Learning a foreign language is more difficult for some than for others. Our tendency is to attempt to literally translate what we want to say from one language to the other. The problem you run into when you do that is that you sound like a digital translator when you speak. Although these errors are often funny, they can also cause confusion. We have compiled some of the most common mistakes that English speakers make when learning to use Spanish in order to help you avoid embarrassment.
The biggest issues for the vast majority of English speakers who are learning to speak Spanish are related to the use of the verb “to be”. The confusion begins because there are two different Spanish verbs for the single English verb. Is that wasn’t bad enough, they drastically change the meaning. Here is an example:
Suppose you want to say, “I am bored.”
If you chose to use “ser”, you would say, “Soy aburrido.”
If you chose to use “estar”, you would say, “Estoy aburrido.”
The first case, using ser, means, “I am boring.” That is a permanent state and an unchangeable characteristic of your personality. However, in the second case, you are truly saying what you want to say, which is, “I am bored.” This describes the feeling or state that you are in at a particular moment.
A short poem can help you remember when to use “ser” and when to use “estar.” It goes like this:
“How you feel and where you are, that is when you use estar.”
The verb form “hay” (from the verb “haber”) has two meanings related to the verb “to be”:
– there is
– there are
Hay muchos libros en la biblioteca = There are many books in the library.
Hay un libro encima de la mesa = There is a book on the table.
You can also use “haber” as “must”
Hay que lavar todos los platos después de cenar = We must wash all the dishes after dinner.
Adjective placement within a sentence is quite different between English and Spanish. In English, adjectives appear in front of a noun in a sentence, but in Spanish the adjective follows the noun. Here are a few examples:
corazón amable (kind heart)
camiseta azul (blue shirt)
sonrisa deslumbrante (dazzling smile)
la noche tranquila (the calm night)
Though this is the most common usage in Spanish, you must keep in mind that there are some instances where the adjective does appear in front of the noun, even in Spanish.
In English, there is no confusion concerning gender because all objects are gender neutral except males and females (though even this is changing). However, every Spanish object has a gender and therefore requires the proper article in front of it for gender agreement. Though in general Spanish nouns ending in “a” are feminine and require the “la or una” article and those which end with “o” or something else are masculine and require “el or un.” Well, here is a list of rule breakers which have a feminine ending, but are masculine nouns:
On the flip side, there are some common nouns ending in “o” that are actually feminine nouns, such as:
There is another odd case involving article and noun gender agreement that you need to watch out for. “El agua” doesn’t fit the “a” ending “o” ending rule, but it also doesn’t follow the gender agreement rule. “Agua” is a feminine noun, but a masculine article appears in front of it because the stress of the word “agua” falls on the first syllable.
Sometimes, you have simply to learn the gender of a noun, like some that end with the same letter but are different gender:
ending with “-e”: “el bote”, “la clase”.
Ending with “-l”: “el mar”, “la sal”
Ending with “-z”: “la nariz”, “el tamiz”
Nouns that end with “-ción” like “canción” (song) is feminine.
There are nouns that are the same in feminine and masculine, you just change the article to know if you are talking about a man or a woman, like in English. For example:
“El tenista / La tenista”
El estudiante / la estudiante”
El joven / la joven”
The capitalization rules drilled into the minds of English speakers become a murderous nightmare when English speakers are learning Spanish. There is no way to make this easier on yourself except to memorize and follow the Spanish capitalization rules when using Spanish. As a general rule, in Spanish, in a sentence, even a title, you only capitalize the first word.
Here are more specific rules.
Names of people (Cristiano Ronaldo)
Names of places (Madrid, España)
Names of newspapers and magazines (El País)
The first word of titles (movies, books, articles, plays)
Days of the week (lunes, martes, miércoles – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
Months of the year (enero, febrero, marzo – January, February, March)
Words in titles, except the first (“Cien años de soledad” – “100 Years of Solitude”)
Languages (Estudio español. – I study Spanish.)
Religions (Mis padres son católicos. – My parents are Catholic.)
Nationality (Soy estadounidense. – I’m American.)
It has been drilled into the brains of English speakers that double negatives are the work of the devil. However, where a double negative makes an English speaker cringe, it is perfect grammar for someone who speaks Spanish. Let’s do some comparison:
No comí nada. (I didn’t eat anything.)
No escribí nada. (I didn’t write anything.)
A Spanish speaker will never say:
No tengo algo. (I don’t have something.)
No quiero algo. (I don’t want something.)
Generally, Spanish phrases don’t mix positive and negative words. If you have a “no” in front of a verb, then only negatives object nouns will follow. Take a look at some more examples to get a better feel for how this works:
No la he visto nunca. (I’ve never seen her.)
No hay nadie aquí. (There isn’t anyone here.)
No cocinaron nada. (They didn’t cook anything.)
Ella tampoco hizo los deberes. (She didn’t do the homework either.)
Using the Spanish word “y” (and) has some rules of its own to keep in mind. Essentially, “y” should never precede “i” in a Spanish list. For instance, it is okay to say:
manzanas y uvas (apples and grapes)
But not okay to say:
esencial y importante (essential and important)
Whenever an “y” is to precede a word that starts with “i”, you have to change the “y” to an “e”. The correct way to say our example above is:
esencial e importante (essential and important)
The rule also applies to words which begin with silent “h”, but have the “i” sound. The best example of this would be:
hijas e hijos (daughters and sons)
Also, in Spanish, when you say “or” = “o”, if the coming word starts with “o” you change the “o” for “u”. For example:
“One or another” = Uno u otro (you will not use “o” because the coming word “otro” starts with “o” so you are repeating a letter and it doesn´t sound ok).
The Spanish pronouns “le” and “les” are so strange to the English brain that it is nearly impossible for an English speaker to remember to use them when speaking Spanish. English speakers tend to want to use the subject pronouns in every case, like saying:
Ellos gustan. (They like.)
El gusta. (He likes.)
Instead of the correct usage, which is:
Les gustan. (They like.)
Le gusta. (He likes.)
“Le” means “to him”, like “me” means “to me”, “te” means “to you” (singular), and “les” means “to you” (plural). These are used with reflexive verbs. In grammar, a reflexive verb is a verb whose direct object is the same as its subject, for example, “I wash myself”.
I wash myself = Yo “me” lavo.
You wash yourself = Tú “te” lavas
He washes himself = Él “se” lava
Since the subject and object are the same, the verb is reflexive.
I wash the car.
Since the subject and object are different, the verb is not reflexive.
When a verb is reflexive, the infinitive ends in “se.”
|to wash (non-reflexive)||to wash oneself (reflexive)|
|to scratch (non-reflexive)||to scratch oneself (reflexive)|
Por and Para
Por and para are always confusing and they take a lot of practice to get their proper usage down. In Spanish, both “por” and “para” take on the responsibilities of not only “for”, but also by, on, through, because of, in exchange for, in order to, and several other prepositions and phrases.
The one tendency of English speakers learning Spanish that is most common when using “por” and “para” is usually attached to telling someone thank you. Instead of saying:
“Gracias para todo.”
However, you always follow “gracias” with “por” whenever you thank someone for something. The correct usage is:
“Gracias por todo”.
Por is used to talk about movement, modes and means of travel and communication, exchanges, duration, and motivation, among other things.
Para is used to talk about destinations, recipients, deadlines, and goals.
Check out the following examples of these common uses of “por” and “para”:
La contacté por correo.
I contacted her by mail.
Trabajo por ti, porque te quiero cuidar.
I work for you, because I want to take care of you.
¿Quieres pasar por el parque?
Do you want to go through the park?
Este regalo es para Adela.
This gift is for Adela.
Necesito la presentación para el viernes.
I need the presentation by Friday.
Corro para mantenerme en forma.
I run to stay in shape.
Believe, Create, Feel or Sit
There are certain forms of different verbs with different meanings, which when conjugated, sound or look exactly alike. Let’s consider some examples that have a huge tendency to trip up English speakers who are learning to speak Spanish:
Crear (to create) and creer (to believe).
Creo obras de arte. (I create works of art.)
Creo que es estúpido. (I think it’s stupid.)
Sentir (to feel) and sentar (to sit).
Me siento mal. (I feel bad.)
¿Me siento aquí? (Shall I sit here?)
How do you know how to use them or how they are being used? It depends upon the context in which they are being used.
When learning a language, it is important to avoid literally translating word for word from one language to another wholesale, as we have just demonstrated. Understanding these common errors which English speakers make when they are learning to use Spanish can help you to avoid embarrassing or confusing situations. In addition, knowing that literally translation from one language to another is an issue, perhaps you will be a bit more sensitive as to why some foreigners learning English say funny or confusing things too.