5 Common Mistakes In Spanish Made By English Speakers

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When learning a new language, mistakes will inevitably be made. This is especially true when Spanish speakers try to learn English, and vice versa. While some errors are simply because the two languages are so different, there are common mistakes in Spanish that are easily avoidable.

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From letters that have different sounds in both languages to grammar distinctions that are nowhere to be found in English, here are 5 of the most common mistakes made by English speakers when speaking or writing in Spanish:

1. The pronunciation of “c” and “z”.

In Castillian Spanish, both letters are pronounced like the “th” sound in “thought” — cerro (hill): therro; zorro (fox): thorro. However, in Latin American countries such as Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, they are both pronounced as an “s” — cerro: serro; zorro: sorro.

Above all, you should bear in mind that nowhere in the Spanish-speaking world will you hear people pronouncing “z” as we do in English. The word zoom, for example, will either be “thoom” (Spain) or “soom” (Latin America), but never, well, “zoom”.

2. The letter “h”.

The letter “h” is responsible for some of the most common mistakes in Spanish. Because it is silent, it can trip up English speakers who are used to pronouncing it. As a result, words that start with “h” often sound very different in Spanish than they do in English. Here are a few examples of pairs of words that are spelt with a silent “h” in Spanish:

herb – hierba

hammock – hamaca

hotel – hotel

habit – hábito

alcohol – alcohol

With these words, which look and sound very much like their English counterparts, the challenge for English speakers is remembering to drop the “h” in pronunciation. But then, Spanish has lots of other words that look very different to their English synonyms that also contain this letter. In this case, the real challenge is remembering to spell the mute “h” when you write. Some of the most common Spanish words that contain this letter are:

  • Nouns: hombro (shoulder), huevo (egg), helado (ice cream), hueso (bone), hermano/a (brother/sister)
  • Adjectives: hermoso (beautiful), hambriento (hungry), harto (fed up), hiriente (hurtful), haragán (lazy)
  • Verbs: hervir (boil), hablar (speak), hacer (do), halagar (praise), hundir (sink)

3. Not using the right pronoun

This is one of the most complex mistakes in Spanish, and certainly one of the most common among English speakers. In Spanish, there are different words for “you”, depending on whether you are talking to one person or more than one person.

  • Tú (singular you – informal)
  • Usted (singular you – formal)
  • Ustedes (plural you)

The word usted is always considered to be more formal than “tú”, and it is used when talking to a stranger, an authority figure or someone who is older than you.

Ustedes, on the other hand, is the plural form of usted and it can be used when talking to more than one person, regardless of whether you know them or not.

At least, all of this is true if you find yourself in a Latin American country, where there is just one plural second-person pronoun. In Castillian (from Spain) Spanish, things get a bit more complicated:

  • Tú (singular you – informal)
  • Usted (singular you – formal)
  • Vosotros (plural you – informal)
  • Ustedes (plural you – formal)

4. False ‘friends’ or cognates

A false cognate is a word that looks or sounds similar to another word in a different language but has a completely different meaning. They are sometimes called “false friends” because they can trick you into thinking they mean the same thing as the word in your own language, leading to some of the funniest mistakes in Spanish you will ever make.

While pronunciation or spelling mistakes in Spanish won’t get in you trouble, relying on false friends definitely will, so it’s very important to know who they are…

Here are some of the most common false cognates in Spanish:

Actualmente (currently): Currently in Spanish means “at the moment” or “nowadays”, not “really”. If you want to say “currently”, as in “I am currently studying for my exams”, you should use the word “ahora mismo”. Instead, if someone says something like “grammar sucks” and you want to reply that you actually like it, you should say something like: “De hecho (in fact), a mí me gusta mucho”.

Asistir (to attend): In Spanish, asistir a means “to attend”, and asistencia means “attendance”. If you want to say “Can you assist me with this?”, the best way to say it in Spanish would be with the verb ayudar (help), not asistir: “¿Puedes ayudarme con esto?”.

Carpeta (folder): A carpeta in Spanish is a file or an envelope; it’s not a carpet or a rug, which translates to alfombra.

Embarazada (pregnant): Embarazo in Spanish means “pregnancy”. So, if a woman says she is embarazada, she is saying she is expecting a baby, not embarrassed.

5. Using the wrong verb endings.

Spanish learners usually complain about how hard it is to remember to add an ‘s’ to third-person singular verbs. What they don’t realize is that their own language is much more complex in terms of grammar.

Spanish verbs have a lot of different conjugations, which can be extremely confusing for English speakers who are used to only having one or two forms of each verb. For example, the verb “to eat” is “comer” in Spanish, but it would be conjugated differently depending on who is doing the eating.

  • I eat: Yo como
  • You eat (singular): Tú comes (Spain, Mexico); Vos comés (Argentina, Uruguay)
  • He/she/it eats: Él/Ella come
  • We eat: Nosotros comemos
  • You eat (plural): Vosotros coméis (Spain) Ustedes comen (other countries)
  • They eat: Ellos comen

Six forms for only one verb, and we’re only talking about the present tense!

But don’t worry. Once you familiarize yourself with the different terminations, you will see that they repeat themselves over and over. Besides, they appear so consistently in common conversations that you’ll get used to them in no time. But even if it takes you some time to tell them apart, don’t worry: mistakes in Spanish, especially grammar mistakes, will not make your sentences unintelligible.

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All these intricacies may seem a little overwhelming if you haven’t studied Spanish in a while, but rest assured: in the fascinating world of language learning, practice truly makes perfect.

So, what are your most frequent mistakes in Spanish? Would you like to learn about the most complex aspects of the Spanish language with the help of a native Spanish tutor? At Lovlan, you can choose your own tutor. All you have to do is explore our directory of experienced native Spanish instructors and choose your best match!