Today I’m going to go over the most common mistakes in Spanish 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, everything is always pronounced the same, so there really isn’t much excuse for not pronouncing things properly. Mispronouncing the letter “a” is, by the way, one of the most common errors in Spanish that marks someone as an English-speaker. If you’re having trouble with pronunciation, please see my article Spanish Pronunciation: Quickly Learn to Pronounce Any Spanish Word No Matter How Difficult. But let’s get started!
Here are the most common Spanish mistakes that English-speakers make and how to fix them:
1. Mispronunciation of the vowels. 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”! Probably the single most common Spanish mistake that English-speakers make, but in this case at least they’re aware they’re doing it (usually they just have trouble rolling their “r”, it’s not that they don’t know they’re supposed to do it). 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 who can, few of them can properly roll their “r”s. So this is something that you really want to 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. This is one of the most common errors in Spanish and also one of the most difficult to completely correct because the subjunctive is so hard to learn for most students. I wrote up a whole post for you on it here that should help: The Spanish Subjunctive Explained: How the Subjunctive Works Plus a Mnemonic Trick to Help you Remember When to Use It (The W.E.I.R.D.O. System).
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: “embarazada” – that means “pregnant”, not “embarrassed”.
The five most common ones, in my experience, are:
- Actualmente. It looks like it means “actually” when it really means “right now” or “in this moment in time”. We English-speakers love to say “actually”, and people learning a foreign language have a strong tendency to bring their speech patterns with them into the new language. One of the ways we do that is searching for equivalents to our favorite words and expressions, and then insisting on using them. As I mentioned previously, the way to say this is “de hech”, or you could use “realmente” or “en realidad” (“in reality”).
- Decepionado/decepcionante/decepionar. These look like they have to do with deception – they do not, they have to do with dissapointment. Decepcionado(a) means “disappointed”, decepcionar is the verb that means “to dissapoint”, and decepcionante is the adjective that means “disappointing”.
- Educado(a). This can mean “educated” but it much more commonly means “polite” or “well brought-up”, “well mannered”.
- Emocionante/emocionado. This means “exciting” (emocionante) or “excited” (emocionado), not “emotional”.
- Embarazada. I know we’ve covered it but it bears repeating: please remember, this does not mean “embarassed”, it means pregnant. The way you say “embarrassed” is “avergonzado”, and the most common way of saying “I’m embarrassed” is actually, “Me da vergüenza” (literally, “it gives me embarrassment”).
Here are three good lists of many more Spanish-English false friends:
- 50 Spanish-English False Friends from Mental Floss
- SpanishDict’s list of False Cognates (same thing as false friends)
- Wiktionary’s Appendix of false friends between Spanish and English
5. Pronunciation of the soft “c” and “z”. Normally they 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. Failure to greet and respond to greetings. Anglophones 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”.
For lots more information about this, please see my post, Manners in Spanish: The Basics of Being Polite in Spanish-Speaking Cultures.
7. Overuse of the personal pronoun “yo”. Because we always say “I” in English without exception, English speakers have this 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, the pronoun “it”, specifically. 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.
For lots more information about this (I cover proper use of “yo” in much more detail), please see my brief guide to regional variation of the forms of address (tú, vos, usted) in Spanish.
8. Spanglish. 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. If you’re going to do this, then use the Spanish filler words (called “muletillas”) and do it properly! I have a whole list of these with definitions, cultural background, and examples for each: Spanish Transition Words (Muletillas) and Sentence Starters: The Grease of the Language Gears.
9. The “h” is always silent, quit pronouncing it, it’s never pronounced.
10. Pronouncing the “d” in Spanish too hard. 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. Chileans are the exception to this (I just spent nearly five months in Chile, my girlfriend is Chilean, Chilean Spanish is…different).
12. 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:
13. 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 the following video and check out my post on para que vs por que:
14. Improper use of 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:
Oh, also, there’s a book that’s been written about this one particular aspect of Spanish grammar. I’ve read it and think it does an excellent job of explaining the difference between ser and estar, teaching you how to use them correctly, and giving you exercises to practice the correct usage. It’s called Spanish Verbs: Ser and Estar and is available here on Amazon for very little ($2.82 right now for the paperback).
15. Yelling. Comprehension does not increase with volume, yelling won’t make them understand better, don’t. This is less and less common these days as the stereotype of the loud American who thinks shouting slowly at people somehow helps dies out, thanks in my opinion to Americans’ awareness of said stereotype and increased exposure to other cultures via the internet and a lot more traveling than we used to do.
16. Mispronunciation of the “ll” and “y”. In Spain the “ll” is pronounced as we would a “y” in English, in most Latin American countries it’s pronounced with a “j” as in “jay”; in a few it’s pronounced like “sh”, “ch”, or “zh” (Argentina/Uruguay only, almost everywhere else it’s that “j” sound). This is easy to do, you just have to remember to do it. I have a post specifically about how they pronounce the “ll” and “y” in Colombia vs elsewhere (like Argentina) that includes a video of a Colombian and an Argentinean discussing Colombian Spanish vs Argentinean Spanish so you can hear the differences).
Bonus: Messing up the various forms of address (“Do I use usted, tú, or vos?”). This can be really tricky because it varies based on not only who you’re speaking to but the country/region they’re from, their gender, and age. Please see my post here to help you with this, it covers every country and all forms of address: A Brief Guide to Regional Variation of the Forms of Address (Tú, Vos, Usted) in Spanish.
Recommended Resources and Further Reading
An excellent way to learn to speak just like a native speaker is to study and learn from popular media in the language you’re learning. This is how I learned how to speak conversationally fluent Spanish within six months of starting, and I wrote a book (now in its 2nd edition) about how to do it called, The Telenovela Method. I’ll teach you how to find and select popular media that you will find interesting (this is crucial – you won’t be able to maintain focus if you don’t find the material interesting or entertaining), which resources to use to assist you (almost all are free) and how to use them, and how to apply what you’ve learned by using it to communicate with native speakers (also crucial).
I did a bit of research and two sites 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 are 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 – as well as this one (22 common mistakes English-speakers make) over on the Duolingo forums.
If you’re particularly interested in learning Latin American Spanish, check out this superb Latin American Spanish podcast specifically designed to teach English-speakers, called Español en 3000.
One thing that distinguishes native from non-native speakers, that makes the difference between jerky, awkward conversation and fluent conversation, is the use of common connector words. Have a look at my post, Spanish Transition Words (Muletillas) and Sentence Starters: The Grease of the Language Gears. These are Spanish equivalents to English expressions such as, “Look,…”, “Well…”, “The truth is…”, “In other words…”, “By the way…”, etc.
If you’d really like to work on your everyday speech, I really can’t recommend popular media enough: that’s how people actually talk, just copy them! I know it’s not quite that simple (how you copy them is very important, and it’s really more like “studying” them than anything), but that’s the basic idea. Other than my book, I recommend you check out some categories (containing several posts) I have on here that are relevant:
Learn Spanish for Real – in this series of post I teach one common expression per post (or more than that when they all basically mean the same thing), such as four ways to say someone is naked in Spanish, how to say “that rings a bell” in Spanish, or how to say something is very far away in Spanish.
If you need help with pronunciation, be sure to check out my post on Spanish pronunciation where I’ll teach you how to quickly learn to pronounce anything via imitation and include a video of me demonstrating it.
As you know and I’ve mentioned elsewhere, conversing with native speakers is crucial and has to be done sooner or later. A great way to do this is via online classes where the native speaker is the teacher. I personally can recommend a service called GoSpanish (this is my review of them), having tried it myself. You can get unlimited classes with them (online, via a video call using a Skype-like system) for as little as $39 per month – that’s insane. You could take multiple one-hour long classes every day and just pay $39 a month for it if you wanted. They also guarantee you won’t have more than about five students per class, and in my experience it was less than that (sometimes it was just me and the teacher).
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, also… If you thought the above was at all useful and you want to learn (or are learning) Spanish, please give me a chance and read what I have to say about my book below! Thank you so much for checking out my blog and I hope you’ve enjoyed my writing.
I learned to speak conversational Spanish in six months using TV shows, movies, and even comics: I then wrote a book on how you can, too
I have a whole method and a book I wrote about it called The Telenovela Method where I teach you how to learn Spanish from popular media like TV shows, movies, music, books, etc. that you can all find online for free. It was the #1 new release in the Spanish Language Instruction section on Amazon for nearly a month after it came out and currently has 17 reviews there with a 4.9/5 stars average. It’s available for $7.99-$9.99 for the e-book version depending on who you buy it from (Kindle version on Amazon is now $7.99) and $16.99 for the paperback (occasionally a bit cheaper, again, depending on who you buy it from).
It’s currently available in both e-book and paperback from: