“Anyone who doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.” Wess Roberts
It’s only natural to make mistakes when learning a new language. It’s not only natural, it’s essential for improving your Spanish. You should consider that mistakes are opportunities to learn. They allow you to gain knowledge and accelerate your learning (in any circumstances). The important thing is to view mistakes as a useful stepping stone to speaking and understanding Spanish better. Be proud of yourself for embarking on something new, challenging and rewarding!
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Unknown
Fortunately, after more than a decade of teaching Spanish to children and adults, I’ve recognized many of the same mistakes occurring again and again. This list of the most common pitfalls for English-speakers learning Spanish should be very helpful for your learning process. Read through the many errors below and keep a mental or written note to help give you a boost to communicating like a native speaker.
Gender Confusion of Nouns
All Spanish nouns are either feminine (la casa – the house) or masculine (el sombrero – the hat). English nouns don’t have a gender, so it’s confusing for English-speakers to assign an object with a masculine or feminine quality. The standard rule in Spanish is that nouns that end in “a” are feminine and the rest are masculine. If only it were that simple. Just like in English, there are exceptions to the rules of grammar. For example, many words that end in “ma” are usually masculine despite ending in the letter a.
In Spanish, the verb form tells listeners about whom they’re speaking; so actually saying the pronoun (yo, tú, él, nosotros, etc) isn’t necessary. In fact, using pronouns often gives away that you’re not a native speaker and you’ll also sound too formal. It’s understandable, because in English a sentence wouldn’t make sense without the pronoun, i.e. wants to learn to play piano. Who wants to learn to play piano? But in Spanish, the verb tells you the who.
Basically Spanish is “backwards” from English with regards to where adjectives are placed. In English, we put most adjectives before the noun. For example, we would say “the black bird”, but in Spanish, many adjectives come after the noun. The correct way to say the black bird in Spanish would be: el pájaro negro (the bird black).
In English, adjectives do not agree (masculine or feminine) with the nouns. This makes it difficult for English-speakers to automatically think of matching the adjective to the noun, as in Spanish (you also need to agree with the noun with singular or plural). For example, las casas blancas (the white houses) matches the noun gender (a) and number (s) with the adjective.
Using “False Friends” (False Cognates)
Cognates are words that sound and look similar in Spanish and English, i.e. clase and class. There are many cognates, but some are “false friends”; they seem to mean the same thing, but they actually don’t. For example, you may think that asistir means to assist, but it actually means to attend (as in to attend a college). Be careful of false cognates because you could say something you really don’t want to, i.e.: estoy embarazada sounds like – I’m embarrassed, but it really means – I’m pregnant.
Spanish vowels are easy for English-speakers because they’re the same sound in English and they never change. Consonants are another story. Most are similar, but some are completely different in Spanish. For example, with words that begin with the letter “h”, the “h” is not pronounced (it’s silent). When you see “ll” it’s pronounced like a “y” (in most countries). Also the “j” is said like the “h”. There are many more like this, so make sure you practice the correct pronunciation!
Forgetting to be Respectful
The cultural influence of Spanish-speakers is built into their language usage. Hispanics show respect for elders and people in authority with the language they use to communicate with them. For example, in Latin America they use the tú form of a verb (informal) to speak with an “equal” or the usted form (formal) to show respect to another person. English-speakers may become confused on when to use which form and might unknowingly insult elders or be too formal with friends.
Confusing Ser and Estar
This is probably the most confusing aspect for English-speakers because ser and estar mean exactly the same: to be, but they are used in different circumstances. In general, ser is used for permanent states of being, like how someone looks, their career, their personality traits, etc. while estar refers to temporary states of being, like a location or a feeling. There’s much more to learn about ser and estar, so you’ll just have to learn the rules and do your best.
Remember to keep note of these common errors in hopes of avoiding them. And never feel embarrassed that you’ve made a mistake. Learning Spanish is a process that takes time, patience and persistence. If you learn from your mistakes, they can be your best teachers. Mistakes will propel you forward on your language learning journey. Be patient and gentle with yourself and you’ll surely get to your Spanish-speaking destination!