Although I got a perfect 100 on my Spanish Regents exam in 10th grade (thank you, thank you, hold your applause), I wasn’t quite fluent in Spanish—in fact, I probably definitely made errors on the test.
Between my inability to roll my Rs and my pasty white skin splattered with freckles, I have long been likely to be labeled a gringo when hitting the streets and practicing my Spanish outside the confines of the classroom.
If you’re not familiar with the term, a gringo is a visiting foreigner, usually from the U.S., who is not of Hispanic origin. (See: Is “gringo” an offensive term?) In Brazil, it even just refers to anyone who is not Brazilian.
And as with foreign speakers of any language, gringos are known for making certain specific errors when attempting to speak Spanish. Here are the top five common Spanish mistakes made by gringos.
1. Thinking that all Spanish is the same
You probably already know this on some level—after all, American English is different from British English—but Spanish dialects vary on a more extreme level.
For one thing, Spanish pronunciation can be very different depending on where the speaker is from. In many places, the letter “y” is pronounced more or less the same as it is in English—it makes the “yuh” sound, as in “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” But in Colombia, all “y” sounds are pronounced as if they were English “j” sounds, ergo the pronunciation of “Jo quiero Taco Bell.” So if you hear this, remember: Joe doesn’t want Taco Bell. I do.
What’s more, every 8th-grade Spanish student knows that to say “all of you,” you use the vosotros form. But did you know that outside of Spain, the vosotros form isn’t used? If you try to make conversation with a group of people from South America and use vosotros, you’ll probably be met with (understanding) laughter. After all, you tried, gringo. Use Ustedes instead.
2. Making false friends
Because English and Spanish have influenced one another, and because a lot of modern Spanish directly borrows words from English, the two languages have ended up with a lot of cognates. Cognates are translations which look and sound the same as their foreign language counterparts; e.g., inteligente and intelligent, historia and history, ciencia and science, etc.
But you can’t always assume that like words have the same definitions across both languages! There are dozens of false cognates, or false friends, that regularly confuse English speakers learning Spanish.
One of the trickiest false cognates is embarazada. It does not, as you’ve probably guessed, mean “embarrassed.” Instead, it means “pregnant.” So don’t be like this failed Spanish ad and tell people you won’t leak and get them pregnant.
Lucky for you, Brainscape has created adaptive flashcard decks covering many of the most common English-Spanish false cognates; be sure to check it out in our comprehensive Learn Spanish package.
3. Confusing your genders
If you’ve got the Spanish basics down, you know that Spanish nouns and adjectives are gendered. Feminine words usually end in “a,” while masculine words usually end in “o.” (But not always—el día, for example, is masculine.) Therefore, houses are always feminine (la casa) and buildings are always masculine (el edificio).
Adjectives, by that same token, must match their subjects. Therefore, you can’t say that your female boss is alto (tall) and simpático (nice), or that your husband is bonita (pretty). This is a hard habit for most Americans to break, since English is not a gendered language.
While mixing up genders isn’t usually an egregious Spanish error—they’ll likely know what you meant—it can make things very confusing, and is a dead giveaway of a foreigner. When studying Spanish vocabulary, make sure to drill yourself not just on the translations and/or definitions of words, but also on their genders.
4. Talking too literally
Learning another language is hard because it’s so much more than learning comparative words. Spanish (and English, and every other language) has strange quirks, odd idioms, and different phrases to convey the same thought. That’s why you can’t always say something in Spanish exactly the way you would in English—a word-for-word translation often just won’t cut it.
A good example is the way we talk about age. In English, it’s perfectly acceptable to say “I am 24.” You don’t even need to add “years old,” because it’s implied. In Spanish, however, the construction is totally different. Spanish speakers say Tengo 24 años, which literally means “I have 24 years.” It sounds strange to us, but saying “I am <number>” sounds just as strange to them.
**Error 4.5—incorrectly pronouncing años (an-yos) as anos (an-os). The first means “years,” while the second means “anuses.” You have been warned.
5. Forgetting to practice
Because of these and countless other common Spanish mistakes, learning the language is not an easy task. Fortunately, there are tons of great websites and apps to help you practice your Spanish skills. Brainscape, for one, has compiled a huge set of resources to help improve your Spanish.
As you may know, Brainscape is a web and mobile Spanish flashcards app with one of the best language learning programs out there. It uses cognitive science to double your language learning speed and progress through a logical curriculum and the world's most efficient spaced repetition language learning technique.
We know that Spanish is not something you’ll pick up on the fly; you’ll need to practice, practice, practice! And Brainscape is the perfect addition to your learning journey.
While you may never completely be free of Spanish errors, practicing regularly will keep you from sounding like a gringo!