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As a teenager, I was excited to learn Spanish at school. To me, it sounded cooler than French or German and it’s spoken in more countries.
I remember one of my first lessons was about food. We learned to say, “Tengo hambre.” This means, “I’m hungry”.
But wait a minute, I asked my teacher. Tengo hambre doesn’t mean “I’m hungry”, it means “I have hunger.” It sounds ridiculous. It’s not correct!
My teacher explained that different languages work differently. We say “I’m hungry” and Spanish speakers say “I have hunger”. What sounds normal to us sounds ridiculous to them, and vice versa.
I learned an important lesson that day - many of the language mistakes that people make are due to the differences between the two languages.
As another example, I could never master which Spanish words were masculine and which were feminine. (El problema or la problema?) After all, nouns in English usually don’t have a gender!
Here Is the Good News for Spanish Speakers Learning English
Both Spanish and English are heavily influenced by Latin. In fact, there are many similarities between the two languages.
It is easier for a Spanish speaker to learn English than it is for a Vietnamese speaker, for example. This is because English and Vietnamese are completely different and come from different language families.
In contrast, 30% to 40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish.
Beware of “False Friends” When Speaking English
In language terms, a false friend is a word in English that looks like a word in Spanish…but has a different meaning.
A great example is constipado. It looks just like the English word constipated. However, the meaning is not the same.
Constipado in Spanish means to have a cold. But in English, if you say “I’m constipated”, it means you have not been able to “go to the bathroom” for a long time.
So, if you say to your boss “I am constipated today”, prepare for an uncomfortable silence.
Avoid Direct Translations and Aim for Natural English Sentence Structures
I noticed a very common mistake among my Spanish-speaking students. They would often say, “Is good”, “No is good” and other similar sentences.
These are direct translations from “Es bueno” and “No es bueno”.
In English, we are quite strict about using the subject of the sentence. It must be “IT is good” or else… it just doesn’t sound right.
No es bueno (It’s not good) is another direct translation.
Even though these are basic mistakes, I would hear them from intermediate-level Spanish speakers. This is because a mistake that you make when you first learn English can become a bad habit that is difficult to get rid of.
One of the ways that you can get rid of these bad habits is to correct yourself when you speak. If you hear yourself making a mistake, correct yourself immediately. This will greatly improve your English in the long run.
Reading transcripts of podcasts aloud is another great way to tune yourself to natural English instead of translations from Spanish. Record yourself doing this to get the most benefit.
Another common example I want to pick out is this:
The bus is late, no?
The bus is late, isn’t it?
Can you see how the second example sounds more natural to English? It uses a question tag. Learning grammatical structures like question tags can also help your English to sound more natural.
Think about How English Sounds Different from Spanish
Our recent article explains how clear pronunciation is more important than trying to “lose your accent”, yet many pronunciation errors are due to your mother tongue.
Let’s see some examples that relate to Spanish.
A consonant cluster is two or more consonant sounds together (xt, nt, sp etc.). Spanish almost never has consonant clusters at the end of a word. This causes Spanish speakers to ‘drop’ sounds.
So, a Spanish speaker may say tex instead of text or breakfass instead of breakfast.
Can you pronounce the difference? Why not record yourself trying and find out for yourself?
Three consonant sounds together may be even more challenging. Try crisps, wasps, or texts.
The H Sound
Remember that in Spanish the H is usually silent (hola) and the English H sound is represented by a J (jalapeño).
You may need to apply some effort to remember to pronounce the H sound in English “Happy Holidays”, not “‘Appy ‘Olidays”.
Just to make life more difficult, some English words do have a silent H (honour, hour, vehicle, honest). Many Spanish speakers “overcorrect” by pronouncing the H sounds in these words.
Ship and Sheep
Long/short vowel pairs can be difficult for Spanish speakers, especially the i / i: sounds in word pairs like ship/sheep and bit/beat.
Again, record yourself saying these sounds and make sure the two words sound different in each case. Try this video for extra help.
Spain and “Espain”
Many Spanish speakers add an ‘eh’ sound at the beginning of a word, especially if it has a consonant cluster beginning with S.
You may even be doing this without realising it!
Record yourself saying these words and make sure you say “Spain”, not “Espain”, “School”, not “Eschool” and so on:
- Spongebob Squarepants
V and B Sounds
Spanish speakers often struggle to differentiate these consonant pairs.
Test yourself with these word pairs:
Try this video for extra help.
Vocabulary Mistakes that Spanish Speakers Make
Here is a list of 10 English words that confuse Spanish speakers.
Some of these may seem like quite basic mistakes. Again, it is often the basic mistakes that become bad habits that learners continue to make at intermediate level.
Awareness of these common mistakes can help you to correct yourself when you speak English.
This is another “false friend”. The meaning in English is to become aware of something. It is not the same as the Spanish word realizar.
I suddenly realised that I had left the house without my keys.
Embarazada means ‘pregnant’ in Spanish, but in English, it refers to a situation that causes a feeling of shame or awkwardness.
They noticed I was wearing different colours of socks. How embarrassing!
3 Using HOW instead of WHAT
Note that we often use WHAT in English where Spanish speakers use HOW:
Incorrect: How does it look like?
Correct: What does it look like?
Incorrect: How do you call…?
Correct: What do you call…?
4 MAKE and DO
In English, we often use MAKE when Spanish uses DO…and vice versa. Here are some examples:
Spanish: do a mistake
English: make a mistake
Spanish: do a cake
English: make a cake
Spanish: make sport
English: do sport
5 I am here since…
In English, we use a perfect tense whenever we use the word SINCE. Watch out for this mistake:
Incorrect: I am here since this morning.
Correct: I have been here since this morning.
6 The people is…
In Spanish, the word people (gente) is singular, but in English it is always plural:
Incorrect: The people is waiting.
Correct: The people are waiting.
7 I have 25 years…
The way that we state our age is different in English. Whereas in Spanish, we may say, “Tengo 25 años”, in English, it is “I am 25 years old.”
8 I am agree/I agree
Which one do you think is correct? Which do you use?
A) I am agree.
B) I agree.
If you answered B, well done! “I agree” is the correct way to say it in English.
9 Explain me
In English, we add the preposition “to” to several words that have no preposition in Spanish. Here are some examples:
Incorrect: Explain me…
Correct: Explain to me…
Incorrect: Listen me…
Correct: Listen to me
Incorrect: Say me…
Correct: Say to me…
10 Fun and funny
Let’s finish with a fun (or funny?) example. Both of these words are adjectives, but “fun” means “enjoyable”, while “funny” describes something we laugh at.
Incorrect: We had a funny day at the park.
Correct: We had a fun day at the park.
Incorrect: The comedian was so fun!
Correct: The comedian was so funny!
Keep an Eye Out for More
In this article, we have pointed out some common mistakes that Spanish speakers make in English, explained why they occur and suggested corrections.
There are many more out there!
Our final tip is to “keep your eyes peeled” for differences in the two languages. A curious and questioning learner is a good learner!