10 Common Spanish-Language Mistakes That English Speakers Make
The following article is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free Spanish listening tests and other resources on their website. Visit their Facebook page or contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
10 Common Spanish-Language Mistakes That English Speakers Make
When learning Spanish (or any language), it’s natural for English speakers to try to form their Spanish phrases in the same way that they’d form English ones. Unfortunately, this does not always work, and often times will result in making you look quite silly. In order to improve your grammar and protect your dignity, read on to learn which mistakes English speakers make the most, as well as how to avoid them.
1. Ser vs. estar
As anyone who’s learning Spanish knows, we couldn’t write this list without including perhaps the most infamous error of all: the difference between ser and estar. What could be confusing about two verbs that both mean “to be”? Oh, that’s right – everything!
We could write an entire essay on the difference between “ser” and “estar”, but the essence is as follows: ser is used for intrinsic, permanent characteristics, whereas estar is used for temporary states.
An example: If someone says, “Estoy aburrido”, it means they’re bored – a temporary state. But if they say “Soy aburrido”, it means they’re boring – an intrinsic characteristic (and perhaps a reason to re-evaluate your friendship with them).
2. Avoiding double negatives
We English speakers are scared to use double negatives, perhaps because it was drilled into our brains in middle school Language Arts class that double negatives aren’t never acceptable.
This changes when you’re speaking Spanish: suddenly, not using double negatives is wrong. Try to shake the frowning image of your high school English teacher and let the double negatives flow. The following examples show the well- and ill-formed ways of saying “He doesn’t know anyone”:
Correct: No conoce a nadie.
Incorrect: No conoce a alguien.
3. Pronoun overload
Nothing gives you away as a gringo quite like throwing around pronouns as if there’s no tomorrow. “Hola, yo soy Paul. Yo soy de los Estados Unidos. ¿Cómo te llamas tú?” Yikes.
To the Spanish learner’s chagrin, Spanish verbs come ready-made with different conjugations for every pronoun. This is mostly a bummer, as you have hundreds of conjugations to memorize, but it’s nice in that you get to drop pronouns. Now, let’s try the above dialogue again: “Hola, soy Paul. Soy de los Estados Unidos. ¿Cómo te llamas?” Ah, much better.
4. Más que vs. Más de
This one is easy to forget, but it’s an easy fix: más que is used for comparisons between people and things, whereas más de is used specifically for numbers. Therefore, if you ate a ton of cake last night, you can say Comí más de 3 porciones de pastel. But if you’re trying to prove that you ate more than your friend ate, you’d say, Comí más que él.
If you’re ever in Argentina, practice your Spanish while eating chocotorta, a very Argentinian (and very delicious) cake. Image via Taringa
5. Multiple past tenses
Spanish isn’t just satisfied with having two different ways of saying “to be”; instead, it further complicates the picture by having two different past tenses – the preterite and the imperfect. This is another topic that could occupy several pages, but here’s the main point.
In grammatical jargon, “perfect” means completed. Therefore, imperfect means incomplete. Thus, the imperfect refers to actions that are not yet finished, or haven’t been completed within the context of the conversation. On the other hand, the preterite refers to finished actions. Let’s deconstruct an example:
Mientras cocinaba, sonó el teléfono. When I was cooking, the phone rang.
In this story, the action of cooking has not yet finished – rather; it’s an ongoing process, hence the imperfect. The phone ringing, however, was a one-time occurrence that has already passed by. Often times, the imperfect is used when, in English, we’d use the past progressive (e.g., I was eating, he was running, they were sleeping, etc.).
6. Overusing the present progressive
We tend to think of the present progressive (e.g., I am sitting, they are jumping) as indicating an ongoing action. In English, however, it’s a lot more messy than we think. We can use the present progressive in a variety of ways that are confusing to native speakers, like talking about future plans (“What are you doing next weekend?”).
Spanish cuts the nonsense with the present progressive: you can use it only to talk about ongoing actions in the present moment. Let’s check out an example:
Correct: ¿Qué vas a hacer el próximo finde?
Incorrect: ¿Qué estás haciendo el próximo finde?
7. “The more I think about it, the less I understand it”
The more, the merrier! This is often true when talking about parties or get-togethers but is surely not the case when describing confusing grammatical rules that are hard to memorize. Sadly, here’s another one.
While a naive English speaker might translate “the more” to something like “lo más”, that’s not the Spanish way to do it. Instead, “the more” (or “the less”) translates to cuánto más or menos (followed by simply más or menos), like in the following example:
Cuánto más lo pienso, menos lo entiendo. The more I think about it, the less I understand it.
Oh, and here’s how to say “the more the merrier”: Cuánto más mejor.
8. Venir vs. ir, Traer vs. llevar
“I’m bringing snacks to the party, and I’m coming right now,” you say to your friend. Given that traer is “to bring” and venir is “to come”, this seems like an easy translation, right? Wrong: in Spanish, it doesn’t work like that.
Incorrect: Traigo comida a la fiesta, y vengo ahora.
Though “traer” usually means bring and “llevar” usually means take, that’s not a good way to think about it, as the above example illustrates. Instead, “traer” means bring here, whereas “llevar” means take elsewhere. So, if you don’t know if you should use llevar or traer, think “traer aquí” and “llevar allí”.
The same goes for ir and venir. Venir means come here, whereas ir means go there. Think: “venir aquí” and “ir allí”. So, how do we translate “I’m bringing snacks to the party, and I’m coming right now”? Here it goes:
Correct: Llevo comida a la fiesta, y voy ahora.
9. Por vs. para
Another classic error among English speakers, and another (fairly) easy fix. The confusion arises because both “por” and “para” roughly translate to “for” in English, so we English speakers are left scratching our heads.
Here’s how to think about it: por points behind you – it shows the reason for something. Para points in front of you – it’s showing something directed towards or on behalf of somebody or something else. Consider the following sentence:
Compré un regalo para ti por tu cumpleaños. I bought a gift for you for your birthday.
I bought a gift on your behalf (para), because of (por) your birthday. Not so bad, eh?
10. Gender confusion
It’d be nice if all Spanish words came with built-in signs like these…sadly, that’s not the case, so you just have to memorize them. Image via Wikipedia
And finally there’s the whole issue of inanimate objects having gender – what’s the deal with that, anyway? It sometimes seems like it exists only to confuse speakers of other languages, like English, for whom a table is neither male nor female. At first, it doesn’t seem so bad; words that end in o are masculine, and words that end in a are feminine.
But then we have el mapa, la mano, and el clima. Or even worse, words like el/la coma, whose meaning change depending on the gender – la coma is a comma, whereas el coma is a coma. Not a mistake you want to make!
Unfortunately, there’s no trick for learning these exceptions to gender rules – you just have to memorize them. Using products like FlashSticks, which are foreign-language sticky notes color-coded for gender, can aid your memorization. Online flashcards like those from Antosch & Lin are also a great help. Practice makes perfect!
Spanish is a complex and beautiful language, but like most worthwhile things, it takes time and energy to master. If you find yourself getting bogged down by details, take a breath and be gentle on yourself: learning a language is a long process, and periods of frustration are bound to happen. Of course, there are plenty more struggles that English speakers face when learning Spanish, ranging from the correct use of regional slang to the pronunciation of the letter “R”. The ones on this list, however, are some of the most ubiquitous, and are a great place to start if you’re trying to avoid sounding like a gringo. Readers: have you grappled with any of the mistakes on this list? How did you correct your mistakes? What else would you add? Leave us a comment!
Note from Jim: Another great post Paul. See you again soon!
Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online. Check it out now!
Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…