When learning a language, making mistakes is inevitable and part of the process. Having your mistakes corrected is how you learn and improve. Some mistakes are major and impede the flow of conversation, often causing communication issues. These huge mistakes are not what I will be focussing on today. This article is instead about the common mistakes in Spanish that even advanced learners make.
What happens, when you make mistakes and no-one corrects them? These might be mistakes that are so minor that native speakers won’t bother to correct, mistakes in spite of which you can still be understoof. You might say that communication is all that matters, and as long as you are understood, that is all that matters. But unfortunately, mistakes do change the way a person perceives you, whether consciously or not. So the more you work on your Spanish and the more you can minimise your mistakes, the better. Fewer mistakes will mean better conversations, better connections, and better relationships in Spanish.
As someone who has been speaking Spanish for over 10 years now, I have spent plenty of time around native speakers of English who are trying to learn Spanish. I seem to have a high radar to perceive grammar mistakes, as making mistakes in Spanish is something I have worked hard to avoid myself. So I’ve put together a list of the most common mistakes I’ve heard over the years. Have a look through the list and see if any of these are something you might be doing without realising. The number one cause of these mistakes seems to be translating directly from English into Spanish instead of noting the differences between the two languages
Here’s to better Spanish!
Some common mistakes in Spanish I hear English speakers make are:
Part 1: Grammar mistakes in Spanish
1. Using the article at the wrong times
Many English speakers do not realise that the words “the” and “a” don’t have all the same functions in English as the Spanish “la/el” and “una/un”. This can be a hard one to get your head around, because it’s might feel natural to translate the articles literally, or sentences might feel weird without the ones you’re used to. But if you want to up your game in Spanish, getting the articles right is a good place to start!
Here are some sentences I’ve heard that have mistakes in Spanish articles:
- No tengo un novio
Try instead: “No tengo novio.” Rule: don’t use an article for non-specific persons.
- Ella es una cantora
Try instead: “Ella es cantora.” Rule: occupations do not need articles
- () Español es muy difícil.
Try instead: “El español es muy difícil.” Rule: when making a definite statement about a noun, a definite article is needed.
2. Using the wrong gender for articles and adjectives
While we’re on the subject of articles, the gender of articles is also often mixed up, as well as the adjectives to describe them. But why is this?
While gender and agreement is generally one of the first things you learn in Spanish and advanced speakers will have mastered it, one thing that can be harder to get right is the gender of some words. These are the words that don’t follow the basic rules (a endings are feminine, o endings are masculine, etc). So the source of this problem, rather than agreement confusion, is usually getting the gender of the noun itself wrong. This is a problem that you can fix with practise – but you have to pay attention to the gender native speakers use! If you notice a native speaker using a gender different to the one you would normally use, it’s time to make a change in your speech.
These are some examples of common Spanish gender mistakes:
- El foto bonito
Try instead: la foto bonita. Rule: use gender of full word (fotografía)
- Una problema
Try instead: un problema. Rule: words ending in ma are usually masculine.
- Una día
Try instead: un día. Rule: irregular
- La arte
Try instead: El arte. Rule: nouns ending in e could be either gender, so you need to memorise each of them to be sure you are getting this right.
3. Not using Personal a
The “personal a” is a weird one in Spanish. It wouldn’t serve any purpose in English, so I can see why English speakers often ignore it. If you haven’t heard of it, basically the “personal a” is a rule that you have to place an “a” before a person when that person is a object of the sentence.
Here are some example sentences of a missing personal a:
- Conocí Tom ayer.
Try instead: Conocí a Tom ayer.
- Cuando crucé la calle vi Howard al otro lado de la calle..
Try instead: Cuando crucé la calle vi a Howard al otro lado de la calle.
4. Overusing yo
The overuse of the personal pronoun yo (meaning I) is an extremely common mistake among Spanish learners. In reality, all of the personal pronouns are overused in quite the same way, but yo is the easiest one to spot because first person is typically used more than the other addresses. This is particularly true for Spanish learners, who will start off by talking about themselves more than anything else!
In Spanish, personal subject pronouns such as yo are not as necessary as they are in English thanks to the verb conjugations. So in many cases saying these pronouns are actually quite redundant. They are still used for emphasis and to reduce ambiguity, but otherwise your sentence will be perfectly fine without it. I do understand why Spanish learners make this mistake, though – I remember that using the pronouns was generally required when I was learning Spanish at high school – but as an advanced learner you can start to ease of the yo and sound more natural when you talk.
Overusing yo is not technically incorrect or ungrammatical, but it does give you away as a non-native speaker of Spanish.
So here are some example sentences of overusing yo:
- Yo te voy a decir lo que tú eres.
Try instead: Te voy a decir lo que eres.
- Yo fui al cine y después yo caminé hasta el faro.
Try instead: Fui al cine y después caminé hasta el faro.
5. Omitting personal object pronoun when it’s needed
This is one of the more complex facets of Spanish grammar. In English we make double object sentences a fairly simple affair. In a sentence like “give the ball to Jane” we have the verb, the direct object, and the indirect object, each mentioned once. We can also reverse the order, as in “give Jane the ball”.
In Spanish, you generally actually mention the indirect object (which is usually the person) twice – once as a pronoun , and once when you mention the person specifically. You can omit the specific reference to a person, but you cannot omit the pronoun. If someone is giving something to someone else, even if it can be expressed with a direct object expression, the same rule applies.
What I have seen a lot of Spanish learners doing is omitting the pronoun but keeping the specific name.
Some Spanish learners omit the pronoun and end up with sentences like:
- Da un beso a Jorge.
Try instead: Dale un beso a Jorge.
- Mi madre dijo a mi padre lo que pasó.
Try instead: Mi madre le dijo a mi padre lo que pasó.
- Enseña a Julio cómo se hace.
Try instead: Enséñale a Julio cómo se hace.
- Saludó a mi hermana.
Try instead: Le saludó a mi hermana.
6. Using the wrong prepositions
Related to the point above, English speakers learning Spanish often use the wrong prepositions. This is because they tend to translate the prepositions that we use in English into Spanish for their expressions.
The thing about prepositional expressions, though, is that they actually don’t make much sense when you think about them. The preposition in expressions usually loses all of its meaning and just performs the function of making a meaning together with a verb. So rather than translating from English, the best way to do it is to memorise the entire lexical expression.
Here are some common cases where prepositions are misused in Spanish:
- Contar en… (Count on…)
Try instead: contar con…
- Dejar/parar ()… (stop…)
Try instead: dejar de/parar de…
- Enamorado/a con… (in love with…)
Try instead: enamorado de…
- Cuidar por… (care for…)
Try instead: cuidar de
- Casarse a… (get married to)
Try instead: Casarse con…
- Depende en (depends on)
Try instead: Depende de
Part 2: meaning mistakes in Spanish
7. Literally translating expressions
This is a normal part of the process of learning any language, I guess. It’s easy to imagine that words and expressions from English can easily be translated into Spanish word-for-word. You’d usually only find out that it’s not the case when someone tells you. There are hundreds of expressions in Spanish, most of which have nothing to do with their equivalent in English. So they can be a nasty little thing to master, but they will also probably be one of the last. Because once you’ve got idiomatic expressions down, you’re basically there!
So here’s a list of common expressions that are not translated quite right into Spanish:
- Hacer amigos (make friends)
Try instead: hacer amistades
- conseguir novio/novia (get a boyfriend/girlfriend)
Try instead: echarse novio/novia
- Hacer decisiones (make decisions)
Try instead: tomar decisiones
- Tener diversión (have fun)
Try instead: divertirse
- Estar cierto (to be right)
Try instead: tener razón
- Decir “hola” (to say hi – i.e: say hi to someone from me)
Try instead: Saludar
- Pagar atención (to pay attention)
Try instead: Prestar atención
8. misusing False friends
False friends, also known as false cognates, are nasty little buggers that can trip anyone up, really. What they are is words that sound similar in English and Spanish, but have different meanings. They make it easy to say something very very wrong, even if it sounds right to you. The worst part is that there are literally hundreds of these kinds of words, and you just have to remember their meanings to know they are not real cognates.
Common mistakes in Spanish with false friends include:
- Embarazada/o (pregnant)
- Actual (current)
- Asistir (attend)
- Casualidad (coincidence)
- Realizar (to make true)
- Compromiso (commitment)
Part 3: Pronunciation mistakes in Spanish
Pronunciation mistakes in Spanish are probably the number one thing that will give you away as a non-Spanish speaker immediately. And I understand that it is one of the hardest things to properly master, particularly if you’ve started learning Spanish later on in life. I have another article all about mastering pronunciation, but let’s see some specific mistakes in Spanish pronunciation many English speakers make.
9. mispronouncing Words ending in e or o
One thing that makes it hard for English speakers to accurately pronounce Spanish words is the fact that English has a lot more vowel sounds than Spanish does. Spanish vowels consist of only the sounds of a, e, i, o, and u, plus some combinations of those sounds. So the fact is, we can easily pronounce all of the Spanish vowel sounds as they are already part of our repertoire of sounds. But the hard part is training yourself to make only those sounds when you speak Spanish. The other part is separating how you read English words from how you read Spanish words, so you are not just automatically pronouncing Spanish words with an English accent.
What I hear a lot of English speakers do is draw out vowel sounds for too long, particularly at the end of words. This is especially prominent in words ending in e or o.
Examples of mispronouncing words ending in e and o in Spanish:
For example, in the word grande, English speakers will want to pronounce something like “granday”(IPA: grandei). In Spanish, the e sound doesn’t change wherever it is in the word. At the end of the word such as in grande, it is still the same short, sharp e we hear in words like bed in English and tengo in Spanish.
In words like tengo, though, English speakers often also make pronunciation errors at the end of the word. It sounds something like tengoe in the English accent. Again, the o sound at the end of a word sounds exactly like the o anywhere else. Think of the o in clock, or the o in poder.
10. Omitting the rolled R (rr)
I know many Spanish learners that become fluent in Spanish but never learn to pronounce this sound. The r sounds are all over Spanish, so this is a painstakingly obvious giveaway that you are an outsider.
The lack of rr is another pronunciation mistake in Spanish that is easily understandable from the perspective of a native English speaker. Some people, try as they might, just can’t seem to make it work. In native Spanish speaking countries, these people will go to speech therapy to train their rolling r’s. But if you don’t seriously need to know Spanish, that expense may not be an option for you. Still, you can train this sound, and anyone can learn how to make it. It’s just a matter of practise. It’s very hard to explain how in a blog post, but watch this video if you struggle with rolling your rs in Spanish.
Those are the main mistakes in Spanish that native English advanced learners tend to make. How many are you guilty of? Which of the above, if any, do you struggle with? Would you like me to make a blog post to explain in detail about any of those topics? Or a post about the common mistakes Spanish speakers make in English? Just leave a comment below to let me know!