7 “Gringo Tells” You Must Avoid When Learning Spanish

Today’s guest post is from Simon, online hustler, and Spanish speaking expert. If you’re interested in learning Spanish, check it out.

Hola! Como estas?

Let’s look at some “gringo giveaways” when learning Spanish – tells that make it obvious that you are not a proficient Spanish learner, but are, in fact, a clueless newbie.

Are you ready? Of course, you are.

Well, in case you missed it, I’ve actually already demonstrated the first point.

1) Spanish takes an upside-down exclamation mark before an exclamation and an upside-down question mark (¿) before a question.

OK, that’s technically two tells. I must warn you that my forte is languages, not maths.

So, I should have started with:

¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?

I see this all the time online. Luckily, I can make a “¿” by pressing: alt 0191 

I can also make a “¡” by pressing: alt 0161

But your computer may be different.

Putting these marks first actually makes a lot of sense! Spanish orthography is pretty great overall.

It’s logical and intuitive apart from a few silent letters and it makes Spanish very easy to learn in comparison with English, which has a rather random spelling system, or Japanese, whose myriad alphabets are essentially instruments of torture.

Once you know, this is easy to fix.

No sera una problema. / It won’t be a problem.

You know I’m trying to trick you now, right? So, what’s the problem?

The problem here is…

2) It’s “un problema”, not “una problema”

Despite ending in “-a”, problema is masculine.

Quite a few words ending in “-ma” are masculine, including:

  • el sistema (system)
  • el tema (topic)
  • el programa (program)

Even the word for language is masculine – el idioma.

Someone should make un programa dealing with el problema del tema del sistema del idioma…

As a random aside, another word for language is la lengua, literally, tongue. There’s nothing better than spending time with a hot young chica and exploring each other’s lenguas – I do love grammar.

You also get bonus points if you caught the missing accent.

No será un problema.


3) Spanish future tense endings mostly need accents

The endings are -é, -ás, -á, -emos, -éis, -án

These endings correspond to the pronouns I, you, he/she/it, we, you (all), and they/you.

The only form that doesn’t take an accent is “we”.

Nosotros no tendremos un problema. / We won’t have a problem.

If you don’t put the accent in, the verb will often end up looking like an imperfect subjunctive…

Hablara, instead of Hablará.

The imperfect subjunctive is a bit of a bastard to be quite honest with you. It’s essentially the subjunctive used together with past tense verbs, e.g. I was hoping that you would <verb in imperfect subjunctive>.

Accents can be quite important – compare:

hablo / I speak.

Accent on the “ah” sound. Then look at this:

habló / he spoke.

Also, if you can’t remember a particular future tense conjugation, a simple trick is to use “ir a” instead.

Voy a hacer algo / I’m going to do something.

Anyway, I snuck another gringo-ism in there.

Did you spot it?

4) Over-using pronouns is another common gringo-ism

I did what many beginners do and translated the “we” in “we won’t have a problem”.
It’s more natural to say:

“No tendremos un problema.”

Spanish verbs conjugate differently to English verbs so it’s normally quite obvious who is the subject, especially with I and we.

No one wants to keep saying “Nosotros” – Spanish words are long enough already – and there’s no need, so you can just drop it. Yo is a bit easier to say, but you still don’t need it most of the time.

They say less is more and that’s not true with money, but it is true with Spanish pronouns.

Speaking of question marks, I’ve just remembered another point of confusion for newbies.

5) La cuestión y la pregunta

There are two words in Spanish that seem to mean question.

If you want to say question in Spanish, you probably want “pregunta”.

“Hacer una pregunta” means to ask a question. We don’t say “Hacer una cuestión”.

Remember that the Spanish “h” is silent too! Super important for key verbs like “hacer”, “haber”, and “hablar”.

You can however use cuestión in the sense of “matter” as in “matter of honor” – una cuestión de honor – and so on.

Ahora sabes qué es la diferencia. / Now you know what the difference is.

Hold up, that was another bit of gringo Spanish from me. The word “qué” here is wrong.

If you’re learning Spanish, do you know why?


6) How to ask, “What is the difference?”

The correct phrase here is “¿Cuál es la diferencia?”.

I admit, this one took me ages to get down. My English-speaking brain just took the regular word for “what” and translated it directly.

I can still remember the looks of pain in the eyes of my long-suffering Spanish exchange partners at my repeated dim-wittery.

By the way, if you haven’t got a Spanish conversation partner to practice with, get one. It’s the best way to improve, I guarantee it.

Most just want to improve their English and will make mistakes just like you.

There’s no need to feel embarrassed. No hay necesidad de sentirse embarazado.

That brings us to our final tip.

7) False friends

I’m not talking about flaky conversation partners. These are words that look similar to an English word yet have another meaning.

The word “embarazado” doesn’t really exist in Spanish. Embarazada means “pregnant” which is not something a man can be, unless things have gone very wrong indeed.

The word for embarrassed is “avergonzado”.

The correct Spanish would therefore be:

“No hay necesidad de sentirse avergonzado”.

Note, most Spanish speakers I’ve met treat “v” as “b”. Pronouncing a “v” is not the clanger that pronouncing the silent “h” is, but do bear it in mind.

I’ll drop some knowledge here. Because Spanish is so regular, 99% of pronunciation problems can actually be solved by simply listening to more Spanish instead of reading it – audiolibros are great for this.

Even Google translate can provide a computer-generated reading for reference at a pinch. The other 1% is not being able to roll your “R’s” ;(

Other confusing false friends include:

  • Exito – success. Not exit, which is salida.
  • Introducir – insert. Not introduce, which is presentar.
  • Recorder – remember. Not record, which is grabar.

It’s a good idea to study both cognates – words which share a common root with English – and false friends. Flashcard programs like Anki are great for vocabulary acquisition.

¡Eso es todo!

“Gringo Tells” You Must Avoid When Learning Spanish

Thanks for reading!

Now, I don’t have a website, but feel free to sound off in the comments and let me know if you’d like more articles like this.

¡Eso es todo!

P.S: Serious about studying Spanish? Click here for the best place to start!
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Jake D

Travel junkie turned blogger. Location independent. From the Midwest, but often based in Latin America. Big on beaches, rumba, and rum. Addicted to the gym. Committed to showing a different style of travel - one that involves actually interacting with locals and exploring different cultures.

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