We are going to briefly summarize the main barriers that a Spanish learner of English may encounter when trying to communicate accurately with native speakers of the language. Such obstacles may affect both written and oral language, different parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on), syntactic structures in general, and finally, the main stumbling block that prevents accurate, effective communication: English pronunciation.


Please note that we will place an asterisk (*) before every wrong sentence, word or phonetic transcription in this article.



Verbs and Nouns


A very common source of mistakes is that many Spanish speakers use “can” and “must” as if they were syntactic equivalents of the Spanish verbs “poder” and “deber”, thus producing sentences such as * “I can to speak Catalan” or * “We must to study every day”. This infinitive is also observed in other structures such as * “You should not to smoke so much”.


Of course, there are errors which affect far more basic grammar points, the most salient of them being to forget the mark of the third person singular verbs in the present simple tense: “–S”. The reason for this is that verbs in Spanish change all their endings, for all persons in all tenses. When ESL students learn that there is no such complication in English, they just forget to add the only ending which happens to be compulsory.


Subject–verb agreement also affects words such as “everybody”, “anybody”, “somebody”, “everyone”, “everything” and so on. The assumption made by some students is that “everybody” means “todos”, so they use a plural verb with such words, as in * “Everybody like his music”. Conversely, “people” when it is a plural noun, is the equivalent of “la gente”, a singular noun in Spanish. As a consequence, we will hear sentences like * “People complains about low salaries”.


Finally, if your mother tongue is Spanish, you will find it difficult to give a subject to every verb!





There are two grammar rules that students must learn in order to increase intelligibility: (1) Adjectives never have a different plural form. (2) Adjectives precede nouns. Here are two typical mistakes:


  • * Ibiza’s beautiful beaches are incredibles. –> Ibiza’s beautiful beaches are incredible.
  • * My mother was a teacher very good. –> My mother was a very good teacher.


It is also difficult for some students to tell the difference between –ED (passive meaning) and –ING (active meaning) adjectives. Here are two examples:


  • * I am tiring after Physical Education class. –> I am tired after Physical Education class.
  • * The film was so bored! –> The film was so boring!





Further common mistakes in English arise from the fact that equivalent verbs do not always take the equivalent preposition after them, if they take any preposition at all. Thus, many Spanish speakers will say * “Listen me!” or * “I like listening music” because they are mentally making the Spanish to English translation of “¡Escúchame!” or “Me gusta oír música”.


Other examples are:


  • * “consist in” (instead of “of”)
  • * “depend of” (instead of “on”)
  • * “marry with someone” (instead of just “marry someone”, without a preposition)
  • * “She said me…” (instead of “She said to me…”)




English pronunciation


Another source of common mistakes in English is, undoubtedly, pronunciation.


The fact that the spelling of a Spanish word exactly reflects its pronunciation –while that is by no means the case in English– does not precisely help. This problem is complicated by the fact that most teaching–learning systems tend to present the written form of a word before the oral form. In some cases, the oral form is not presented at all. As a consequence, we may hear “main” pronounced “mine”, or “boat”, “heard” and “juice” pronounced * [boat], * [xeard] and * [juis].


Furthermore, the number of ESL students who simply ignore that English has twelve vowels (plus eight diphthongs) is simply amazing. Most learners, even those who have some notions of the International Phonetic Alphabet, produce the very same vowel for “ship” and “sheep”; or for “cat”, “cut” and “cart”. Many ignore that “word”, “work”, “world” or “worse” have the same vowel as “girl”, and pronounce a clear Spanish [o] for the abovementioned words.


The weak vowel, or schwa, whose transcription is /ə/ and which is omnipresent in so many unstressed syllables in English, is simply absent in Spanish pronunciation. As we have said, Spanish speaking ESL learners will assume (unless otherwise told) that all written syllables are to be pronounced. The consequence is that they will say * [komforteibol] and * [bejeteibols] to pronounce “comfortable” and “vegetables”. Examples could be multiplied on and on.


As for consonants, we must take into account that there are no Spanish words beginning by “S + consonant”. So, it is not uncommon to hear things such as * “I am a estudent from eSpain”. Some ESL learners will make things worse by saying * “I am an estudent…”


The right sound that corresponds to the English letter “H” (“her”, “house”) is often mispronounced as a rough sound which is the common realization of that letter in some Spanish speaking areas, and is the normal Spanish pronunciation of “G” and “J” in the following groups:


  • ja
  • ge / je
  • gi / ji
  • jo
  • ju


On the other hand, the English letters “G” and “J” are often realized as a “Y”. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear * “yam” instead of “jam”, or * “yeneral” instead of “general”. This is due to the fact that the right English sound simply does not exist in the Spanish pronunciation system.


To conclude, students have to make a great effort in order to acquire a number of consonant sounds which just do not appear in Spanish words:


  • Both “B” and “V” are pronounced [b] in Spanish.
  • The consonant in “the” is very frequently pronounced [d].
  • The consonant in “she” does not exist in mainstream Spanish.
  • Voiced /z/ is often realized as voiceless [s], especially when the student is reading it.





There are two aspects of negative sentences and verbs which are difficult to grasp by Spanish speaking ESL students: (1) there are no negative auxiliaries in Spanish, and (2) double negative structures are not only standard, but compulsory in Spanish. It is normal that in early stages of English learning, when students tend to translate everything they say from Spanish to English, they make mistakes when they try to utter a negative sentence.
For example, we may hear something like * “I not know the answer” / * “I know not the answer”, or even * “I no know the answer” instead of “I don’t know the answer” (“No sé la respuesta”).


On the other hand, the “logical”, so to speak, way to translate the following sentences from Spanish to English would be as follows:


  • No he visto a nadie. –> * I have not seen nobody.
  • No trabaja nunca. –> * She does not work never. / * She not works never.



Other structures


This is a difficult mistake to get rid of: “Llevo tres años vivendo en Barcelona” –> * “I live in Barcelona since three years” instead of “I have been living in Barcelona for three years”. We will often hear this kind of sentence and, to make things worse, “since” will for some reason be pronounced * [sains]. In general, there is much confusion involving the “ago”, “for” and “since”.


On the other hand, and on a more basic level, it takes some time for beginners, to internalize that they cannot make a literal English to Spanish translation in these basic contexts:


  • Tengo doce años. –> * I have twelve years. / * I have twelve years old.
  • ¿Tienes hambre? –> * Do you have hungry?
  • Tengo sed. –> * I have thirsty.
  • Trabajo de enfermero. –> * I work as nurse. / * I work of nurse.



A common phrase


An extremely frequent mistake of Spanish English learners has to do with the verb “to agree”. It is, like most problems we have seen above, acquired in the early stages of the learning process and it is very difficult to uproot later on. The verb “to agree” in Spanish is “estar de acuerdo” (“estar” is the equivalent of “to be”). So, it is extremely frequent, as we have said, to hear and read * “I am agree with you”, * “I am not agree with you”, * “We are not agree”, and so on.



False friends


There is a huge list of false friends for the Spanish speaking ESL student to learn. Here are some common ones:



Spanish word

English translation

English word

Spanish translation


current, present-day


real, efectivo


person from North, Central or South America




to attend, be present at OR to assist








coincidence, chance




a cold






residencia universitaria






success, hit









INTRODUCE (someone)













abusar (sexualmente)


to come true


darse cuenta







About italki


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