First, know that making mistakes isn’t always a bad thing. Even though we are used to associating them with something negative, I’ve seen first-hand how they can help my students to learn better — once they change their mindset towards them.

Each mistake is an opportunity to improve.

Having said that, I think it’s also worth thinking about how your mother tongue influences the way you learn and speak a new language.

I've taught over 4,000 Spanish lessons so far, and in this article I’ll discuss five types of mistakes that my English speaking students often make. Hopefully, by the time you finish the article, you'll also know how to avoid those mistakes.

Error 1: Easily confusable verbs

SER / ESTAR (to be)

The quintessential dilemma and one of the first things you'll learn in Spanish. Even my intermediate and advanced students have trouble with this contrast (and with reason). After all, not many languages have two forms of the verb "to be".

While both ser and estar translate to to be, they are used in different situations. As a few general rules of thumb:

  • Ser is used for things that are inherent to us or that are more permanent in nature: your physical appearance, character, profession, nationality — or just something about you that is a fact
  • Estar is used for just the opposite: temporary things like how you are feeling at the moment, where you or something is located, and things that will inevitably change like the weather or how hot your coffee is.

Examples

If someone asks how you're doing, should you use ser or estar to say that you're good/OK?

❌  ¿Cómo estás? — Soy bien.
✅  ¿Cómo estás? — Estoy bien.

As mentioned above, whenever we talk about our current emotional state, we use estar. As such, here we should say estoy bien. We aren't talking about some quality that is inherent to our nature as a person, but instead are describing an ephemeral feeling that will change with time. You're good now, but later tonight you'll be tired.

(If this was a different situation and you had wanted to talk about your traits as a person, then you could use the verb ser and say soy bueno. Then, you wouldn't be talking about how you feel now, but rather saying something more along the lines of I'm a good person.)

That in mind — imagine that somebody had asked you where you were from, and you wanted to tell them that you were from the United States. Would you use ser or estar?

❌  ¿De dónde eres? – Estoy de Estados Unidos.
✅  ¿De dónde eres? — Soy de Estados Unidos.

This time we should use ser.

While our location may change from moment to moment, where we're from — our roots — will never change.

CONOCER / SABER (to know)

Another tricky one. In English the verb to know can be used in several contexts without any change in meaning. In Spanish however, we use two different verbs to express "knowing" — and sometimes might use a totally different verb altogether.

Generally speaking:

  • Conocer is used when we talk about people or places we’ve visited, or we’ve met before.
  • Saber is used when we talk about facts and knowledge/information related to specific subjects, like knowing a language or how to cook.

Examples

Imagine that you you're a tourist and somebody is asking if you've heard of different places. How would you tell them that you aren't familiar with a certain place?

❌  No ese lugar
✅  No conozco ese lugar

In this example the correct verb would be conocer because we are talking about not having the experience of visiting a particular place, rather than not having knowledge or information about it.

You would use saber if you wanted to talk about knowing specific things about the place.

Diez cosas que debes saber sobre Bogotá, Colombia.
Ten things that you should know about Bogotá, Colombia.
Valparaiso
Photo by Loïc Mermilliod / Unsplash

TENER + EDAD (to be + age)

Another common example of language interference which stems from the fact that you use the verb "to be" to talk about age in English. My beginner students often say things like Soy 37 (I’m 37) — but this actually means something like your identity is 37. In Spanish, we use the verb tener (to have) to talk about age — as well as to talk about some emotions and to express physical reactions to the weather (like being cold, hot, or afraid).

Examples

To say that you're 37 years old:

❌  Soy 37.
✅  Tengo 37 años.

To say that you're cold:

❌  Soy frío.
✅  Tengo frío.

The difference between ser and tener here is similar to the difference between ser and estar above. If you say soy frío, you're saying that your personality, by nature, is cold. You may wish to say that sometimes, or about certain people, but if your goal is to communicate your physical response to the cold weather, you should use the verb tener.


Error 2: Agreement and word order

SUBJECT-VERB agreement

One of the things my English-speaking students especially struggle with is that Spanish verbs change their endings depending on the verb's subject pronoun (see below) — the person “doing” the action. (They also change for tense.) This practice is called conjugation.

In English, conjugation is easy. Verbs don’t really change at all. You only have to remember to add an -s (or an -es) to verbs when they are in the present tense and 3rd person singular form (he, she, it):

  • I/you/we/they read a lot.
    he/she reads a lot.

In Spanish, however, the verb to read (leer) looks different depending on who is doing the reading:

Because the ending of a verb corresponds to who is doing the verb, subject pronouns aren't mandatory in Spanish like they are in English. The verb alone makes it clear enough who is doing what.

(Spanish verbs also change according to tense, but that's a much bigger topic.)

Examples

❌  Ella vivo en Greenford.
      She "live" in Greenford.
✅  Ella vive en Greenford.
      She lives in Greenford.
❌  Yo es contador.
      I "is" an accountant.
✅  Yo soy contador.
      I am an accountant.

Foo

NOUN-ADJECTIVE agreement

English doesn’t currently distinguish words by grammatical gender (unless they refer to biological sex, like the words woman, boy, Ms, and so forth). This is a major hurdle for English-speaking students: each noun and adjective is masculine or feminine in Spanish.

Feminine words tend to end in –a, masculine ones tend to end in –o, and the genders of words in a sentence must agree. You can only use masculine adjectives with masculine nouns and feminine adjectives with feminine nouns.

This can even be tricky for speakers of other romance languages (like Portuguese, Italian, French or Romanian) because the genders of nouns and adjectives in those languages aren’t always the same as they are in Spanish.

Examples

❌  El libro roja es mi favorita
✅  El libro rojo es mi favorito.
      The red book is my favorite.

As libro ends in an –o, we know it is masculine. As such, the adjectives red and favorite should also be in their masculine forms: rojo and favorito.

The exact same phrase may be correct or incorrect, depending on context:

 Estoy listo. --> correct if said by a man, incorrect if said by a woman
 Estoy lista. --> correct if said by a woman, incorrect if said by a man
 I'm ready.

(Note: In English, adjectives come before verbs. In Spanish, adjectives almost always come after verbs. Whereas we say the red book, Spanish speakers say the book red.)


Error 3: Common grammatical goofs

OVERUSE of SUBJECT PRONOUNS

As mentioned above, verbs are quite complex in Spanish. One of the "benefits" of that complexity is that they supply enough information as-is to let you know who is doing the action and when they did it — even if you never explicitly specified those things by using additional words. In fact, it's actually redundant to "double" specify that information by using subject pronouns like you or we. It's just not necessary in Spanish.

We usually start a sentence with the subject pronoun if we wish to specify something, even though it's not technically necessary to do so. We also use subject pronouns from time to time throughout our speech if there are multiple people being mentioned and we feel it is necessary to be super clear.

Example

❌  Yo hago yoga a veces y yo practico con mi perro al lado. ¿Y tú?
✅  (Yo) hago yoga a veces y practico con mi perro al lado. ¿Y tú?
       I do yoga sometimes, and I practice with my dog next to me. And you?
Woman doing yoga at the beach with her dog
Photo by Alonso Reyes / Unsplash

MUY / MUCHO (very / much)

I hear these two words being used incorrectly almost daily, so please bear with me here. Learning this bit of grammar will help you differentiate the two, and correctly using them will make your Spanish sound more natural.

MUY

Muy means very and it’s an adverb (a word used to modify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb.) It only has one form: whether your sentence involves masculine, feminine, singular or plural adjectives, you'll also just say muy.

Muy + adjective

We normally use muy before an adjective to intensify it.

Mi gato es muy alto.
My cat is very tall.
Mis perros son muy hermosos.
My dogs are very beautiful.

Muy + adverb

In the same way, we can also use muy before an adverb:

Yo cocino muy bien
I cook really well.

Having said that, you can't use muy in isolation:

❌  ¿Estás cansado? – Sí, muy.
✅  ¿Estás cansado? – Sí, mucho.
       Are you tired? Yes, very.

MUCHO

Mucho means a lot, a lot of, much or many. It can be used as an adverb — and, unlike muy, it can be used as an adjective.

Mucho + Noun (multiple forms)

When mucho is used as an adjective, it must agree both in gender (masculine/feminine) and number (singular/plural) with the noun it's modifying. Here are the four forms of mucho:

  • mucho – singular masculine
  • mucha – singular feminine
  • muchos – plural masculine
  • muchas – plural feminine

Unlike the majority of Spanish adjectives, mucho normally goes before the noun it modifies. Here's an example for each of its forms:

Tengo mucho trabajo.
I have a lot of work.
Ella tiene mucha paciencia.
She has a lot of patience.
Mi hijo tiene muchos libros.
My son has many books.
Hay muchas casas viejas en mi barrio.
There are many old houses in my neighborhood.

Verbo + mucho (one form)

When used as an adverb, much comes after the verb. This form of mucho will always be the same — it doesn’t change for gender or number.

Estoy muy satisfecho, he comido mucho.
I’m full; I have eaten a lot.
Trabajé muy esta semana.
❌ Trabajé mucha esta semana.
Trabajé mucho esta semana.
     I worked a lot this week.

Foo


Error 4: False cognates

False cognates (also known as false friends) are words that look the same but have different meanings. They’re often different words altogether. Most native speakers will likely understand what you wanted to say, but again, you’ll sound a bit unnatural.

Here are a few of the major false friends to watch out for:

Realizar =/= realize

“Realizing” something (suddenly remembering it / having it occur to you) is quite different than carrying something out. That’s the main problem with this false cognate. In Spanish, the verb realizar means to carry something out. To say that you’ve realized something, we instead use the phrase darse cuenta.

❌  Ayer realicé de que tengo que estudiar más.
      Yesterday I "carried out" I have to study more.
✅  Ayer me di cuenta de que tengo que estudiar más.
      Yesterday I realized I have to study more.

Actualmente =/= actually

Most students, at some point, learn that words ending in –ly in English tend to be similar in Spanish (but end in –mente.) From there, the assumption is that you can generalize. Sadly, that rule isn't foolproof.

Actualmente means nowadays or currently; actually is de hecho.

❌  ¿Qué piensas? – Actualmente, tengo una opinión controversial.
      What do you think? – Currently, I have a controversial opinion.
✅   ¿Qué piensas? – De hecho, tengo una opinión controversial.
       What do you think? – Actually, I’ve got a controversial opinion.

Estar embarazado =/= be embarrased

This one can get a few laughs. Even though it’s a naïve one, it’s worth mentioning here so you don't land yourself in an awkward situation.

Basically, you can’t say that you are embarazado when you're embarrassed… because embarazarse means be pregnant! To say you’re embarrassed in Spanish, you should use the adjective avergonzado.

Siento mucho mi error, estoy embarazado.  
      I’m so sorry about my mistake, I’m pregnant.
✅  Siento mucho mi error, estoy avergonzado.
      I’m so sorry about my mistake, I’m embarrassed.

Ridiculoso =/= ridiculous

One of my favourite false friends! It’s quite an interesting phenomenon because, like actualmente above, it shows the learning process in action. Making this error means that you're beginning to get a feel for how Spanish works... or, at least, how it should work in theory.

This error occurs because -oso/-osa (generoso, furioso, curioso) is a common ending for adjectives in Spanish. Before long, you'll start combining that ending with English adjectives (generous, furious, curious) to start "generating" Spanish adjectives. That's great — but sometimes it will lead you astray. Like it does here, with this word... which perhaps, really should exist!

Unfortunately, the Spanish word for ridiculous is ridículo/a, not ridiculoso/a.

❌  ¡La guerra es ridiculosa!
      War is ridic’aless!
✅  ¡La guerra es ridícula!
     War is ridiculous!

Error 5: Translating word-by-word

If you’ve never studied a foreign language, chances are you don’t even know what an adverb or an adjective is. That’s pretty normal, in my experience. (It’s also ok if you don’t want to know what those things are!) They're things you’ll likely develop an intuitive feel for eventually.

The main thing to avoid when learning any language is translating word by word from your mother tongue — speaking English, but using Spanish words. Though tools like Google Translate are quite useful when you are just starting, they will make you sound like a robot. They're fine for checking the translation of an individual word, but don’t work as well for translating entire sentences (nevermind paragraphs.)

Little toy robots, collection of blue and pink colored
Photo by Eric Krull / Unsplash

Communicating in Spanish by translating from English can be problematic because they’re different languages and occasionally do things differently. For example, when Spanish speakers see something shocking like a car crash, they don’t freeze — instead, they quedarse de piedra (stay like a stone). You could translate this original English sentence with freeze perfectly... but if it was a word-for-word translation it would still be confusing because Spanish speakers don’t use freeze in this way.

As you get better at Spanish, you’ll need to leave English behind and learn how Spanish does things.

If you do need to use a translator, make sure to check with your teacher afterwards to make sure the sentences you checked are correct. After a while, and if you review a bit every day and expose yourself to the language as much as possible (via movies, tv series, music, etc.), you’ll notice that the words start coming from you in a more natural fashion. You don’t have to translate from English — you can just start in Spanish, and you’ll know what words should come next.

Ending words

I hope these common "mistakes" will help you become more aware of your own language evolution — and to see mistakes not as mistakes, but rather, as I like to call them,  opportunities to learn.

Through my own experience as both a teacher and a language learner, I’ve come to the realization that speaking accurately shouldn’t be our main goal when learning. Instead, it’s more important to be able to communicate successfully. Mistakes are a valuable part of the that process.

Because aiming to speak perfectly is ridiculoso!


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