It’s four in the afternoon as I sit in the Gómez’s living room, up on the seventh floor of their apartment building in the eastern outskirts of Madrid.
The year is 2011, and young Rodrigo is dancing around in his chair as I try to get him to focus on our English lesson.
“Rodrigo, how old are you?” I ask the energetic boy.
“I’m fine, and you?” he answers quickly, almost robotically. I smile, not expecting his answer, and then repeat my question with a new emphasis: “How old are you?”
Rodrigo lets out an “Ahh,” in a tone that matches the understanding that has flashed across his face. “I have seven years,” he confidently responds this time.
My days and evenings that year were spent teaching English to native Spanish speakers, but doing so actually taught me to avoid mistakes that Spanish learners often make.
By paying attention to the English blunders that my students frequently made, I was able to understand why they made these mistakes, since I knew the Spanish grammar behind them. Unsurprisingly, the corresponding errors in Spanish are ones made often by new Spanish learners.
These confusions will happen a few steps past learning basic Spanish greetings, but aren’t as common for learners as advanced as the Spanish subjunctive.
Here are seven mistakes I often heard or saw in English, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes in Spanish.
7 Spanish Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make
1. “I have 18 years.”
In English we use the verb “to be” when talking about age: “I am 25 years old.” But in Spanish the verb “tener” (to have) is used with age. To say that you are 25 years old, you would say “Tengo 25 años” (I am 25). This translates literally to “I have 25 years,” hence the common mistake by both English and Spanish speakers in their respective second language.
There are a quite a few other Spanish phrases that use the verb “to have” (tener) while their English counterparts use “to be”. Here are ten of these phrases with which you should tener cuidado (be careful) when using:
- tener calor (to be hot)
- tener cuidado (to be careful)
- tener frío (to be cold)
- tener hambre (to be hungry)
- tener miedo de/a (to be afraid of)
- tener prisa (to be in a hurry)
- tener razón (to be right)
- tener sed (to be thirsty)
- tener sueño (to be sleepy)
- tener suerte (to be lucky)
2. “I am boring.”
I heard this one a lot when students actually wanted to express that they were bored. And while I admit, it was a bit entertaining for me to hear these young adults call themselves boring, you could easily be making the same mistake in Spanish! But not to worry, we’ll keep it simple and leave out the verb aburrir(se), so this is all you need to know:
- Soy aburrido. (I am boring.) – I’m a boring person in general.
- Estoy aburrido. (I’m bored.) – Right now I feel bored.
The first uses ser, while the second uses estar. Both verbs mean “to be” in Spanish, which can cause continual head scratching throughout your lovely relationship with the Spanish language. I learned a little rhyme in high school that I’ve never forgotten, and it’s helped me time and time again to distinguish between these two verbs.
“How you feel and where you are, that is when you use estar.”
So if you’re feeling bored in the moment, use estar: “estoy aburrido“. And remember, ladies, we would say “estoy aburrida” with the feminine “a” at the end of the adjective.
3. “The people is very kind.”
In English the word “people” is a collective noun that must always be used with verbs in the third person plural: “People are good-hearted.”
In Spanish, however, the word for “people” (la gente) is singular. Yes, it’s a strange concept to get used to at first, but once you get the hang of it the word shouldn’t cause you any more trouble.
Here are two examples to get you more comfortable with the idea:
- La gente tiene hambre. (The people are hungry.)
- ¿Sabes que la gente es muy lista? (Do you know that people are very clever?)
4. “My mom is teacher.”
When stating occupations in Spanish, do not use the indefinite article (un/una). Rather, just the verb “to be” (ser) plus the occupation is all that’s needed. Sentences describing people’s occupations will look like this:
- Soy profesora. (I am a teacher.)
- Eres artista. (You are an artist.)
- Él es ingeniero. (He is an engineer.)
Since you don’t use the indefinite articles (un/una) in Spanish, many native Spanish speakers forget to add them in when using English. Likewise, as native English speakers we love to throw in an unneeded “un” or “una” in these types of sentences. But you have been warned, and as a reader of this FluentU Spanish blog, you are well prepared to avoid this common trap.
Besides, you can just check out the FluentU program and avoid this problem altogether.
5. “I like the bag blue.”
In English, our adjectives come before the noun: kind heart, blue shirt, dazzling smile. In Spanish, however, adjectives often come after the noun: corazón amable, camiseta azul, sonrisa deslumbrante.
Be aware that there are certain instances where the adjective does come before the noun in Spanish, but here we’ll focus on the majority, when it comes after. Here are a few more examples to see the difference between Spanish and English.
- un hijo inteligente (a smart son)
- la noche tranquila (the calm night)
- el vaso vacío (the empty glass)
6. “I didn’t write nothing.”
Double negatives in the English language often make us cringe because they’re simply poor grammar. But in Spanish, double negatives thrive!
For example, take the phrase “I didn’t write anything.”
In Spanish, you would say “No escribí nada.”
Translating it part by part (instead of as a whole phrase) we get:
No escribí = I didn’t write
nada = nothing
So you can see why native Spanish speakers could easily say “I didn’t write nothing” by mistake.
By this same logic, when saying negative phrases in Spanish, make sure to avoid translating word for word! You’ll end up with an incorrect “No tengo algo” (“I don’t have something”) when it should be “No tengo nada” (I don’t have anything). “No tengo algo” is just as cringeworthy for a Spanish speaker to hear!
As a general rule, Spanish phrases don’t mix positive and negative words. So if you have a “no” before your verb and there’s more to the sentence, you’ll only ever see a negative word (nadie – nobody, nada – nothing, ningún or ninguna – no/none, nunca – never, jamás – never, tampoco – neither). With positive verbs you’ll use the positive equivalencies (alguien – somebody, algo – something, algún or alguna – some/something, siempre – always, también – also).
Take a closer look at these examples to get a better feel for the concept.
- No la he visto nunca. (I’ve never seen her.)
- No hay nadie aquí. (There isn’t anyone here.)
- No cocinaron nada. (They didn’t cook anything.)
- Ella tampoco hizo los deberes. (She didn’t do the homework either.)
7. “On mondays I study english.”
Capitalization rules are very different between Spanish and English, with significantly less capitalization on the Spanish side.
Words that are capitalized in Spanish:
- Names of people (Cristiano Ronaldo)
- Names of places (Madrid, España)
- Names of newspapers and magazines (El País)
- The first word of titles (movies, books, articles, plays)
Words that are not capitalized in Spanish:
- Days of the week (lunes, martes, miércoles – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday)
- Months of the year (enero, febrero, marzo – January, February, March)
- Words in titles, except the first (“Cien años de soledad” – “100 Years of Solitude”)
- Languages (Estudio español. – I study Spanish.)
- Religions (Mis padres son católicos. – My parents are Catholic.)
- Nationality (Soy estadounidense. – I’m American.)
By learning to avoid these seven common mistakes, you’ll boost yourself up to a whole new level of Spanish. You’ll also understand when you hear these errors in English made by native Spanish speakers, as I did that afternoon with Rodrigo.
The young boy’s second response doesn’t throw me off guard since I’ve heard the error time and time again. “Oh, you are seven years old,” I say back, making sure he notes the mistake. “Yes, I am seven.” he says at last, triumphantly.
And One More Thing…
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Rebecca Thering is a freelance writer and editor who has lived abroad teaching ESL in Spain and South Korea. Valuing education and things that aren’t things, she inspires and helps others by writing about her experiences abroad, cultural insights and self-improvement pursuits at her personal blog, Rebe With a Clause.
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