How Speaking Spanish Influences My English

I was having a conversation the other day with Mario—in English this time. (It varies.) We were talking about my trip out west and an animal I encountered along the way: a chipmunk. In Spanish, the word for chipmunk and squirrel is the same—la ardilla. Note the article. It’s feminine. So, I was talking, and I said, “He had a mouth full of twigs. It was so cute!” And Mario replied, “I think you mean she. It’s la ardilla, after all.” Of course, he was halfway joking, but it still made me laugh. It made me think too. It’s so funny how learning Spanish has helped me understand my own languages: the quirks, the interesting word origins (etymology is so fascinating!), and just grammar in general. Guys, we do have a subjunctive tense in English. So pay attention.

Tamias striatus

The Whole Gender Thing

In Mario’s worldview, all animals with a female article should be referred to as females. I once called a snake a “he.” I don’t know why; it just came out. But nooooo, he insisted, snakes were shes. Same goes for la cigüeña (the stork) or la nutria (the otter). It made me wonder why, in English, we refer to cars and boats as she and most animals as he (until we know better).

We Have a Subjunctive Tense?

Speaking Spanish helped me understand that we have a subjunctive tense, even we don’t always do it right. Ever said or heard, “I wish I was …”? Technically, if I’m being prescriptivist, that should be “I wish I were …” Other examples include sentences like “It’s necessary that he see a doctor” or “I suggested she be taken away.” So, you know, it’s out there.

Latin Words

Speaking Spanish has improved my English vocabulary and word recognition. Now when I hear a word, I can often begin to guess what the word might mean if I don’t know—if it came from Latin. You see, we adopted a lot of words from Latin, especially fancier words. Spanish is a lot closer to Latin than English, meaning many more-common words are similar to our fancier words.

This year I went to the doctor, and she told me I had some condition. I had never heard of this in Spanish, and it sounded bad, so I started worrying. And worrying. And worrying. Finally, after the appointment was over, I looked it up on my phone. Ummm, no big deal. It was super common, and there was nothing to fret about. But it sounded a lot worse in Spanish! Fancy words = bad news, right?

Some words that are a bit fancy sounding in English but not so much in Spanish include: amicable (from Latin amica and similar to amigo in Spanish), piquant (similar to Spanish picante, or spicy), veritably (similar to Spanish verdad, or truth), quiescent (similar to Spanish quieto, inactive). And the list goes on and on. But knowing Spanish has actually helped me in English! Funny how that works.

Literal Translation

Mario and I are weird, and we admit it. But we love to translate things literally from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. One of our favorite games on the metro is translating the names literally. Some of my favorites include Sticks of the Frontier (Palos de la Frontera), Guzman the Good Man (Guzman El Bueno), Pine Forest of the King (Pinar del Rey), The Moral (La Moraleja), and We Are Waters Campus (Campus Somosaguas). It’s a fun game to pass time on the metro!

But we also do this by saying weird things like, “Estoy espalda” for “I’m back” or “I love you an egg” for “Te quiero un huevo.” Any other bilingual couples do things like this?

When I come back to the U.S., sometimes I will hear a word or expression or find myself saying something, and I realize that’s just downright odd. For example, “cold turkey” or “pipe dream” or “thick as thieves.” I begin to wonder where they came from, and since Mr. Google’s always so helpful, I have to whip out my phone right that instant and figure it out. Ah, the Internet. A language nerd’s best friend.

Using Spanish Expressions In English

Why doesn’t English have a good way to say me da pereza? In Spanish, if something gives you pereza, it means that the task or the idea of doing the task makes you feel lazy, like it’s not worth it. I always want to say this in English, but I end up getting too frustrated and giving up. The good thing with Mario is I can always code switch and just say it in Spanish.

I also often come out with “You have reason” (from Spanish Tienes razón) or “He has a lot of face” (from Spanish Tiene mucha cara).

Has learning another language ever affected your native language?

29 thoughts on “How Speaking Spanish Influences My English

  1. In my case, we’re both spanish but weird too! Because we do love to play word games! In our case, we do it with spanish idioms such as: “like Peter by his house…” (“Como Pedro por su casa”) , “From lost to the river…” (De perdidos al río…) or “to throw the house out of the window” (“tirar la casa por la ventana”) it’s great fun doing those silly things together!

  2. Do you know Superbritanico?
    Cute graphics with literal translations such as I love you an egg :D

    On the same note, I automatically refer to animals, such as cat or dog, when I speak Spanish in masculine form (gatito, perro, etc), when people are quick to remind me “tengo una gata!!!!” (When it’s not something I really think about, since dog or cat aren’t “gendered” in English)

    I’ve always liked linguistics and knowing the origins of phrases, but now that I’ve taught here, I really love looking up origins of idiomatic phrases at

  3. I haven’t thought as much into this! Great insight. Trying to directly translate things gets me into so much trouble. My most recent “block” is speaking in English but trying to say something along the lines of me cuesta and getting tongue tied when I start to say “it costs me.” I’m sure it will only get worse!

  4. When I was a kid I moved from Illinois to North Carolina and I tried really, really hard to not become Southern so I could be different from my classmates (it didn’t really work). I refused to say “y’all” or assimilate to most other aspects of southern culture. Buuuuut then I lived in Spain and found myself suddenly and unconsciously using “y’all” all the time because I didn’t have a solid English replacement for vosotros.

    1. We have, in spanish from Spain, “tú” (2nd person, singular) and “vos/vosotros” (2nd person, plural). But in English (shakespearean?): “thou” (2nd person, singular) and “you” (2nd person, plural). Am I right?

  5. A definite yes to pulling out phrases in the wrong language which just don’t make sense. When joking, it can be hilarious. When in real life, kind of confusing!

  6. Me da pereza = I don’t feel like it? I’m not sure if there’s a better equivalent? It’s not an exact translation but I use I don’t feel like it all the time and it’s mostly because I’m lazy.

    I also remember when I found out a chipmunk was also the same word for squirrel. O_O I was in a pet store in Madrid and there was a chipmunk in a cage ready to be sold labeled as an “ardilla”! I didn’t know they could be kept as pets? I just think it’s weird because I have squirrels and chipmunks that roam around my backyard and while they are sort of cute, I’m not sure I would want to keep one as a domestic pet in my house. And they are not the same animal at all which makes things confusing. I don’t think there are chipmunks in Spain?

    I like your metro game with Mario, sounds like something I would play. :)

    1. That’s good! But it still isn’t the same, like you said. In the moment, I couldn’t even think of “I don’t feel like it”!

      Squirrels as pets? That sounds like trying to keep a raccoon as a pet. (Though I read a story in middle school about that.)

  7. Great post! I love that you think about all these language nerd things. It really is interesting that Spaniards would assign a specific gender to things even when speaking English. I once read a study where they had people whose languages made that feminine/masculine distinction describe certain objects like a bridge for example. If the object was feminine in their language they used more feminine adjectives to describe it and vice versa for masculine. It really makes you wonder in what other ways language affects the way we process the world around us! I know that my boyfriend and I have definitely played the metro game on line ten a few times. My most recent slip-up in English was when I told my friend “I have curiosity” and then didn’t even notice the mistake until she pointed it out. Language is fascinating!

  8. I’ve been thinking about that Metro game you and Mario play ever since you tweeted/blogged about it a few months ago. “Sticks of the Frontier” is hilarious when you translate it literally, but perhaps it actually means “Border Posts”?

    Anyways, there’s a lot of really poetic stops along Line 8 to the airport: Mar de Cristal is “Sea of Crystal” or “Glass Sea” and Campo de Las Naciones is “Field of Nations.”

    1. It probably does mean border posts, but Sticks of the Frontier is wayyyy better, admit it.

      You’re right. Good job, Line 8 hahahaha.

  9. This is great! Spanish’s Latin roots always come in handy for me at bar trivia! I’m also a bit obsessed with literal translations. My sister and I have some that date back to the days before we had an extensive Spanish vocabulary, and we’ve stuck with those bad translations just for fun, like saying, “Want to watch Cuadernos de equis?” (X-Notebooks? Nope, X-Files.) I wish I had thought of “We Are Waters Campus” when I was studying there!

  10. I love this because I have this problem in all of my languages, there’s always something I can’t translate from one to the other. But in English I really miss using slang, here’s my teenage California coming out hahah.
    Also I’m so going to use “Estoy espalda” whenever I enter my piso now, thank you for that.

  11. I think about funny language things in French all the time, so I love reading about it in Spanish for a change! In the case of most anglophones I know in France, we mix up French and English so much that people who don’t speak French must think we’re crazy or snobby or both. We’re like, “I couldn’t get a rendez-vous, it was n’importe quoi because the lady was a total connasse olala, so instead I just installed myself at a café and passed the afternoon drinking rosé.” But I like being able to mix languages sometimes because you can take the best things out of both, and like you said, sometimes there’s not a satisfactory equivalent in the other language to express what you want.

    My French boyfriend likes to directly translate between French and English for fun, and he says stuff like, “I am faim!” which would be like saying “I am hambre!” (right?) since we ARE hungry instead of having hunger like in Spanish and French.

    I like your metro translation game! I wish our metro stops were as fun to translate as yours. Ours are like, “Beautiful court.” “Republic.” The only good one is “No worries” (Sans Souci).

  12. Hi! Came across your blog randomly. I was searching meaning for ‘la manten calma y vete de tapas’. I can figure out the meaning of the first part but cannot figure out the latter part. I love your blog!! And bookmarking it. About the topic of the post, yes learning Spanish has made me appreciate my native language Urdu and second language, English. Spanish is a lot similar to Arabic and Urdu and it helps me to create mnemonics as language learning aid.

    1. It should be “Mantén la calma y vete de tapas”, but it is “Keep calm and go out for tapas”!

      Thanks for your compliments on my blog!

  13. I play that literal translation game all the time lol. A couple years ago I asked my Spanish friends to try to explain why in the world was “Niño Perdido” a name of a street (in Seville).

    “Me da cosa” is another one of those phrases that I’m not sure how to properly translate.

  14. The bad thing about being able to code switch with your partner is that you get used to not having to find the right expression in the target language, and when you talk with a native speaker who doesn’t speak your language… well, it’s complicated. But I love our bilingual inside jokes :)

  15. Learning Spanish definitely helped me better understand English, particularly when it came to distinguishing the different tenses and what they are for. It’s just not something you think about till you learn another language!

  16. Literal translations + using Spanish phrases in English are two of my favorite things. My boyfriend is an Amurrican like myself but we both speak Spanish and lived in Spain for not-insignificant amounts of time. We think we’re hilarious, but to most people we probably look insane. “Me da igual” has been crudely translated in our daily conversations to “that gives me equal.” I’m also guilty of slipping into Spanish expression when speaking with non-Spanish speakers, even after moving back from Spain over two years ago… we just don’t have a good English equivalent yet for “menos mal.”

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