Top Mistakes to Avoid When Learning Spanish
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We all know that we make mistakes when learning a language; however, knowing the most common mistakes foreign speakers make is a great way to get ahead of the game and become fluent faster.
Read these top mistakes people make when speaking Spanish so that you are more likely to sound like a native speaker (and be understood!) when speaking.
1. Pay Attention to Gender
English nouns have no gender, so this can be a bit hard for native English speakers. As in most Romance languages, Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine. This means that they must agree in grammatical gender with other parts of speech, such as determiners and adjectives.
This doesn’t always come naturally to English speakers. An easy and simple way to identify, recognize, and memorize noun gender from the word context is to look for articles (el, la, los, las, un, una, unos, unas), which will automatically reveal each word’s natural gender. Remember that the -o/-a rule for endings is not always true: el día, la mano, el planeta, la foto.
In Lingvist, if your target word is a noun (marked by “n”), there will be a sign indicating whether the word is masculine or feminine.
2. Tú/Vosotros vs. Usted/Ustedes
As complex as their usage may seem, these forms are quite easy to differentiate. The forms tú and vosotros are mainly used by the Spanish as an informal way of addressing people.
Latin American countries use the forms “usted/ustedes” both in informal and formal contexts, whereas in Spain they are only used in formal contexts.
So, in a very general way, “tú” is used in both Latin America and Spain to refer to one person (you) in informal (familiar) contexts, whereas “usted” is kept for more formal situations or to address older adults.
We take as a general rule that “ustedes” is used in European Spanish to address people in formal contexts, and in Latin America it’s used to address everyone, that is, in both formal and informal contexts.
We love teaching our learners words in context – that way you are getting the word usage and not just memorizing direct translations. As you can see with “usted/ustedes”, a direct translation would not work.
Bear in mind that "tú" and "vosotros" take 2nd person forms (*tú estás, vosotros estáis; tú comías, vosotros comíais*), whereas "usted/ustedes" take 3rd person forms (*usted está, ustedes están; usted comía, ustedes comían*).
This can all be confusing for a beginner. Just recall that different areas of the world use Spanish in different ways. Our course focuses on Neutral Spanish, so you will learn to use “usted/ustedes” in all contexts when learning Spanish with Lingvist.
What is Neutral Spanish? Neutral Spanish is just an attempt by linguists and translators to choose terms that most Spanish speakers will understand, which avoids the use of vernacular terminology and specific verb tenses. Since we want our learners to be able to communicate and be understood by the entire Spanish-speaking population, we offer you the opportunity to learn Neutral Spanish so you will then be able to adapt what you have learned.
3. Ser vs. Estar
“Ser” and “estar” are also confusing for English speakers, as this distinction doesn’t exist in English. Technically speaking, they both mean “to be.” However, there are two different types of “to be,” which can be learned by understanding different rules and knowing specific uses.
General Rules for Ser and Estar
Broadly speaking, the verb ser refers to the nature of things; that is, it describes features which are inherent to the noun being described. It also classifies the noun, which means that it can establish different categories.
Mi hermana es muy lista (My sister is very clever) → refers to a specific feature of a person’s character (nature: the verb ser).
Este plato es español (This dish is from Spain) → refers to a type of dish (classification: the verb ser).
In contrast, the verb “estar” never refers to the nature of nouns, but rather their state/condition, situation, or circumstance.
Tu novio siempre está ocupado (Your boyfriend is always busy) → refers to how that person feels or does something (situation: the verb estar).
Esta comida está fría (This food is cold) → refers to a physical state (circumstance: the verb estar).
When you keep these general rules in mind, you can guess whether or not “ser” or “estar” should be used in each case.
Specific Uses of Ser and Estar
With specific things, people, and places, use the verb “estar”.
¿Dónde está tu madre? – Mi madre está en casa. Where’s your mother? – My mother is at home.
but keep in mind that with specific events you should use the verb “ser”.
¿Dónde es la fiesta? – La fiesta es en un bar. Where’s the party? – The party is at a bar.
When talking about time, always use the verb “ser”.
¿Qué hora es? ¿Qué día es hoy? ¿Cuándo fue tu boda? What time is it? What day is it today? When was your wedding?
Identification, origin, occupation, possession
If you are identifying someone, talking about their origin or occupation, or talking about something you own, you should use the verb “ser”.
Esta es mi amiga Sara. Mi vecino es de Venezuela. Su novio es policía. Este es mi teléfono. This is my friend Sara. My neighbor is from Venezuela. His boyfriend is a police officer. This is my phone.
This can be either “ser” or “estar”, depending on the context. When you are paying the total amount or talking about the total amount, you should use “ser”. If you are talking about a variable price, you will use “estar”.
Ser → paying the total amount: ¿Cuánto es? - How much is it? Estar → variable price: ¿A cuánto está? - What is the price at?
Certain grammar structures take either “estar” or “ser”.
Progressive structures: Estar + gerund → Estoy comiendo paella (I’m eating paella).
Passive voice: Ser + past participle → Este edificio fue construido hace dos años (This building was built two years ago).
4. Imperfect Past vs. Indefinite Past
While both the imperfect past (e.g., I was walking) and the indefinite past (I walked) exist in English, people still get these confused in Spanish.
The main difference between the preterite (Pretérito Indefinido: yo estuve) and the imperfect past (Pretérito Imperfecto: yo estaba) is that the former is used when we refer to a completed past action – often followed by a specific time reference – whereas the latter is used to refer to past actions with no clear beginning or end.
Let’s take a closer look at some examples:
Ella estuvo por ahí toda la mañana y ahora está en su casa (She was out there all morning long and now she is at home) → the keyword here is “ahora”. It marks that the previous period (la mañana) is now over, so the action of “being out there” the whole morning is finished.
Estaba nervioso porque sólo quedaban dos horas para el examen (He was nervous because there were only two hours left before the exam) → the keyword in this example is the first verb form (estaba), which marks that the actions in this context happen at an unspecified point in the past. You know that there were two hours left for the exam to start, but both verb forms refer to actions within an unspecified past time frame (as if you could watch those events unfold).
5. Subjunctive Mood
While the subjunctive mood exists in English (e.g., If I were you, I would run), it is often heard used incorrectly, and since we are only using a past tense verb, it doesn’t require much thinking.
It is a bit different in Spanish, and you will need to know a few rules of thumb for the subjunctive mood.
Bear in mind that the subjunctive is a mood, not a verb tense – that is, it contains tenses to indicate time but shows a change in the speaker’s attitude from the indicative and imperative moods. Thus, we just have to think about the uses of the subjunctive as a mood (the speaker’s attitude), then select the verb tense (time) for the context in mind.
Speaker’s attitude: probability, possibility, desire, doubt, requests, hypotheses, or something expected.
Tense: present (yo coma), imperfect past (yo comiera), perfect past (yo haya comido), pluperfect (yo hubiera/hubiese comido).
Ojalá puedas venir a la fiesta esta noche (desire – present → I hope you can come to the party tonight).
Seguramente regresen del viaje esta tarde (possibility/probability – present → They may possibly come back from their trip today in the afternoon).
Si hubiéramos llegado antes, no habríamos tenido que hacer cola (hypothesis – pluperfect → If we had arrived earlier, we wouldn’t have had to queue).
Keeping these tenses and indications of attitude in mind will help you remember when to use the subjunctive in Spanish and when not to.
We hope you find these Spanish learning tips helpful. Remember, when you keep all of these tips in mind, it helps you sound more like a native Spanish speaker.
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