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Common Spanish Beginner Mistakes

Errors frequently made by beginning learners of Spanish

As an instructor of Spanish, I see a lot of common errors that beginners typically make. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes -- the point is to learn from them when you make them so you can avoid making them again. Such error monitoring and correction brings you ever closer to proficiency. Here are some tips to help you avoid making some of the most frequent errors made by beginning learners of Spanish.

Tú vs. Usted

Distinguishing whether to use or Usted is often difficult for the beginning Spanish student. However, there are several rules of thumb that can help learners avoid serious mistakes. Most beginning Spanish students are aware that the form of address is used in informal situations and that Ud. (Usted) is used when addressing somebody formally. Determining which situations are formal or informal takes a bit of examination, however.

Much of the time, the informal form of address is used with day-to-day acquaintances, close friends, children, and people in your peer group. In these instances, using the formal Ud. would not only seem very out of place, but would also implicitly convey a more distant relationship to the person addressed. The informal is often used to show a closeness or familiarity with a person, for instance, in prayer when addressing God or when talking to close friends.

At the same time, knowing precisely when to use the formal address is important to avoid seeming too close or familiar with a person. As a rule of thumb, anytime you would address a person with a title such as "Mr.", "Sir", "Mrs." or "Professor", the Ud. form of address should be used. It is also polite to use this form of address when talking to people whom you do not know well, people much older than you, or people who have a higher status than you do, such as somebody occupying an official post. When meeting somebody new, if in doubt, it's generally best to use the Ud. form of address. It's usually best to appear overly polite, rather than ill-mannered, especially when meeting somebody for the first time where first impressions are important.


Most beginning Spanish students learn that this verb means "to like", because English-speakers use "to like" with the same frequency and in the same situations that Spanish speakers use gustar. But the usage of each of these verbs is quite different. A more accurate translation of gustarmight be "to be pleasing to". This definition shows that some object, person, or other noun is pleasing to somebody or something. Hence, Me gusta comer pizza really means Eating pizza is pleasing to me. This really isn't very different from the meaning of the sentence I like to eat pizza, but better explains why the indirect object pronouns me, te, le, nos, os, and les are used in conjunction with this verb. These pronouns distinguish to what or to whom something is pleasing:
Les gusta comer pizza. They like to eat pizza.
Literally: Eating pizza is pleasing to them.
Nos gusta comer pizza. We like to eat pizza.
Literally: Eating pizza is pleasing to us.
Note that gustar can be used not only to indicate that one likes doing certain activities (like eating pizza) but also that one likes things or people. For example: Me gusta la pizza shows The pizza is pleasing to me, or as English-speakers would state it, I like the pizza. When multiple things or people "are pleasing" to a person, then the verb must be plural, too: Me gustan las pizzas or The pizzas are pleasing to me. The sooner you start to think about the verb gustar not being a directly translatable as "to like", the more quickly you will be on the path to really mastering this verb.

tener años

As is often the case in languages other than your own, some expressions cannot be translated directly, even though they convey the same meaning. One such example is the expression, tener años in Spanish. English speakers say: I am 24 years old. In Spanish, however, native speakers would say instead: Yo tengo 24 años, literally I have 24 years. This makes complete sense in Spanish, even though it would never be expressed that way in English.


If you were to make some of the common beginner mistakes discussed here, using ano when you mean año for instance, you might feel very embarrassed. However, blurting out ¡Estoy embarazado! would only be additional cause for embarrassment. As you might suspect, the apparent meaning of embarazado or embarazada in Spanish is not in any way semantically related to its English cognate. What most beginning Spanish students mistake to mean embarrassed in fact means pregnantin Spanish. Thus, a man who says ¡Estoy embarazado! is really saying he is pregnant. (!)

To avoid such embarrassing situations, its best to know up front how to say, I am embarrassed. The expression you are wildly searching for after making an embarrassing mistake is tener vergüenza and it is used in much the same way as the expression tener años.If you do something embarrassing, you might quickly follow up by correctly saying: "¡Yo tengo vergüenza!" instead of the equally embarrassing misuse of ¡Estoy embarazado!

Masculine nouns ending in -a

"What?" you ask ... "but masculine nouns end in -o. If a noun ends in -a it's feminine. It's right here in the book, and besides, my teacher said so."

For the most part this holds true and makes predicting the gender of a new word relatively easy. However, there are a handful of words that violate this handy rule and it pays to know exactly which ones they are, in order to use these exceptions correctly.

One of the most commonly misused words is problema (problem). As you've probably guessed, it is in fact masculine: el problema. This flies in the face of what beginning students learn, but the masculine article is what shows that problema is in fact masculine. Other common words to watch out for tend to similarly end in -ma. Some common ones are: el programa (program), el sistema (system), el poema (poem), el idioma (language), el tema (subject), el clima (climate), and el telegrama (telegram).

There are other unpredictable nouns end that in -a that are masculine. The most common ones include: el mapa (map), el planeta (planet), el día (day) and el sofá (sofa). Furthermore, its possible to have words that end in -o that are in fact feminine such as la radio (radio) and la mano (hand).

Just about any rule you learn will have at least a few exceptions. Knowing is half the battle!

Recommended related books:

1001 Pitfalls in Spanish, by Marion P. Holt, Julianne Dueber, 3rd ed. 287 p. (1997)
This book serves as a valuable reference guide that describes and corrects errors students are most likely to make when writing or speaking Spanish. The book outlines fundamentals of the Spanish language and providing help for common obstacles such as complex sentence structure, vocabulary, and telephone conversations.

2001 Spanish and English Idioms / 2001 Modismos españoles e ingleses, by Eugene Savaiano, Lynn W. Winget, 2nd ed., 699 p. (1995)
Two separate alphabetical listings give Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish definitions of numerous, commonly used idioms. Each definition is followed by a sentence in both languages showing how the idiom is used in context. Bilingual appendices explore irregular verbs, standard abbreviations, and other related language topics.

Street Spanish series:
Street Spanish 1: The Best of Spanish Slang, by David Burke, 256 p. (1997)
Street Spanish 1 lets you quickly become an insider by presenting some of the most popular slang terms used throughout the many Spanish-speaking countries. Entertaining dialogues, word games and drills, crossword puzzles, and word searches teach you to understand the everyday language used on the street, in homes and offices, and among family and friends.
Street Spanish 2: The Best of Spanish Idioms, by David Burke, 256 p. (1998)
Street Spanish 2 introduces popular Spanish idioms via dialogues, vocabulary lessons, dictations, and entertaining word drills and games including crossword puzzles, fill-ins, find-a-word charts. The guide also contains a comprehensive glossary.
Street Spanish 3: The Best of Naughty Spanish, by David Burke, 256 p. (1998)
Street Spanish 3 teaches the sorts of Spanish words and phrases that most people learn on the street and definitely not in school. It is full of off-color Spanish profanities and colloquialisms, including romantic innuendos, clever insults, and other slang expressions that people use in everyday chatter. The book is also a repository of information on low-brow Spanish-speaking culture.

See also: Spanish books | Spanish main page

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