Spanish Today: Tips for Learning and Using Spanish

Advice and News About One of the World's Great Languages

uninhabitable house
La casa no es habitable. (The house is not inhabitable.). Photo by Gail Williams; licensed via Creative Commons.

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Same Word Has Opposite Meanings in English and Spanish

Sept. 19, 2016

Spanish and English have plenty of false friends, words that are the same or similar in both languages but have different meanings. Recently I ran across the ultimate in false friends — a word that's spelled the same in both languages but has diametrically opposite meanings.

That word is "inhabitable": The English word means able to be inhabited or able to be lived in, but the Spanish inhabitable refers to something that can't be inhabited or lived in.

Weird, huh? This strange situation came about because the English "habitable" and "inhabitable" are synonyms even though they look as if they'd have opposite meanings. (Their opposite is "uninhabitable.") But in Spanish, habitable and inhabitable do have opposite meanings.

Here's how this oddity came about: Latin, from which "habitable" came, had two unrelated prefixes that were spelled in-. One of them meant "not," and you see that prefix today in words such as "incapable" (incapaz in Spanish) and "independent" (independiente). The other in- prefix meant "in," and you can see it in words such as "insert" (insertar) and "intrusion" (intrusión). The in- prefix in Spanish inhabitable means "not," while the "in-" prefix in English "inhabitable" means "in" (to inhabit means to live in).

I've tried to see if there are any Spanish word pairs that start with in- and have identical meanings. I don't know of any, but one that's close is poner and imponer. Poner often means "to put," and imponer often means "to put in," as in "imponer el dinero en su cuenta" (to put the money in her account). Fusión (fusion) and infusión (infusion) also have overlapping meanings.

Pronunciation Tip: 'B' and 'V' Sound Alike

Sept. 9, 2016

If you're new to Spanish, it's easy to assume that the b and v have different sounds as they do in English. But as far as pronunciation is concerned, b and v might as well be the same letter.

What can make matters confusing is that the b or v itself has more than one sound. Between vowels, it's a very soft sound, much like the English "v" but with the two lips barely touching each other rather than the bottom teeth touching the upper lip. In most other circumstances, it sounds like the English "b" but less explosive.

One sign that the two letters share the same sounds is that native speakers often mix up the two letters when they spell. And there are a few words — such as ceviche or ceviche — that can be spelled with either letter.

Tip for Beginners: Talk to Your Pet

Aug. 31, 2016

You want to practice Spanish but have nobody to talk to? Talk to your pet!

Seriously, one of the best ways to reinforce the Spanish you're learning is to talk Spanish whenever you can. The advantage of talking to your pet is that he or she won't talk back and won't laugh at you if you make mistakes. And if you need to look up a word before speaking, your pet won't mind.

Eventually, as you tell your pet some things over and over again, you'll know what to say without thinking. For example, the command for "Sit!" is "¡Siéntate!" (This may work better with dogs than with cats.) Use it a few dozen times over a few days and you won't have to think about it again.

Grammar Tip: Direct vs. Indirect Objects

August 22, 2016

In English, it doesn't make much difference whether a pronoun is a direct object or an indirect object. After all, the same word is used in either case. For example, "her" is a direct object in "I saw her" but an indirect object in "I gave her the pencil."

But the difference sometimes matters in Spanish. For example, "him" becomes lo when it's a direct object but le as an indirect object. Le also is "her" as an indirect object, but the direct object meaning "her" is la.

Things can get even more complicated because of tendencies in some areas to use le as a direct object or, less commonly lo as an indirect object. Also, the understanding of which verbs take which type of object don't line up perfectly between Spanish and English. For an overview of which type of object to use, see the lesson on the versatile use of indirect objects.

How To Talk and Write About the Olympics in Spanish

Aug. 13, 2016

You don't have to know much Spanish to understand that los Juegos Olímpicos is the way to refer to the Olympic Games. But not everything about the Olympics in Spanish is so straightforward. Fundéu BBVA, a language watchdog affiliated with the Royal Spanish Academy, recently issued guidelines related to the Olympics. Among the highlights:

  • The host city, Rio de Janeiro, should be spelled Río de Janeiro with an accent on the first word even though its Portuguese name doesn't use an accent mark for Rio.
  • Juegos Olímpicos is abbreviated JJ. OO., much like Estados Unidos is properly abbreviated as EE. UU.
  • The word Olimpiadas, which can also be accented as Olímpiadas, can be used as a shorter synonym of Juegos Olímpicos.
  • To refer to the games as the 31st in the series, use the form trigésimos primeros Juegos or trigésimos primeras Olimpiadas. Note how the ordinal numbers must match what they refer to in number and gender.
  • Both competencia and competición can be used to refer to competition. The former is more common in Latin America, the latter in Spain.

For a detailed listing of Spanish words related to the Olympic sports and other activities, see Fundéu's 2016 Rio Olympic Games Editorial Guide (in Spanish).

Tip for Beginners: Simple Past Tenses of Spanish Not Alike

July 24, 2016

If you make a simple statement such as "I ate hamburgers," what precisely does that mean? Does it mean that you used to eat hamburgers as a habit, or does it mean that you ate hamburgers at a particular time? Without more context, it's impossible to tell.

In Spanish, you don't have to worry about that type of ambiguity. That's because Spanish has two simple past tenses. You could translate the above sentence with the imperfect tenseComía hamburguesas — to say that eating hamburgers is something you used to do. Or you could use the preterite tenseComí hamburguesas — to indicate that eating hamburgers is something you did at a particular time.

Chances are that the imperfect and preterite will be the first past tenses you learn in Spanish. Later in your studies, you'll learn compound past tenses, such as the past perfect, that provide further nuances of meaning.

Present Tense Can Refer to Future

July 10, 2016

In Spanish as well as English, a present tense can be used to refer to the future, but the rules are slightly different in the two languages.

In English, we can use either a simple present tense — for example, "We leave at 8" — or the present progressive, "We are leaving at 8." However, in Spanish, only the simple present is used for this purpose: Salimos a las ocho.

The use of the simple present this way is nearly always accompanied by a time element and is most common with verbs conveying motion: Llegamos mañana. (We arrive tomorrow.) Vamos lunes a la playa. (We're going to the beach on Monday.)

Rely on Computer Translation at Your Peril

July 2, 2016

If it appears on a restaurant menu, chances are that the word entrada refers to an appetizer — not to a ticket for admission to an event. You don't have to know much Spanish to figure that out. But when one Buenos Airea restaurateur used Google Translate to provide the English for a menu, sure enough, the appetizers section came out labeled "tickets."

Such a basic mistake was one of several on a menu that a Facebook acquaintance recently posted. Also, tortilla was once translated as "tortilla" and once as "omelet," although they both presumably were referring to the same type of food (probably the latter). More embarassingly, papa, a word for "potato," was mistranslated as "pope."

A translation mistake on a menu might create a laugh, but a similar mistake in a business letter or legal document could have more serious consequences. The word to the wise is obvious: If you rely on Google Translate or one of its competitors, have someone who knows both the original and target languages verify the translation.

Want to know more? Check out my 2013 review of online translation services.