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Seven aspects of learning Spanish that really baffle English speakers

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Seven aspects of learning Spanish that really baffle English speakers
Photo: Kotin/Depositphotos
10:12 CEST+02:00
Learning a language is a minefield of embarrassment, frustration and potential rudeness – heaven forbid! Matt Mills, a Barcelona-based Briton, examines the perils.

Every language has its snares that certain nationalities are destined to get caught in at some point on their journey to becoming the twin-tongued Lothario we all desire to be.

Here are just some of the ones that any of us who have had a punt at learning Spanish will have experienced, and if you haven't yet, the points below may save you from making the same mistakes we did - de nada.

Let's start with the most obvious, and frankly irritating, subject of...

Gender 

Why so many languages insist on applying gender to inanimate objects, which are clearly devoid of genitalia, is beyond me. The Spanish also often make a fuss when we incorrectly say el mano instead of la mano - it ends in an ‘o'; cut us some slack!

However, we must play the game, and one thing I've learnt is not to trust the letter the word ends in. It's great as a starting point to say that, ‘o' means masculine and ‘a' means feminine, but as well as mano, there are many very common exceptions to the rule, including: el día, el problema and la foto.

Although it may not seem crucial to us at the time, the power of the ‘o' and the ‘a' should never be underestimated; after all, they represent the difference between ordering a chicken sandwich, and ordering a penis sandwich (pollo/polla)...and polla is a much stronger synonym for “penis”.

Wrestling with Ser and Estar 

These two verbs are the nemeses of the valiant English speaker who dreams of speaking more than one language, like the rest of the world does. They are vitally important and yet, in many situations, near impossible to use correctly for us. You will see Spanish people, even ones with a high level of English, do the same thing with make and do, as the Spanish verb hacer covers both of them.

In English, Ser and Estar are the same verb (to be) which is why we struggle to split the meaning of such a pivotal word in our language. The general rule is: Estar is for impermanent states like emotions - “Estoy cansado” (I am tired) - whereas Ser is something that is unlikely to change like, “Soy Inglés” (I am English).

However there is a grey area to bear in mind and the best thing you can do is pay attention to what people say in different situations, and maybe even write it down. Your profession, for example, you describe using Ser, even when you know you won't be in that profession for long - like me when I was teaching English. 


"Estoy cansado." Photo: marcomayer/Depositphotos

Bizarre politeness rules

English speakers are generally renowned for their politeness. We Brits in particular, have a global reputation for being the connoisseurs of courtesy, the masters of manners, etiquette experts – I'll stop now.

However, in Spanish, the opinion of what is polite and what isn't is a little different. Overhearing someone walk into a bakery and say to the person working there, ‘Give me a doughnut', is enough to make a British person beat a hasty retreat to the drawing room for some strong tea and a whiff of smelling salts. But in Spain, this is common practice and they get annoyed or amused when we translate, ‘When you have a moment, could I possibly trouble you for a doughnut...please.' It's the same with waiters. I'm more than happy to sit for 20 minutes trying, with little success, to catch a waiter's eye, half-raising my hand shyly in the hope that he will eventually notice me. He's busy; my flight can wait.

But shouting, clicking and even tapping the waiter are all methods of catching the attention of the restaurant staff that I have witnessed.

At the other end of the politeness scale, what on earth is this Usted form we have to learn about? As if conjugating a Spanish verb wasn't complex enough, let alone pluralising the word 'you', now we have to remember which form to use in case we meet an elderly person.

Not believing that the double negative is a thing

All our lives, English speakers have been called up on using the double negative – not helped by the fact that they're used in songs and films all the time! In Spanish it seems that two wrongs do in fact make a right. An example would be, “No tengo nada” (I don't have anything), which literally translates as, “I don't have nothing”. 

You can also use nada in a double negative as an adverb to intensify a statement, like, “No me gustan nada los gatos.” (I don't like cats at all.)

Embarrassing direct translations  

Walking into a staffroom and claiming that you are warm is dangerous ground to tread, especially in Spain where the heat is one of the worst things about living here. Many of us want to say, “Estoy caliente” - but stop! You´re actually expressing to everyone that you are in the mood for fornication! “Tengo calor” would be the safer option, literally, “I have heat”.

This is one of the most embarrassing direct translations, but there are others, including using the present continuous far too much. For example, “¿Qué estás haciendo este fin de semana?” does not mean, “What are you doing this weekend?” Well, it does literally, but that makes no sense in Spanish. Instead you would say, “¿Qué haces este fin de semana?

The long and short of the matter is that living in this wonderful country, it´s only right that we should make the effort to get some kind of grip on the local lingo – or “lingos” depending on which part you find yourself in.

If you've made these mistakes and learned from them, then hopefully you enjoyed revisiting your cringey memories. If these aspects of the beautiful Spanish language are new to you, then maybe make a note of them, as it could avoid pregnancy...sorry, I mean embarrassment!


"Tengo calor." Photo: Stokkete/Depositphotos

Treacherous (albeit hilarious) false friends

False friends are a source of endless hilarity within international friendships and relationships. But one thing to remember is that, if you are in a healthy relationship, it is natural that you molestar each other from time to time. If things go really well maybe you'll have kids, and you can be sure that they will molestar you too. 

Just to clear up for any of you that haven't come across this false friend yet, molestar means “to annoy” or “to bother”.

Other examples include:

-          Sensible means “sensitive”, NOT “sensible”

Searching for a job in Spain? Maybe don't walk into your first interview in Spanish and say “Soy muy sensible”. You're unlikely to get the job as the interviewer will be worried about you bursting into tears on your first day.

-          Casualidad means “coincidence”, NOT “casualty”

Many people see casualidad and think “oh, of course; casualty”. Hearing about an accident and asking how many coincidences there were may seem somewhat off-topic and earn you some strange looks.

-          Embarazada means “pregnant”, NOT “embarrassed”

I learned this one the hard way a couple of years ago. Wanting to say “I am embarrassed”, I said, “Estoy embarazada”, inadvertently claiming to be pregnant. Especially as a man, this may result in some interesting reactions from your audience. This is just as big a problem for Spanish people, as many of them claim to be embarrassed for up to 9 months.

-          Preservativo means “condom”, NOT “preservative”

It may look a lot like preservative, but resist the temptation to walk into a supermarket and ask if the milk has condom in it.

Por and Para

This is a very tricky subject, but the basic rule to remember is that para has a destination. “Este queso es para ti.” (This cheese is for you.) I don't know why we're sticking with the dairy products, but in this case you are the destination – “para ti”.

Por can be difficult to get to grips with, but it can also be very useful. For example it can mean around: “¿Hay un banco por aqui?” (“Is there a bank around here?”)

Another typical mistake that English speakers make is saying, “En la mañana”, rather than the correct version, “Por la mañana”. However, a Latin American colleague assures me that both are fine in Latin America...

READ ALSO: Twelve signs you have cracked the Spanish language

This article was written by Matt Mills, a-23-year old Brit who moved to Barcelona from Newcastle two years ago. He now works for Europe Language Jobs, a job board that specialises in multilingual candidates across Europe.

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