Today I’m going to go over the most common mistakes that native English speakers tend to make when learning Spanish and how to fix them on your own. Just to head it off before it gets started, because otherwise I know it will, the term “gringo” is not inherently derogatory, it’s just a catch-all term for, basically, “Western Foreigners” (you don’t even have to be white, despite common misconception, as a black person from the United States, England, Canada, etc. would still be called a “gringo”). It’s not derogatory unless it’s used in a derogatory manner, e.g. “I hate gringos” and “I hate Mexicans”: neither the term “gringo” nor the term “Mexican” is derogatory on their own, but they are in that context.
The first step is to make sure that you’re properly pronouncing your Spanish, which ought to be very easy since Spanish, unlike English, does not, with very few exceptions, change the sound of a letter regardless of which word it’s used in. An example of this happening in English is the word “Alabama” where the letter “a” changes the sound it makes three times–Spanish doesn’t do this, so there really isn’t much excuse for not pronouncing things properly. Here are the most commons areas where English-speakers have trouble that you need to focus on and be careful with:
1. Practice the 5 vowels repeatedly until you’ve got them down pat. When you do it slowly pronounce them and move your mouth as if someone 100 feet away was trying to read your lips, really enunciate and form them properly and slowly with your mouth–first we learn how to do it correctly, slowly, then we slowly speed up until we’re at full speed that way we’re not only fast but also correct (native speakers have both, so must you!). A simple sentence used to teach these to young children in Spanish-speaking countries that uses all 5 vowels plus the double “rr” is “El burro sabe más que tú” (“The donkey knows more than you” 😀 ). Check out the following short video for some help:
2. That damned “r”! Not only do you have to roll the “r”, but you have to do it either once or twice depending on where it is in the word and whether or not there is just one or two in a row. The single “r” anywhere other than the first letter of a word gets a single short tap or “flap”(technically known as an “alveolar flap”) of the tongue, a double “rr” OR a single “r” when it’s the first letter of a sentence gets “trilled” (technically known as an “alveolar trill”) meaning that the tongue does multiple (usually 2) quick flaps in a row.
This is one that really tends to distinguish gringos
from everyone else very quickly, most of them can’t speak Spanish, period, and of the few that do, few of them can properly roll their “r”s, so this is something that you absolutely must be able to do, however much practice it takes. A simple sentence taught to young children to help them practice is
Erre con Erre Cigarro
Erre con Erre Barril
Rápido ruedan las ruedas
Sobre los rieles del ferrocarril
“R with R” cigar
“R with R” barrel
Quickly run the cars,
Over the rails of the railroad.
Check out this video for some basic instructions on how to roll your “r” properly in Spanish:
3. Improper use of the subjunctive, or just not using it at all. I wrote up a whole post for you on it here: The Spanish Subjunctive Explained.
4. False friends. Just because it sounds like an English word that you know doesn’t mean that it’s the same thing in Spanish. “Actualemente” doesn’t mean “actually”, that’s “de hecho”, and “sanidad” refers to the health system, not sanity, and…my favorite false friend of all, which got a whole post dedicated to it (which also has lots more info on false friends including a link to a whole list of them) you can read about here: My Favorite, and Most Common, Gringo Error in Spanish (aka “false friend”)
5. The soft “c” and “z” are pronounced the same, they don’t really use our pronunciation of the “z” for anything, their “z” is pronounced like an “s” would be in English, as is their soft “c”. A “c” in “co-“, “cu-“, or “ca-” like “carro” or “cumplir” is the hard “c” and is pronounced as we would a “k”. Here’s some additional help with the Spanish consonants:
I’d like to note something about what he said in that video concerning “b” and “v”: this varies, and in my experience most Latin Americans will pronounce the “b” and “v” differently just the way we would in English but the Spaniards are the ones who will pronounce both of them like a soft “b”, so when they say “vida” it sounds the same as “bida”. In other words, this too varies by region.
6. Gringos will tend to avoid using their Spanish unless absolutely necessary and this leads to a typical gringo mistake that is often mistaken as rudeness when in fact it’s nervousness because the person, in this case the gringo, doesn’t speak the language well and is therefore hesitant to use it.
What happens is that they’ll go into a store or some other place and they won’t greet the employee(s), they’ll be in there for half an hour or some such amount of time browsing, and then leave without so much as an “adios”. This is considered very rude in most Spanish-speaking countries and will immediately peg someone as a gringo. Also, correcting this should be the result of doing something you ought to be doing anyway: speaking to anyone and everyone you possibly can.
The proper etiquette is to greet someone when you enter their establishment with “Buenos dias” until noon, and then from noon until dark you would use “Buenas tardes”, and then from dark until bedtime you would say “Buenas noches”. Whenever you leave a place, if it’s a place of business of some type, you say “gracias” or “muchas gracias muy amable”, anywhere else you should say “adiós” or “hasta luego”.
7. Because we always say “I” in English without exception, English speakers have this very, very difficult to break tendency to do the same thing in Spanish and it’s a huge mistake. You likely already know that you only need to mention the subject in a sentence if it’s not already obvious, such as if you’re already talking about the car, you can just say “no funciona bien” (“It doesn’t work well”), notice the lack of a pronoun there, “it” specifically, as it’s not necessary.
Now, with the way verbs are conjugated in Spanish for the pronoun “yo”, there is absolutely NO ONE else that could be the subject besides the speaker, unlike with the “usted/ustedes” conjugation where it’s sometimes necessary to indicate the subject as it’s not always obvious, therefore the ONLY time that the pronoun “yo” is ever used is to emphasize the speaker–the equivalent in English would be to heavily stress the word “I” in the sentence, like “I really didn’t like it [implying that despite someone else’s opinion that it was good, you don’t think so]”.
So don’t ever use the word “yo” unless you really need to specifically emphasize yourself in the sentence, remember that it’s the rough equivalent of heavily emphasizing the “I” in the same sentence in English. Quit saying “yo” unless you really want to emphasize the “I” part of that sentence.
8. Getting tongue-tied and mixing in English “crutch words” such as “like” and “you know”, it sounds horrible and confuses the hell out of the poor Spanish-speaker you’re talking to (presuming they don’t understand English), e.g. “Quiero que…um…like…que usted deme su…you know…su…nombre!”. Basically, don’t speak Spanglish. Benny wrote a great post about this called “Conversational Connectors” you should check out.
9. The “h” is always silent, quit pronouncing it, it’s never pronounced.
10. The “d”s in Spanish are a bit softer. For example, the word “David” in English has a very hard “D”, whereas the word “nada” in Spanish sounds like “not-ah”, that is you pronounce it the way you would the word “not” in English and then add an “ah” to the end. There is no hard “d” in Spanish, they’re all soft–not quite a hard “t” sound, but sort of a cross between, in English, a “t” and a “d”–the best way I can describe it is as a “soft d”. This is just one of those minor little things you need to pay attention to when listening to Spanish, and especially when repeating what you hear in practice, that you might have otherwise missed.
11. Don’t ever sacrifice proper pronunciation for speed, we tend to do this in English and they tend NOT to do it in Spanish: regardless of how quickly a native Spanish speaker is speaking, you’ll notice they will tend to pronounce every last consonant, whereas we will tend to slur them together when speaking English (“Kinda”, “I dunno”, “Whaaaazuuup?!!”, etc.). Don’t carry your habit of doing this in English over into Spanish, if you have to slow down to the point where you sound like you’re whacked out on horse tranquilizers just to be able to properly pronounce everything, then so be it: pronunciation trumps all else.
12. This has nothing to do with speaking but I’m going to throw it in here anyway: clothes.
You’ve probably heard of gringos being teased for this before but I’d like to clarify precisely why you shouldn’t dress like that: dressing down hasn’t caught on in Latin America because there are a lot of people there who have to dress like that because they’re poorer than shit, and consequently if you are dressed like that you’re going to be saying things about yourself that you really don’t want to. I’m not going to tell you what to wear, too many people are sensitive about that, but just be aware that the ‘normal’ level of dress there is far more formal than it is here and it’s never considered fashionable to dress down or to dress as though you’re poor (jeans or other clothes with tears/wear in them, clothing that’s baggy and doesn’t fit properly, etc.).
13. Mixing up the preterit and imperfect verb tenses and not knowing when to use which. This is an extremely common error for non-native Spanish speakers (English speakers or otherwise) to do until they get to a fairly high-intermediate or advanced level. For more detailed information on what to do, have a look at this:
14. Mixing up “por” and “para” and not knowing when to use which. To learn when to apply which one and how, have a look at this:
15. Ser and Estar. Oh boy. I’ll write up a long detailed post on this, or maybe even a series, but for now just know that confusing these two is a super common error and the more you can do to correct it, the better. For now I’ll just put the best video I could find explaining it below for you:
16. Comprehension does not increase with volume, yelling won’t make them understand better, don’t. All of Latin America will expect you to stand there in your cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirt and shout at them: pleasantly surprise them 🙂
17. In Spain the “ll” is pronounced as we would a “y” in English, in most Latin American countries it’s pronounced with a soft “j” as in “jay” or “zh” (Argentina/Uruguay only, almost everywhere else it’s “j”). This is easy to do, you just have to remember to do it.
Lastly, I did a bit of research and the one site I found (there are tons out there with “common Spanish errors”, most are just repeating the same old crap) that I’d be willing to link to and recommend because he’s addressing something a bit different than what I covered here is this page on common expressions in Spanish that people tend to screw up–I didn’t really cover specific expressions and phrases here so much, so I think that would definitely be a valuable added resource for you.
If you think a complete, structured course may help you…
That is, something designed to take a beginning or intermediate learner from where they are to a more advanced level. I have a few that I recommend below (very short explanation of each) if you’re interested. I receive a commission on the sale of some of these, but not all of them (the stuff on Amazon I make very little on because the commission rate is ~6.5% on books which only cost about $10). The way it works is I determine if I am willing to recommend a particular product first, and then if so, I check to see if they have an affiliate program. This and my book (how to learn Spanish from media like movies, TV shows, music, books, etc.) is how I support this website and how I manage to keep it ad-free: I pitch my book and these products here and there (via links only, no ads). If you do happen to be interested in buying one of them I’d like to ask you to use one of my affiliate links below as it costs you nothing extra (my commission comes out of the merchant’s pocket, not yours) and helps me keep writing (and buying beer, which is just as important).
- Synergy Spanish – Fairly short course (~30 days to complete), all material based on the 138 most commonly spoken Spanish words. For beginners (A1 level, A2 max), incorporates a lot of dialogue that would be immediately useful to a traveler/tourist (ordering, restaurant/hotel/airline/reservation stuff) so if you’re leaving soon and need to make the most of the few weeks you have, this is probably your best bet. Uses audio and video as the principal teaching material with written instructions/dialogue to support it.
- Learning Spanish Like Crazy – A more comprehensive course (30 days per level, there are 3 levels) specifically focused on making the student conversationally fluent in Latin American Spanish (he favors Colombian speakers, an excellent choice in my opinion as they speak a very clear, neutral, grammatically correct Spanish that everyone in Latin America can easily understand). In this case I would say “conversationally fluent” equates to ~B1 level spoken Spanish, that is capable of talking about everyday topics with natives without too much trouble or need of outside references (dictionaries, Google Translate, etc.). It’s intended for beginners, though intermediates could start out at one of the higher levels if they liked.
- Practice Makes Perfect Series – A series of workbooks by McGraw-Hill that teach various aspects of Spanish, written by various authors. They do a good job of teaching what they purport to and, what I really like about them, you can write in them. Some workbooks expect you to do the exercises elsewhere (notepad, whatever) – these don’t. You don’t need anything but the workbook and a pen. The ones I recommend are: Spanish Grammar, Spanish Verb Tenses, Spanish Conversation, and Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions.
- Pimsleur – No link for this one as I think it’s ridiculously overpriced ($181 per level, and there are 4 levels, on Amazon right now). It’s great for learning pronunciation and getting a basic feel for the language but that’s about it. Very slow (that’s a good thing for beginners), audio only. Check the various torrent sites, they all have it (I believe Audible does as well, or at least some of it, if you want to stay legal).
- Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking Spanish book – Very good for beginners, especially those who will be going in-country soon and need some tips/tricks/hacks now. I reviewed the Italian version here (picked Italian because I had no experience with the language, wanted to see what it was like for a beginner). I actually consulted for him (along with a native speaker from Spain) on the Spanish version linked to above and helped him adapt the material from French to Spanish (he wrote the French version first and then adapted it to all the other languages).
That’s it! Well…that’s all I could come up with for now, I’m sure people will add some more that I forgot in the comments, which, by the way, is more than welcome. Any extra value you add to a post of mine, whether it’s in the form of correcting an error or some sort of valid criticism or adding in something I missed, is always welcome. Bring it! 😀