Common Spanish Mistakes

slip-up-danger-careless-slipperyMistakes by we English speakers when we speak Spanish instantly mark us out as foreign, and the consequences range from sounding a bit more foreign, to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or completely embarrassing yourself (look up the Spanish for “I have a cold”…). While these mistakes are very easy for us to make, they are just as easy to rectify once you’re aware of them.

Types of mistakes

We can make various types of mistakes. We can confuse similar sounding words in both languages (known as “false cognates”, such as “estoy embarazada” and “I’m embarrassed” – NOT the same!). We can make grammatical mistakes, assuming that certain parts of grammar or collocation (the way certain words seem to always sit together, e.g “salt and pepper”)work the same in both languages, which can lead to mistakes such as “estoy frio”, instead of “tengo frio”. This works both ways, and you may often hear Spaniards say things such as “I have cold”, or “she has 23 years”. We can also make mistakes not in a strictly linguistic sense, but on a cultural/social level. Mistakes here can involve excessive politeness in restaurants, or not being assertive enough in other situations!

False cognates

Here are a few of the most common ones to be aware of:

“Actual”

“Actual” is best translated as “current”, rather than meaning “the truth is…”. So, “actualmente” means “at the moment”, or “these days”. “Actually” in English is best translated as “en realidad”.

“Soportar”

“Soportar” does not mean “to support”, but means “to put up with”. Try “apoyar” for “support” instead.

“Cuestión”

A “Cuestión” refers to a question in the sense of a matter or topic, rather than a request for information. “Una pregunta” is the question where you are asking for information.

“Excitar”

You don’t want to confuse this one! “Excitar” is to become sexually aroused, rather than excited. You’re looking for “emocionar” – “I’m excited” is “estoy emocionado”.

“Asistir” and “atender”

“Asistir” means “to attend”, and you always add the “a”, for example “voy a asistir a la fiesta” (“I’m going to attend/go to the party”). To confuse you even further, “atender” means “attend to”, in the sense of “pay attention to” – “the doctor will attend to you now”.

“Parientes”

I always used to confuse this one! “Parientes” refers to relatives, whereas “padres” are your parents. For more family related Spanish, our beginner podcast “La Familia”.

“Gracioso”

“Gracioso” means “funny”. “Hacerse el gracioso” is “to play the fool” – if you want to say “graceful”, you could say “grácil”, or “lleno de gracia” (Such as the film María llena eres de gracia). “Gracious” is translated as “gentil”.

“Éxito”

“Éxito” means “success”, with “exitoso” being successful. “Exit” is “salida”.

Grammar/Phrase level

“Buscar para”

We often translate “look for” this way – but we need to drop the “para”, so “estoy buscando para mi libro” becomes “estoy buscando mi libro”. Also, avoid “mirar por” – that doesn’t work either…

“To move”

“Moverse” means “to move oneself” – if you’re moving house use “mudarse”. “Nos mudamos la semana que viene” – “we’re moving house next week”.

“The day after tomorrow, the day before yesterday”

“The day after tomorrow” is “pasado mañana”, and “day before yesterday” is “anteayer” – literal English translations don’t work here.

“Can I have an x?”

When we use this in English, we don’t mean it literally. We’re not asking about our ability to obtain something – we’re just using a polite convention. Unfortuately, translated to Spanish it sounds very weird, as “puedo tener un cafe?” would be taken literally. Instead, if you’re ordering something, use “me pones” or “me traes” – for example, “me pones una cerveza?”. If you want someone to pass you something, use the verb “pasar” – “me pasas la sal, por favor?”

What are some other common mistakes that you make? Let us know in the comments below if you think we’ve missed anything!

  • Recogreg

    Hey. Could you clarify what you meant by would be taken literally with puedo tener un cafe? I guess I didn’t understand the wording. Also I’d like to get an opinion on te encargo as a way of achieving can I get an x. I’ve heard several friends use it at restaurants both ordering and requesting the check. One is a native speaker and one isn’t so I’m curious to know what you guys think.
    Recogreg@gmail.com

    • spanishobsessed

      No, we’ve never heard “te encargo”, although it may be used in some regions that we don’t know of!

      With “puedo tener”, this is literally translated as “can I have”, or “is it possible for me to obtain”. It sounds strange to Spanish speakers, as the answer is obviously “yes”!