The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish

by David

We are all susceptible to transferring what we know of our native language to the language we’re studying. I’ve compiled what I consider the top 5 mistakes that an English speaker can make when studying/speaking Spanish as part of a group writing project. Two of these errors are in vocabulary and three in grammar. If you don’t agree or if you think I’ve overlooked an important error, please do let me know.

5. Using preguntar por as to ask for.

Newish students often make this mistake, but I’ve caught more advanced students doing this. The thing is they teach you that to ask is preguntar, so you the gullible student extrapolate that and if you want to ask for a glass of milk, you use preguntar por. If you want to ask about a person, such as if they’re at home, or how they’re doing, you can use preguntar por or preguntar de. If you want to ask for something you need to use pedir. ¿Te pido una cosa? Ya no confundas los verbos pedir y preguntar :)

4. Using the verb realizar to mean to realize.

Realizar is another problem verb, because there’s a look-alike word in English: realize. Realizar can mean to accomplish, acheive, attain, bring to fruition, carry out, fulfill, make, materialize, and even to pull off; and only means to realize as in the sentence: “He is about to realize his lifelong goal of buying a house”. If you realize something, as in you become aware of it, then use the phrase darse cuenta. “I realized she’s in my Spanish class”. “Me di cuenta que está en mi curso de español”.

3. Mixing up the gender of Spanish nouns.

Grammatical gender is troublesome for those of us who come from languages where it doesn’t exist. But there are lots of clues that will help us to know which Spanish words are “la” words and which ones are “el” words. The first thing I recommend is stop thinking of the words as male or female- that will take you the wrong place. Simply realize (date cuenta [see above]) that there are 2 words for the. Some nouns take one of them, and the rest take the other one. After that, go to any grammar book and study the list of word endings that will help you identify the gender of the noun. For example, feminine “la” words often end in -a, -dad, -ción, -tad, and -sión. Many masculine words end in -o. Of course, there are many words that don’t follow these rules, but even most of those exceptions follow rules of their own as well.

2. Not conjugating the verbs in all the right places.

English only has a few conjugations for its verbs. For a regular verb in the present tense, there is only one change: you add an -s or -es for the third person singular form (he, she, it). All the other forms (I, you, we and they) use the verb in the same form as the infinitive. This is most definitely not the case in Spanish. And that really causes problems. Let’s take the verb “scratch” as an example.

to scratch rasgar
I scratch (yo) rasgo
you scratch (tú) rasgas [singular, informal]
(vosotros) rasgáis [plural, informal, peninsular Spanish]
(usted) rasga [singular, formal]
(ustedes) rasgan [plural, formal]
he/she/it scratches (el/ella) rasga
we scratch (nosotros) rasgamos
they scratch (ellos/ellas) rasgan

So, as is obvious, Spanish is more complicated in this area, and that was only the present tense. There are another dozen or so tenses after you learn that one. But you need to make an effort to master these verb conjugations if you want to take your Spanish to the next level.

And the number one mistake English speakers make in Spanish is:

1. Not using the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is often a subject left for the last chapter of the textbook, almost in a bid that the students will be too busy anticipating spring break to look into it. But the subjunctive is a verb form– a mood to be exact– that Spanish and the other languages derived from Latin use extensively. I don’t think WordPress could hold a post long enough to give the subject complete treatment, so I’ll just give you a couple of examples.

I don’t want him to go with us.
I wish you‘d come home before it gets dark.
When I have kids, I’m going to teach them Spanish.
Hopefully she‘ll make it to the meeting on time.

I’ve bolded the relevant words in the English. The first sentence uses to go— the infinitive. The second uses a contracted form of would come— the conditional. The third uses I have— the normal present tense. And the fourth uses will make— the future. Now let’s see the Spanish. They all use the subjunctive.

No quiero que vaya con nosotros.
Quisiera que llegaras a casa antes de que se oscurezca.
Cuando tenga hijos, les voy a enseñar español.
Ojalá y llegue a tiempo a la reunión.

Now before you get all droopy-eyed about the subjunctive, I want to say that even though I’ve studied Spanish for upwards of 12 years, I still don’t get it right all the time. Most of the time yes, but all of the time no.

In writing about these top 5 mistakes, my purpose in not to discourage you. By calling attention to these things, you can be more careful and give these things more importance in your studies. Slowly but surely, you’ll become a more and more native-like speaker.

18 Comments  leave one »

11.May.2007 - 9:06 am

[…] The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish by David Grove […]

11.May.2007 - 11:02 am

[…] The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish by David Grove […]

11.May.2007 - 11:12 am

Thanks for the Spanish tips! I’ve studied Spanish for 10 years and I have realized these are common mistakes that I need to try and avoid. Espero que no vaya hacer las mismas equivocaciones de nuevo!

11.May.2007 - 2:06 pm

I agree with you, but IMHO ser/estar should be on that list.

There’s a good trick, use the word “WEIRDO” to remember when you have to uses subjunctive:
Impersonal Expression

Btw, I don’t really think you say preguntar de… :)

11.May.2007 - 2:19 pm

Cristina, thanks for your comments! Now that I think about it, the ser/estar problem was really an oversight on my part. That’s probably a bigger mistake than the first two vocab problems I mention. I’ll have to expand the list to about 10 probably :)

Nice mnemonic device for remembering the situations in which you’d use subjunctive. I’ll have to remember that.

About “preguntar de”, I’ve heard it in Mexican Spanish and I’ve seen it in writing as well. “Pregunté de él, pero me dijeron que ya no estaba”. It’s probably not very common and possible nonstandard.

11.May.2007 - 5:04 pm

Hey, glad to see you also joined the group writing project! I’m definitely guilty of #4, #3, and #1. I wish there was no such thing as the subjunctive. :( But it’s reassuring that you still make mistakes with it, too.

11.May.2007 - 5:07 pm

Yes, I’ve been reading Darren’s blog for awhile. He’s got some good stuff, good ideas and such.

The subjunctive is a big hurdle to cross, but once you’ve made it, you’ll realize that you speak way more fluently than before. But even after using the subjunctive for years, it still is not completely intuitive. Keep at it, and you’ll get there.

11.May.2007 - 10:25 pm

Oh yeah, I’ve made some of these mistakes. Thanks for this great top 5 list. I am 5 steps closer to sounding native. :-)

I came here via problogger.

12.May.2007 - 6:13 am

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12.May.2007 - 10:40 am

[…] The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish by David Grove […]

12.May.2007 - 6:53 pm

Just a small correction, it’s UWEIRDO, U for uncertainty.

As for preguntar de, I’ve never heard it before, maybe it’s common in Mexico, but I suggest you don’t use it in Spain.

14.May.2007 - 3:06 pm

Man, I don’t know how many times I’ve learned the subjunctive, but I STILL struggle. (How in the world do you find time to think “Am I expressing uncertainty, a wish, etc.” in conversation?)

I don’t feel so bad, though, since most English speakers also fail at using the subjunctive in English. Case-in-point: “If I was president/cool/singing/to say…” The majority of the time, you should say “If I were.”

26.May.2007 - 2:04 pm


I am not a regular on this site as far as commenting but I do use the dictionary quite often. I find it very useful and helpful.

As far as “preguntar de” I think is incorrect. It would be “preguntar por” when asking about someone that is widely used in what you call Mexican Spanish.

Pregunte por Juan pero me dijeron que ya no estaba.

Pregunte de……..Pregunte de Juan (implying asking about his health or?) y me dijeron que aun no se alivia.

As a native speaker, can you tell me which is correct? I wish I was -or- I wish I were?


Gloria Reyes
26.May.2007 - 5:14 pm

Hi Gloria, I’m glad the site is useful to you.

Concerning “preguntar de”, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not all that common, and in some areas, it would sound incorrect. I did ask a native Spanish speaker (from Mexico) about this and she said that “preguntar por” would sound better, but that you could say “preguntar de” as well. I think it’s a regional thing. In any case, you’re better off just using “por” in this case.

The distinction you draw about using “por” to ask if someone is home and “de” to ask about health etc, makes perfect sense to me, but I’m not a native speaker.

As far as I wish I was and I wish I were, that’s a perfect example of the subjunctive in English, and also an example of the fact that it’s disappearing from English. I wish I were is subjunctive, but it’s falling into disuse.

27.May.2007 - 7:45 am

Thank you David. I am so glad I found this site. I am learning and at the same time having a lot of fun.

Thank you again.

Gloria Reyes
27.May.2007 - 10:27 pm

You’re very welcome. I hope to keep making the site better and more useful. If you have any suggestions to that end, let me know.


06.Jul.2007 - 10:39 pm

[…] The Top 5 Mistakes English Speakers Make When Speaking Spanish by David Grove […]

07.Nov.2007 - 3:34 pm

these are great tips.
I know a lot of people that do a direct translation of english idioms and phrases like “makes sense” turns into “hace sentido” lol so those are pretty common too I think


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