5 Mistakes I Still Make in Spanish

After 5 years in this country, you might begin to think that I am fluent, 100% bilingual, and I would thank you for that assumption, but you would be wrong. Sadly. Sadly, I still make mistakes in Spanish, and these mistakes do drive me crazy, because most of the time (not all the time), I know exactly when I’ve made a mistake. Some Spanish native speakers love to correct me, immediately, as though they were doing me a great favor by enlightening me as to how to speak correctly. And I sort of understand that; I get that they are trying to be helpful in a way they know how to be, but usually I realize immediately that I’ve screwed up. That’s why I like writing. Mario’s cousin told me once that she never knew which of was writing to her on Whatsapp (Mario is a luddite and has no esmarfon, so we share mine), because my written Spanish is so good. #humblebrag

Yet there exist those things that still trip me up to this day. What are they?

El agua

Don’t get me started on this one. I get it. I do. Agua (water for the few of you who don’t speak any Spanish) is feminine, but you say “el agua” to avoid the double sound you’d get by say “la agua.”  I have no problem with this. I can say “Pásame el agua” with the best of them. But sometimes, only sometimes, I am speaking so fast that I will say “El agua está bueno, ehhh, buena”! I always correct myself, lest someone get the horrific idea that I do not know water’s gender. Duh, water is a girl. She’s so refreshing and delicious, how could she not be, really?

Cuándo vs. Qué Hora

I know the difference. But in English, when asking about a future event, we might say, “When is it?” to ask what time the event takes place. I do this often, saying “¿Cuándo es?” when what I really mean is “¿Qué hora es?” Most of the time, if I ask the first way, I won’t get an hour. I’ll only get a day or a date. It’s a small, nitpicky thing that I repeatedly do, but again, only when speaking.

Plaza vs. Plazo

I write this down often, but I still get it confused in my head. Why does this one always trip me up? I’ve no idea, but it seems to hold some power over me. Plaza means square, like in Salamanca’s famous Plaza Mayor. No, Madrid’s does not compare. Do not even go there with me!

Salamanca Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor in 2010

But plaza also means “job post, vacancy,” so you might use it to talk about a jop opening you’ve seen. In Spain, this word is used a lot to talk openings to be a funcionario, or a civil servant. It can also mean “position,” as in the “Los soldados están colocados en sus plazas correspondientes.” (The solders are in their spots.)

Plazo means a period/window of time or a deadline or installments of a payment. I know that these two words have entirely different meanings, albeit multiple ones, but I still mix them up often. And this happens whether writing or speaking. Luckily, when I’m writing, I can just hope on Word Reference when I am unsure.

Hace mucho que no …

This is another one where I should know the difference by now, but it’s been mixed up so much in my head that I end up doing circles in my head. I should just avoid using this turn of phrase altogether, but alas, Spaniards love to use this one. “Hace mucho que no te veo.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. I also seem to try to put the present perfect in there for some reason. I just need to drill this one in my head, because it’s getting ridiculous.

No puedo oírte

Don’t say this one when you can’t hear someone. Literally, it does mean, “I can’t hear you,” but Spanish speakers will say “No te oígo,” I do not hear you. Saying “No puedo oírte” sounds to them like you are incapable of hearing somehow, like you do not have the hearing capacity. I know this, but in the heat of the moment I will often utter “No puedo oír/escuchar/ver” when I mean to say “No oígo/escucho/veo”!

Next time I’ll write about the Spanish skills that I’ve actually pretty much mastered, like that silly subjunctive tense. (Yes, it is possible.)

What mistakes do you make when speaking Spanish?

Related: 10 Language Mistakes Guiris Make and Grammar “Mistakes” Spaniards Make

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How Speaking Spanish Influences My English

I was having a conversation the other day with Mario—in English this time. (It varies.) We were talking about my trip out west and an animal I encountered along the way: a chipmunk. In Spanish, the word for chipmunk and squirrel is the same—la ardilla. Note the article. It’s feminine. So, I was talking, and I said, “He had a mouth full of twigs. It was so cute!” And Mario replied, “I think you mean she. It’s la ardilla, after all.” Of course, he was halfway joking, but it still made me laugh. It made me think too. It’s so funny how learning Spanish has helped me understand my own languages: the quirks, the interesting word origins (etymology is so fascinating!), and just grammar in general. Guys, we do have a subjunctive tense in English. So pay attention.

Tamias striatus

The Whole Gender Thing

In Mario’s worldview, all animals with a female article should be referred to as females. I once called a snake a “he.” I don’t know why; it just came out. But nooooo, he insisted, snakes were shes. Same goes for la cigüeña (the stork) or la nutria (the otter). It made me wonder why, in English, we refer to cars and boats as she and most animals as he (until we know better).


How to Have Good Manners in Spain

“Give me a coffee. With milk.” I say to the barista. She turns around immediately and scoops out some dark torrefacto coffee. The machines buzzes and whirs, and a minute later she slides the coffee across the bar to me, without a word.

Rude? Of course not.

Manners in Spain are different from those anywhere else. That much should be obvious right from the get go. But how? What can you do to be polite in Spain? What does Spanish etiquette call for?


Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Short answer: It depends on what you mean by “worth it.”

Freakonomics (one of my podcast favorites) recently did a short show on the merits of learning a foreign language. Most of the foreigners in Spain whom I know would argue that learning a foreign language is indeed quite beneficial. We are always posting articles on the benefits of bilingualism. There are myriad other reasons too: you become smarter, you know your native language better, you stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia, your memory improves, you become more perceptive … In short, the benefits are endless.

But what about financial benefits?


78568751Source: Getty Images

Freakonomics talks to Albert Saíz, a Spanish (Catalonian) professor of economics who specializes in immigration. He wrote a paper titled Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States. Saíz wanted to figure out just how much a person can gain (future earnings) by knowing a foreign language. He talked to 9,000 college grads about how their knowledge of a foreign language had affected their wages. Here’s what he had to say: