, hombre (man) is pronounced “ohm-bre.” Confusingly, the “j” is pronounced like the “h” in English (as in San Jose.) Meanwhile, the “z” in words like corazón is pronounced like an “s.” Fortunately, it isn’t all difficult! Unlike in English, vowels in Spanish are always pronounced the same way, so once you have memorized the five vowel sounds, you should be good to go!
10. Shying Away from Double Negatives – Double and even triple negatives are common in Spanish, though English speakers tend to shy away from double negatives due to long conditioning. For example, while “I don’t have nothing” is a horrible error in English, the literal Spanish translation, “No tengo nada” is correct.
What were the most persistent mistakes you made when trying to learn Spanish?