Over the years of teaching I have created a list of the most common mistakes students make when learning Spanish. To help you make sure you’re not making the same mistakes, today I am going to share the list with you.
False cognates (Falsos amigos):
There are thousands of words in Spanish and English that not only look and sound the same, but also have the same meaning, which makes learning a little easier. These words are called Cognates. Conversely, there are also dozens of words in Spanish that appear to be cognates, but have very different meanings. These are called False Cognates. False Cognates can be frustrating and confusing, and may even put you in embarrassing situations where you think you know what someone is talking about, but later find out you misunderstood the whole conversation just because you didn’t know the right meaning of one simple word. We have all been there, feeling ashamed having to explain to someone that the other day when we went to the movies we were not actually “Exitados de ver la película” but instead “Emocionados de ver la película” (Awkward!). So I’m going to help you win the battle against some of these horrible opponents we call false cognates.
1. Realize ≠ Realizar:
This is one of the most common mistakes learners make when speaking Spanish; The word “Realizar” means “to do” or “to accomplish something” but since this word is very similar to “Realize” in English, it is a little confusing and it takes some practice to kill the bad habit.
“Realize” in Spanish is “DarSE cuenta” (Conjugation: Yo ME doy cuenta, Tú TE das cuenta, El/ Ella SE da cuenta, Nosotros NOS damos cuenta, Ustedes/ Ellos/ Ellas SE dan cuenta).
2. Assist ≠ Asistir:
“Asistir” in Spanish means “to attend” and it is followed by the preposition “a” before a noun. “To assist” means “Ayudar” in Spanish. “Ayudar” is more commonly translated into English as “to help” but both, to assist and to help, can be used for “Ayudar”.
3. The Suburbs ≠ Los suburbios:
The word “suburbios” in Spanish, means slum. Zones referred to as “suburbios” are places with high levels of poverty and delinquency. Were you wondering why none of your friends went to your “Fiesta en los suburbios” for your birthday? Well...
4. Parents ≠ Parientes
In Spanish we call “Parientes” to all those family members which are not part of your nuclear family (Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc) For example, “Mi familia es muy grande, tengo muchos parientes” = “My family is very big, I have many relatives”
If you mean to refer to your parents in Spanish, you should use “padres”.
5. Success ≠ Suceso:
A “Suceso” is an event, perhaps something very important, something you were looking forward to happen or just something that happened.
The word for “success” in Spanish is “éxito”.
6. Introduce ≠ Introducir
“Introducir” usually implies a physical action, it means “to put in”, “to insert”, “to enter”, “to bring in”. If you want to introduce someone you would use the word “Presentar” as in “Él me presentó a su mamá” = “He introduced me him to his mom”.
7. Actually ≠ Actualmente
“Nowadays”, “in this day and age”, “now”, and “at the moment” mean “Actualmente”.
For example, “Actualmente la contaminación está dañando mucho la salud de las personas” = “Nowadays, pollution is damaging people’s health”.
In order to say “actually” in Spanish you’ll want to use one of the following: “La verdad es que”, “de hecho”, “en realidad”, “parece mentira pero”, and “incluso”. All these words and phrases mean “Actually”. For example, “En realidad, yo no quería ver esa película pero mis amigos insistieron” = “Actually, I didn’t want to see that movie but my friends insisted”
8. To support ≠ Soportar:
This mistake is also a very common one. Spanish students tend to say “soportar” when what they want to say is “Apoyar”. You can “Apoyar una decisión” (Support a decision) but not “soportar una decisión”.
“Soportar” means “to stand” as in “No soporto a José, es un engreido” = “I can’t stand Jose, he’s very smug”.
9. Sentence ≠ Sentencia
The legal term “sentencia” in Spanish is the punishment given by the court or judge to a criminal.
The word in Spanish for “sentence” is “Oración” For example, “Encuentra el verbo en esta oración” “Find the verb in this sentence”.
10. College ≠ Colegio
In Spanish, we call “Universidad” to what in English is called “College”.
The word “Colegio” in Spanish refers to a private school (usually elementary school or high school).
11. Looking for ≠ Mirando para:
Sometimes a literal translation of words will work to find the correct phrase or word we want to use BUT it does not always work out this way. This is another good example of a literal translation gone wrong: “Estoy mirando para mi libro” I have heard several students say this when I know they are trying to say “Estoy buscando mi libro”.
“Buscar” is the correct word for “To look for”
SER vs ESTAR:
Ser and estar can get really complicated to learn since they seem to follow their own rules on how and when to use each of them, the good news is that there is a very easy way to know when to use one or the other!
The main difference between these verbs is that:
-SER usually expresses the idea of something that exists in a way that cannot be changed (or would be quite difficult to change); for example:
Nationality= Yo SOY Brasileño (I am Brazilian)
People’s physical appearance = Karla ES baja y morena (Karla is short and brunette)
People’s personality = Enrique y Miguel SON muy pesimista. (Enrique and Miguel are very pessimistic)
SER usually describes things that are permanent.
On the other hand, ESTAR expresses a state, something that can change and/or varies from time to time; for example:
Emotions = Hoy ESTOY muy feliz (Today I am happy)
Locations = Karla ESTÁ en la biblioteca (Karla is at the library)
Weather/ temperature at the moment = ESTÁ muy caluroso el día / Mi café ESTÁ frío. (Today is very hot / My coffee is cold)
Of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, but this is basically how SER and ESTAR work. It is not that complicated once you stop a little and think about what you are describing. Just remember to ask yourself “Is that permanent?” “Can that change at some point?” Then you will find it easier to chose between these two verbs.
Now pat yourself on the back for taking the time to read this article, because now you’re equipped with the knowledge to avoid these common mistakes. Don’t forget to be patient with yourself. The best students are not afraid to make mistakes, and therefore get a lot more practice in than those who remain silent. Practice reading the above examples out loud, or even writing them down again. This will help make what you just learned stick. Keep a steady practice regimen, and you will make significant progress.
Tell us what you think the hardest part of learning Spanish is in the comments. Do you identify with this list? What did we miss? We love to hear from you! Also, don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter, where you’ll get our Spanish Phrase Power Pack of 150+ common words and phrases to Supercharge your Spanish and stay up to date when we release new content.