10 Language Mistakes Guiris Make in Spanish

We all mistakes. We definitely all make mistakes when learning a foreign language. (Heck, we even make mistakes in our own language! Mario loves to point out when this happens to me in English.) These mistakes aren’t anything to be ashamed of; indeed, they are natural and fun ways to learn—if you have the right attitude! When I first got to Spain, I made a ton of mistakes. I swear, every other word that came out of my mouth was wrong! I’ve come a long way since I wrote on my Facebook wall that I was incapable of speaking Spanish properly.

Guiris make a lot of mistakes in Spanish. (I’m including myself among them!) This list is far from comprehensive; it’s just what first came to my mind. What sort of things do guiris like myself do wrong?

Cervantes Spanish Mistakes

We …

1. … conjugate verbs incorrectly.

This is the simplest mistake (if a mistake can be called simple) to make in Spanish. Spanish has six different conjugations and approximately a kazillion tenses. Some verbs like, andar and conducir still trip me up in the preterite if I’m speaking fast and not thinking!

2. … confuse the feminine and the masculine.

Words in Spanish can (and do) change meaning based on gender! There’s a difference between:

  • El capital (money) and la capital (the capital city)
  • El cura (the priest) and la cura (the cure)
  • El corte (the cut, blade) and la corte (court of law)
  • El papa (the pope) and la papa (potato, in some parts of Spain and Latin America)
  • El tema (the theme) and la tema (obsession)
  • El final (end) and la final (championship game in a tournament)

3. … use possessive adjectives too frequently.

Children don’t say “I washed my hands in Spanish,” they say, “I washed myself the hands.” Don’t talk about “mi bolso,” talk about “el bolso.” Don’t say “Puse mis pantalones,” say “Me puse los pantalones.” It’s not “¡Abre tus ojos!”; it’s “¡Abre los ojos!”

4. … mix up por and para.

Ah, the headaches this used to give me! Por and para were the bane of my existence in college. I thought I would never get it!

5. … translate prepositions too literally.

In Spanish, you dream with something (sueño con …), not about it. You think in something (pienso en …), not about it. Prepositions do not always translate literally! But this can lead to some funny sentences.

6. … are fooled by false friends (false cognates).

I talked about some of my favorites in this post. But remember, realizar does not mean “to realize” in the sense of “to become fully aware of something.”

7. … think all words ending in –a are feminine.

They aren’t. Check out el día, el mapa, el idioma, el problema, el sofá, el tanga (hahaha). Likewise, not all words ending in –o are masculine: la modelo, la mano, la bici, la foto, la radio.

8. … use pronouns when they’re not needed.

I’ll just use one example: “Busco para/por un trabajo.” No, just no.

9. … don’t pronounce vowels well.

I’ve learned that Spaniards make fun of our accents by making an –o sound into an –ou sound. Thus, “Yo soy americano” becomes “You soy americanou.” Spanish vowels are short and very distinct.

10. … confuse ser and estar.

I know: this is a pretty basic one. But it’s a bit more complicated than it seems! For instance, you wouldn’t say, “¿Dónde está la fiesta?”; you’d say, “¿Dónde es la fiesta?” You use ser to tell where an event is taking a place—“El concierto es en el colegio.”

What are some mistakes you (or “your friends”) make in Spanish?

27 thoughts on “10 Language Mistakes Guiris Make in Spanish

  1. Yes yes yes yes. Yes. I often trip up with the adjective ending of a fem/masc noun when in conversation; I’m trying to slow down my Spanish to allow for more thinking time to avoid this haha.

    I also hear a lot of confusion between ‘bueno’ and ‘bien’ – even from people who have been learning/speaking Spanish for years. Then again, native English speakers sometimes use ‘well’ and ‘good’ incorrectly so…haha

    Another thing that I hear a lot is the Spanish ‘d’ (e.g. in ‘pared’) being said as an English ‘t’. It’s much thicker in Spanish, like an un-aspirated English ‘th’ – ya get me?

    Aaaand one last thing – I think a lot of us native English speakers don’t make the Spanish ‘s’ light enough. The lighter the ‘s’, the more natural a word sounds.


  2. Hi, I’ve loved this post, congratulations!, I usually follow your blog but I think that this one is about to be the second in which I write a comment. I’d like to add that in the 10th point (?) both are correct, or at least can be heard, although the first one, ¿Dónde está la fiesta? would be rather colloquial and probably only used by young people. It means more less “Where is the area where the clubs/discos are?” It would be what I would ask if I were to a new city and didnt know where young people go out.
    Excuses for any mistake I’ve made.

    1. Thanks Luis. I didn’t know that, so I’ll have to ask Mario about it. I was always corrected when I used it that way, so now I feel a bit better!

  3. Love this post and I made a lot of these mistakes/still make some of them when I speak Spanish. I can’t remember if I’ve ever recommended this blog but I love the Spanish blog Falsos Amigos (http://falsosamigos.com/) which is a blog all about false cognates between Spanish and other languages (English, French, Italian, Portuguese etc.). And the blogger has hilarious pictures that go with the posts. I’m a huge language geek so I always love when people write about these kinds of things.

  4. Eres una máquina, Kaley!
    I would also add that, on a cultural level rather than on a linguistic level, we tend to be way too polite and not direct enough. In a bar “Quisiera una cerveza, si no le importa”.
    Then there’s the “z”, “c” “s” confusion and overcorrection. “eztoy zatizfecho”
    Oh yeah… “to be” and “tener”… “estoy hambre” “soy 32 años”
    I’ve walked face first into each and every one you mentioned!

    1. Hahaha, my problem with the Zs, Cs, and Ss is that I tend to struggle with words that have an S sound followed by a θ: ascensor, for example. Hate that word!

  5. how about the less common (but WAY more embarassing) ones like “correr” vs. “correrse” and “empalmar” and “empalmarse”? [em]palm to the face on that one.

  6. number 5 is really a mistery…..when “yo pienso EN los millones que el Madrid ha pagado para fichar a Gareth Bale”, in English is “when i think OF the millions that Madrid have paid to sign Gareth Bale”…it is really a mistery and strange that English speaking people may think of something because they are really thinking IN something….well at least under Spaniards’ point of view.

    with number 1 even Spaniards make mistakes, let alone foreigners…. unless i’m wrong the two simple past forms of “andar” of the first person singular are “andaba” and “anduve”…however, i’ve never heard people round me say “anduve”, and i’ve never used it in my life….what i do hear and use is “andé” as when some mature small town woman may say “anteanoche andé una miaja pa’estirar las piernas” (yesterday at night i walked for a while to excercise the legs)….maybe “andé” doesn’t exist officially and is totally incorrect, but i do feel fine using it, whereas the correct “anduve” sounds so good, so perfect and posh that it puts me off.

    great post Kaley.

    1. What about conduje? Well, I know when I’ve said andé Spaniards have corrected me (which doesn’t bother me if it’s Mario but does if it’s random strangers who think they’re being oh-so-helpful [I usually have already realized my mistake]). So I prefer to use anduve just so they won’t correct me (as a foreigner)!

      1. i’ve never used “conduje”, what i do use is “conducí” as in “conducí toda la noche” (i drove all night)….i think that it’s a matter of making it easier…well i really don’t know the reason.

        you live in a different part so your ear hears different things, what i say is what i’ve always heard round me in this part of Murcia…….because i say that “anduve” sounds so perfect and posh doesn’t mean other Spaniards see it the same way.

        number 7 has made me think of how strange Castilian language is, because of your post i have thought deeply about gender feminine and masculine, and i’ve come to think that some words don’t even follow a logic reason (i’d never thought about it before)

        “mano” and “mazo” are a good example, they are quite similar, the first syllable is the same, however the first one is feminine and the second one is masculine, how is it? i don’t really know. “la mazo” sounds ridiculous and illiterate, but “la mano” sounds correct and great, is there a logic reason for “la mazo” to sound bad? there is not, but the fact is that it does sound terrible and illiterate because of a reason that now i don’t get to understand, but i thank you for making me think of how strange the language is.

        1. Just in case any non-native Spanish speakers get all confused, I would like to make it clear that using andé, conducí, traducí are sooooooooooooooo wrong. Please, avoid them. It’s not a matter that in a certain region of Spain you say it one way, while in other regions you use another. It is not like that. It’s not even cool. Using those conjugations sounds ridiculous and illiterate.

          1. then you are calling ridiculous and illiterate thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards.

            there are two types of mistakes: the one that makes a person look silly and illiterate, and the other one that is part of a change or development of a new word in the future to come.

            of course you do look silly and illiterate if you say “yo comes” because you are using a second person verb with a first person pronoun, HOWEVER, if you say “andé” and “conducí” you are not silly or illiterate because those words have a lot of usage, and is quite common for many Spanards, and i bet my right hand that in the future to come both words will be correct and acceptable.

            i know that Kaley is corrected when she uses “andé”, but you know that she is corrected because she is foreign….if she were Spaniard she would not be corrected by another Spaniard while in a conversation, at least by hundreds of thousands of Spaniards, maybe some million/s.

          2. Let’s defer to the RAE on this, now shall we? (http://lema.rae.es/dpd/?key=andar)

            ‘Moverse, normalmente caminando’. Verbo irregular: v. conjugación modelo (→ apéndice 1, n.º 19). Las formas con la raíz irregular anduv- del pretérito perfecto simple o pretérito de indicativo (anduve, anduviste, etc.), pretérito imperfecto o pretérito de subjuntivo (anduviera o anduviese, anduvieras o anduvieses, etc.) y futuro de subjuntivo (anduviere, anduvieres, etc.) son las únicas admitidas hoy en la norma culta. Así pues, no se consideran correctas las formas de estos tiempos con la raíz regular and-: andé, andaste, andara o andase, andaras o andases, etc.

  7. i do know they are not correct so i need not see what the RAE says. i’ve never said that they are correct.

    what i say is hundreds of thousands of Spaniards do use them and are common…..even i’ve tried to make you know of them so you can see that it’s part of the daily life of tons of Spaniards, in an attempt to help you with some words that are not correct officially, but are as common as the use of “pa’lante” instead of “hacia adelante” or “para adelante”…but you seem to take it as an attack, or you take it as if i were disagreeing with the fact that they are not correct, i’ve never said that “andé” is correct so i don’t understand why you bring up the RAE issue.

    it’s okay if you feel happy being corrected so you can say “anduve” all the time, but i shall always use “andé” because it’s the way i’ve always heard round me.

    1. Dude, no worries, I don’t think it is an attack. It is a discussion, am I right?

      I grew up hearing “I seen” or “She don’t,” but I decided that I wanted to speak correctly, no matter what some of my less-educated (but still wonderful and fun and great) relatives/friends said. That being sad, I don’t correct them in real life. Does that mean I “accept” their usages as okay and desirable? Nope, I don’t.

      And language changes, of course it does. Things that are considered correct nowadays will not be in 200 years. But especially in Spanish, which has a governing body (unlike English, which does not), I think it is best (as an educated person) to try to speak correctly, as prescribed by the RAE. Of course, you can continue to speak as you do, and I won’t correct you, just as I don’t correct my Spanish relatives who use “le” wrong, as in “Le dije a mis primos.” That is technically incorrect, but I don’t say anything; I just note it, think about it, and try to speak in a grammatically correct manner—to the best of my limited ability.

      1. i am as educated as a person who says “anduve”, but i do prefer to say “andé”.

        i finished everything and i got a degree, so being educated or not has nothing to do with the usage of a common word even if it’s not correct under the point of view of those fossils of the RAE.

  8. so, how do you define “correct”? is it what the language authority says, or what a large number of people use? is anything really universally “correct”? this is prescriptive linguistics (where you refer to a still picture of language as being the model) or descriptive linguistics (where you accept that any large group of people saying the same thing for a certain amount of time is acceptable). if one of my students said “me ‘n him was a-waitin’ on ’em”, I would correct him, but if my dad said it, I wouldn’t bat an eye.

    1. No it’s not, but I’m trying to speak well, so I’d rather not have someone telling me something is acceptable when it isn’t. So I’ll thank my Spanish husband for telling me that “andé” or “conducí” is wrong or sounds wrong or however you want to say it, because I’d rather speak “correctly.”

    2. more or less what i try to say.

      “andé” and “conducí” are totally acceptable by tons of educated Spaniards who never say “anduve and conduje”, whereas they are totally incorrect according to the RAE.

      just like tons of educated Spaniards who say “pa´lante” instead of “hacia adelante”, or “furbol” instead of “futbol” and many more.

      there was a time when Spaniards only said “balompie” because football or futbol were seen as foreign, however, “balompie” is dying out only used by some old-fashioned journalist, and everyone says FUTBOL, which in fact is the Castilian pronunciation of the English word Football.

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