10 Mistakes To Avoid While Learning Spanish

Not all errors are inevitable

Student writing Spanish on a blackboard
Student writing Spanish on a blackboard.

Image Source / Photodisc / Getty Images

You want to learn Spanish but still sound like you know what you're doing? If so, here are 10 mistakes you can avoid in your studies:

10. Being Afraid To Make Mistakes

The truth is that nobody learns a foreign language without making mistakes along the way, and that's true even with our native language. The good news is that wherever you go in the Spanish-speaking world, your sincere attempts to learn the language will almost always be appreciated, even when your grammar is inadequate and your vocabulary is less than complete. And if someone corrects one of your mistakes, take that as an opportunity to learn rather than being offended.

9. Assuming That the Textbook Knows Best

Even educated people don't always talk according to the rules. Although Spanish according to the rules will almost always be understood, it can lack the texture and sincerity of Spanish as it really is spoken. Once you feel comfortable using the language, feel free to imitate the Spanish you hear in real life and ignore what your textbook (or this site) tells you. Just be aware that you may learn words on the street that may be offensive when talking in more formal situations or with people outside your peer group.

8. Ignoring Proper Pronunciation

Spanish pronunciation isn't all that difficult to learn, and you should make an effort to imitate native speakers whenever possible. The most common mistakes of beginners include making the l of fútbol sound like the "ll" in "football," making the b and v sound different from each other (the sounds are identical in Spanish), and failing to trill the r.

7. Not Learning the Subjunctive Mood

In English, we seldom make a distinction when verbs are in the subjunctive mood, a type of verb form usually used when not making factual statements. But the subjunctive can't be avoided in Spanish if you wish to do more than state simple facts and ask simple questions. You will be understood if you stick to the indicative mood, the one first learned by Spanish students, but you'll sound like you don't care about getting verbs right.

6. Not Learning When To Use Articles

Foreigners learning English often have a hard time knowing when to use or not use "a," "an" and "the," and it's similar for English speakers trying to learn Spanish, where the definite articles (el, la, los, and las) and indefinite articles (un, una, unos, and unas) can be confusing and the rules often unclear. Using articles incorrectly usually won't keep you from being understood, but even when writing it will mark you as a foreigner.

5. Translating Idioms Word for Word

Both Spanish and English have their share of idioms, phrases whose meanings cannot readily be determined from the meanings of the individual words. Some idioms translate exactly (for example, bajo control means "under control"), but many don't. For example, en el acto is an idiom meaning "on the spot" rather than "in the act," and en efectivo means "in cash" rather than "in effect.

4. Always Following English Word Order

You can usually follow English sentence order (except for putting most adjectives after the nouns they modify) and be understood. But as you're learning the language, pay attention to the many times where the subject is placed after the verb. Changing the word order can sometimes subtly change the meaning of a sentence, and your use of the language can be enriched as you learn different word orders. Also, some English constructions, such as placing a preposition at the end of a sentence, should not be imitated in Spanish.

3. Not Learning How To Use Prepositions

Prepositions can be notoriously challenging. It can be helpful to think about the purpose of the prepositions as you learn them, rather than their translations. This will help you avoid mistakes such as using "pienso acerca de ti" (I'm thinking near you) instead of "pienso en ti" for "I'm thinking about you.".

2. Using Pronouns Unnecessarily

With very few exceptions, English sentences require a subject. But in Spanish, that frequently isn't true. Where it would be understood by the context, pronoun subjects such as "she," "we," and "it" can and usually should be omitted in translation to Spanish. It usually isn't grammatically incorrect to include the pronoun, but doing so can sound clunky or give it unnecessary attention.

1. Assuming That Spanish Words That Look Like English Words Mean the Same Thing

Words that have the same or similar form in both languages are known as cognates. Since Spanish and English share a large vocabulary derived from Latin, more often than not words that are alike in both languages have similar meanings. But there are plenty of exceptions, known as false friends. You'll find, for example, that embarazada usually means "pregnant" rather than "embarrassed," and that an actual event is one that is happening now rather than one that is really happening.