As a person who helps Spanish learners, I meet English speaking students who follow the same pattern when making mistakes. That is, there are common mistakes English speakers make when learning Spanish.
Sometimes, they make mistakes due to literal translations or other times, they just assume that words that resemble each other have similar meanings in both languages (false friends). In addition, a lot of mistakes are made just because of the complexity of Spanish grammar.
Here, I group together 15 common mistakes English speakers make when learning Spanish through my online Spanish classes.
List of Common Mistakes English Speakers Make in Spanish
Accent marks are important in Spanish. Some people don’t take this into consideration, however, some words can significantly change their meaning just by their accent marks.
BARRIÓ vs BARRIO. Barrió is the past tense (preterite) of the verb barrer (to sweep) however, barrio means neighborhood. BARRIÓ vs BARRIO. Barrió is the past tense (preterite) of the verb barrer (to sweep) however, barrio means neighborhood.
- Ex.: El barrendero barrió el barrio. → The street sweeper swept the neighborhood.
CAMBIO vs CAMBIÓ. Cambio means change, but cambió is the past tense (preterite) of the verb cambiar (to change).
- Ex.: El cambio de jefe cambió la empresa para siempre. → The change of boss changed the company forever.
BEBÉ vs BEBE. Bebé means baby however, bebe is the present tense of the verb beber (to drink). BEBÉ vs BEBE. Bebé means baby however, bebe is the present tense of the verb beber (to drink).
- Ex.: El bebé bebe su biberón. → The baby drinks his feeding bottle.
SABANA vs SÁBANA. Sabana means savannah but sábana means bed sheet.
- Ex.: No necesito la sábana para dormir en la sabana. → I don’t need the bed sheet to sleep in the savannah.
A VER VS HABER
A ver and haber are two different things. In fact, they have nothing to do with each other. On one hand, a ver is an expression that we use in Spanish and can be translated as “let’s see” in English. In contrast, haber is a verb which can have different uses: auxiliary verb, impersonal form, talking about existence and expressing obligation.
- ¡A ver si dejas de fumar! → Let’s see if you stop smoking.
- Mañana lloverá. Pues a ver que hacemos. → Tomorrow it will rain. Well, let’s see what we do.
- He estado en España. → I have been to Spain.
- Hay fruta en la nevera. → There is fruit in the fridge.
- He aquí tu comida. → Here is your food.
- Hay que limpiar la casa. → One has to clean the house/you have to clean the house.
- Has de trabajar. → You have to work.
CONOCER VS SABER
English speakers confuse these two verbs because they are often translated the same way: “to know”. However, they are used in different ways:
1.- Conocer means “to be familiar with or to know personally”. Thus, you can use this verb to refer to people, places, or other more specific nouns. On the other hand, saber is used to talk about facts, information, or knowledge.
- Conozco esa canción. → I know that song.
- No conozco Barcelona, nunca he estado ahí. → I don’t know Barcelona, I have never been there.
- Ella sabe español e inglés. → She knows Spanish and English.
- No sé tu dirección. → I don’t know your address.
2.- Conocer also means ” to meet for a first time”. However, saber can also be translated as “to know to do something” if it is followed by a verb in infinitive.
- Conocí a mi marido en el 2000. → I met my husband in 2000.
- Sabemos nadar. → We know how to swim.
DESDE VS DESDE HACE/HACE QUE
All these expressions can be used to talk about an action that started in the past and continues into the present. The main difference is that desde is used to express the beginning of an action. However, desde hace/hace que expresses a period of time. Also, the structures of the sentence are different:
- Verb in the present tense + desde + date
- Verb in the present tense + desde hace + expression of time
- Hace + expression of time + que + verb in the present tense
- Vivo en los Estados Unidos desde junio. → I have lived in the United States since June.
- Vivo en los Estos Unidos desde hace dos meses. → I have been living in the United States for two months.
- Hace dos meses que vivo en los Estados Unidos. → I have been living in the United States for two months.
DURAR VS TARDAR
These two verbs are similar, but at the same time very different. Durar informas about the duration of an action and it would be equivalent to the verb “to last” in English. On the other hand, tardar informs about the fact of taking too long to do something, which it could be translated as “to take” in English.
- La película dura tres horas. → The movie lasts three hours.
- Mi hermana siempre tarda mucho en arreglarse. → My sister always takes a long time to get ready.
- El examen dura dos horas. → The test lasts two hours.
- Tardé dos horas en acabar el examen. → It took me two hours to finish the test.
Cognates are words that are similar in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. In addition, these words share origins. For example, gratitud and gratitude, or horrible and horrible. Additionally, there are false cognates, which are words that are spelled and pronounced similar, but they have different meanings. However, these words are often called “false friends”.
EMBARAZADA (pregnant) vs EMBARRASSED (avergonzado/a). Ex.:
- Ella está embarazada. → She is pregnant.
- Estoy avergonzado de salir disfrazado. → I am embarrassed of going out dressed up.
ACTUALMENTE (currently) vs ACTUALLY (en realidad). Ex.:
- En realidad no quiero estudiar. → Actually, I don’t want to study.
- Actualmente estoy en España. → Currently, I am in Spain.
SENSIBLE (sensitive) vs SENSIBLE (sensato/a). Ex.:
- Es un chico muy sensible. → He is a sensitive boy.
- Mi piel es muy sensible. → My skin is very sensitive.
- Ellas son chicas sensatas. → They are sensible girls.
English speakers have a hard time with the verb gustar (to like). This is due to the sentences formed with this verb in Spanish have a very different structure in English. In Spanish, the thing that is liked is the subject and who likes that thing is the indirect complement. In reality, the literally translation of the verb gustar is “to be pleasing”.
- Me gusta el tenis. → I like tennis. → Tennis is pleasing to me.
- Les gustan los coches. → They like cars. → Cars are pleasing to them.
HABER VS SER
Some students mistake the verb haber for ser. For this reason, I have heard sentences such as, eran dos habitaciones en la casa or son tres personas en la fiesta. However, what they really mean is the following:
- Había dos habitaciones en la casa. → There were two rooms in the house.
- Hay tres personas en la fiesta. → There are three people at the party.
Probably, the problem is that when they see words such as “were” and “are” and they immediately think that they correspond to the verb ser . However, they need to see the whole picture and think about “there were” and “there are” as a whole. In this case, these words correspond to the impersonal form of the verb haber in Spanish.
MOVERSE VS MUDARSE
Some common sentences I have heard often are the following: me moví a Alabama el pasado mes or quiero moverme a Perú. These kind of sentences are very wrong however, the mistake makes sense. In English, they use “to move” to refer the change of place where someone lives. Then, they just translate it literally into Spanish as moverse, because of its similarity. But this verb has a few different meanings and none relates to what they are trying to express. In short, the right verb to use in these instances is MUDARSE and not moverse.
- Me mudé a Alabama el pasado mes. → I moved to Alabama last month.
- Quiero mudarme a Perú. → I want to move to Peru.
PRESENT PROGRESSIVE VS FUTURE
I have noticed that some people use the present progressive to talk about the future, which is wrong. Unlike in English, in Spanish we don’t use the present progressive to talk about the future. In fact, in Spanish, the present progressive is only used to talk about actions that take place at the moment of speaking. If you want to refer to the future in Spanish you can use either the future simple, the future perfect, the future progressive, the future with ir + a + infinitive construction or even the present. The last being used when we talk about the near future.
- Estoy trabajando. → I am working (right now).
- Trabajaré mañana. → I will work tomorrow or I am working tomorrow.
- Habré trabajado. → I will have worked.
- Estaré trabajando. → I will be working.
- Voy a trabajar. → I am going to work.
- Trabajo mañana. → I am working tomorrow.
PRETERITE VS IMPERFECT
Knowing when to use preterite or imperfect is by far one of the most challenging common mistakes English speakers make. In order to help you understand this topic, here is a table with some main ideas and also, some examples you should take into consideration.
Abreviations: Preterite (PRET.) and imperfect (IMPERF.)
|Completed action||Ongoing action|
|Definite beginning and end||Not definite beginning and end|
|Specify when||General idea of when|
|Actions repeated specific number of times||Repetitive actions|
- Fui al cine (preteirte) vs iba al cine (imperfect). → I went to the cinema vs I used to go to the cinema/I would go to the cinema/I was going to the cinema.
- Pepe trabajó en la granja de nueve a cinco (preteirte) vs pepe trabajaba en la granja (imperfect). → Pepe worked at the barn from nine to five vs he used to work at the barn/he would go at the barn/he was working at the barn.
- Fui a la escuela ayer (preterite) vs iba a la escuela (imperfect). → I went to the school yesterday vs I used to go to the school/I would go to the school/I was going to the school.
Reflexive verbs are just a difficult topic. Sometimes English speakers can’t even recognize a reflexive verb or they have problems using the reflexive pronouns correctly. On the top of this, they find challenging that the meaning of some verbs can change when they are found in their reflexive forms. Hence, when they find out that some reflexive verbs have multiple meanings, their world seems to come to an end.
There are a few things you can take into account to make things easier. First, reflexive verbs are verbs which subject and direct object are the same. Also, learn how to use the reflexive pronouns properly. Furthermore, some verbs use the reflexive pronouns although they don’t have a reflexive meaning (pronominal verbs). Finally, the meaning of some verbs change when they are in their reflexive form, and some reflexive verbs have a variety of meanings.
ACERCAR vs ACERCARSE:
- Acerqué la mesa a la ventana. → I moved the table closer to the window.
- Me acerqué a la ventana para ver que pasaba. → I got close to the window to see what was happening.
QUEDAR vs QUEDARSE:
- La estación de tren queda cerca. → The train station is close.
- Me quedo con los libros. → I keep the books.
SER VS ESTAR
Students also find difficult to differentiate the use of ser and estar. In order to help differentiate them, here are the main ideas you need to take into account to avoid mistaking these two verbs: ser describes and inherit or intrinsic attribute, and indicates permanence. On the other hand, the verb estar informs about a characteristic that is induced, and has a more temporary meaning.
- Soy alto. → I am tall.
- Estoy cansado. → I am tired.
- Él es aburrido. → He is boring.
- Él está aburrido. → He is bored.
Along with preterite and imperfect, subjunctive is by far one of the most complicated concept to understand for English speakers. Learning the subjunctive mood can be challenging due to the fact that in English it is not used as often and has a different grammatical structure. In addition, it forces students to learn more verbs conjugations.
There are certain things to take into account about the subjunctive. First, unlike the indicative mood, which is used to express certainty and objective facts, subjunctive mood is used to express everything but certainty and objectivity. Things like: doubt, desire, uncertainty, hope, emotion, opinions or future possibility. Second, often the word que will follow the subjunctive. Also, verbs such as desear (to want), esperar (to hope), querer (to want) or necesitar (to need) trigger the use of subjunctive as long as the subject in both clauses are different. However, the list could be endless. Actually, understanding the subjunctive mood will take you time and a lot of practice.
- Espero que tengas un buen viaje. → I hope you have a good trip.
- Lo llamaré cuando llegue. → I will call them when I arrive.
TRAER VS LLEVAR
A lot of English speakers have problems using the verb traer (to bring) and llevar (to take). The main reason is the fact that generally in English the verb “to bring” is used to talk about moving something to a specific location. Also, these two verbs are often interchangeable in colloquial English. However, in Spanish you should take into consideration the location of the speaker. Thus, traer is used when you bring something from where the speaker is not to where the speaker is. However, llevar is used to take something from where the speaker is to where the speaker is not.
- Ven a casa y tráeme los libros. → Come home and bring me the books.
- Voy a la fiesta de cumpleaños de María y llevo un regalo. → I am going to Maria’s birthday party and I am taking/bringing a present.
When you learn a new language, mistakes are inevitable. Thus, you shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, instead, learn from them! Hopefully you can use this article for this purpose. Also, I want to give you some encouragement by knowing that you are not the only one making mistakes, we all do!
As I always say to my students, practice is the key to learn and improve your language skills. Even if you already know a language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. You can practice a language in very different ways such as; reading, watching series or movies, or listening to music. However, what I find very helpful during the learning process is speaking.
If you are interested on practicing your Spanish speaking skills take a look at my online Spanish conversation classes. Besides focusing on the speaking skills, I also help with grammar questions such these common mistakes English speakers make in Spanish.
Now, I would like to hear which mistakes are the most challenging for you and why. Also, do you know any other common mistakes English speakers make?
See you at the comment section!