How To Avoid Gringo Status: 5 Common Mistakes Spanish Learners Make

Spanish is the most commonly learned second language in the English-speaking world. Due to the international prevalence of Hispanic culture, most English speakers know a few words of Spanish, even if it’s just the remnants from their high school Spanish classes or listening to a few pop songs. Everyone learning Spanish, in high school or otherwise, will make plenty of mistakes along the way. Here are some of the most common mistakes that English speakers make when learning Spanish.

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1. Nailing the difference between “ser” and “estar”

It would be a crime if we were to neglect to mention one of the most classic challenges in Spanish: the notorious difference between “ser” and “estar”, which both translate to “to be”. In a general sense, “ser” corresponds to enduring characteristics such as time, date, origin, job, etc., whereas “estar” is used for more temporary states of being such as a person’s mood. Still, there are plenty of nuances and exceptions. For example, location:

ESTAR: ¿Dónde está el baño? (Where is the bathroom?)
SER: ¿Dónde es la fiesta? (Where is the party?)

Both questions ask location with permanent and temporary answers, however, follow the opposite logic. Many English speakers will have a tough time with this, but practice and memorization make perfect, especially after understanding the true theory.

2. Using too many subject pronouns

In English, we always use subject pronouns (except in commands): we can’t simply say, “Am eating breakfast”; instead, we must say “I am eating breakfast”. In Spanish, however, dropping subject pronouns is exceedingly common. Indeed, it’s usually more natural to simply say “Estoy desayunando” (“I’m eating breakfast”) than to include the first-person subject pronoun “yo”, as in “Yo estoy desayunando”. While it’s not technically wrong to use the subject, it will show you up as a non-native speaker if you use it more than you need to.

3. Confusing direct and indirect object pronouns

In English, direct and indirect object pronouns look the same. For example, the pronoun “him” is used both in “I sent him a package” and “I sent him to church”, even though the former is a direct object pronoun and the latter is an indirect object pronoun.

In Spanish, however, this isn’t the case: the direct object pronoun is lo or la, whereas the indirect object pronoun is le. So “I sent him a package” would be “Le mandé un paquete”, whereas “I sent him to church” would be “Lo mandé a la iglesia”. Mixing up these pronouns is a common mistake among English speakers.

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4. Overusing the present progressive/continuous

English speakers often use the present progressive tense to refer to objects that will happen in the future; for instance, it’s totally natural to say “I’m going to a party tonight”, referring to a party that will commence in a few hours. In Spanish, however, this use of the present progressive is not common. Instead of saying “Estoy yendo a una fiesta esta noche” (“I’m going to a party tonight”), an immediate future tense construction is used: “Voy a una fiesta esta noche (Literally: “I go to a party tonight”).”

5. Mixing up the past tenses

Just like it has two ways of saying “to be”, the Spanish language also has two different ways of referring to the past. The preterite tense refers to actions that have been completed in the past, whereas the imperfect tense refers to ongoing past actions. For instance, using the verb estar, in the first-person preterite tense estuve, literally translates to “I was” but contextually understanding that it happened yesterday and the state of being is no longer, whereas estaba, in the first-person imperfect tense, also meaning “I was” refers to an on-going feeling, action, or characteristic. Remembering these two tenses and how to properly use them can be quite tricky for English speakers who aren’t used to this kind of grammatical distinction.

Indeed, Spanish has a plethora of grammatical complexities, and making a few mistakes is a necessary part of the language-learning process. However, a qualified, native-speaking Spanish teacher can help you correct your errors as soon as possible, well before they become habits. Contact us to find out more about our flexible Spanish course and package options.