This article describes the 5 most common mistakes made by beginner and intermediate Spanish learners. I reached out to 5 friends who have become fluent Spanish speakers after years of practice, and I asked them about how they would do it differently if they could go back in time. Similarly, I asked about the lessons they learned along the way. I then combined this knowledge with my own experience, and developed a list of the 5 most common Spanish mistakes, and how to avoid them.
It is much better to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than making these mistakes yourself! If you can anticipate and properly counteract the likely problems, your path to fluency will be much smoother.
Take my advice and make a conscious effort to recognize and avoid these mistakes. It will drastically reduce the time it takes to become fluent.
Mistake 1: Over Emphasizing Grammar
Beginning/intermediate learners tend to put forth far too much brain power into the nuances of grammar, and not enough into the bigger picture of communication. For some people, this unhelpful way of thinking comes from memories of a high school Spanish teacher who would penalize for trivial things such as writing an accent mark in the wrong place.
The reality is that the goal is being able to communicate and understand in Spanish, grammar mistakes usually don’t get in the way of this goal. Think about it. When you are speaking with a non-native English speaker, they make mistakes all the time. But, you usually still realize what they meant to say, right? The same is true when you are speaking Spanish. Natives usually understand what you want to say, even if you don’t get the grammar right.
This is not to say that grammar is unimportant. You should learn Spanish grammar. Just remember that it is not the be-all-and-end-all, and that you can still communicate if your grammar isn't perfect.
For super advanced Spanish learners who want to achieve the next level of fluency, grammar is actually more important. If you already have the ability to communicate well and understand what you are hearing, then the next step is to refine your grammar understanding so you can communicate in a more nuanced way. However, nuanced communication comes later. Unless you’re advanced, worry less about the grammar and more about being able to communicate your point. The person you're speaking with will usually understand. If they don't, they will ask you.
The worse case scenario is that there is a small misunderstanding, which is not the end of the world.
Mistake 2: Believing There's a Right Way to Say Things
When I started learning Spanish, I did so simultaneously with my brother. We made it a competition, and always quizzed each other to see who knows more. We were beginners, and would often argue about what the “correct” translation of a word or sentence is.
We would have saved a lot of time if we realized that there often isn’t just one “right” translation. We would argue with each other, certain that we were right. When in reality, we were often both right.
Think about it with English. Most words have synonyms, and there are often several different ways to communicate the same general concept. Spanish is the same. So, keep this in mind when you hear another way of saying something. The way you learned wasn't necessarily wrong. And don't spend so much time learning every synonym for words. If you know one, you can communicate that concept, and you should move on to learning other new words. You will pick up all the synonyms naturally.
Of course, if you’re an advanced learner, there are sometimes subtle differences in the meaning of synonyms and different ways of saying things. Only advanced learners should be focusing on how to communicate subtle concepts. Beginner/intermediate, and even lower advanced students should be focusing on the general ability to communicate, rather than communicating subtle concepts.
Mistake 3: Directly Translating in Your Head
Spanish does not follow English sentence order. If you try to translate word-for-word, you will probably get something wrong. You might get every word mostly right in your translation, but the overall meaning of your translation gets "lost in translation." This is why "Google translate," and other translation apps, sometimes sound silly with their translations. Computers just don't have the ability to understand languages like humans. Computers are more of a science, while languages are more of an art.
This is not just a mistake for beginners. Even advanced Spanish speakers sometimes try to “directly” translate in their head, and if you have this habit, it will always slow your progress.
Not directly translating means that sometimes you'll need to change the word order, and even split/combine sentences. You need to learn to not to translate word-for-word, and to always remind yourself that languages are an art, not a science. When you stop directly translating, your Spanish skills will jump forward.
Mistake 4: Afraid to Make Mistakes
People sometimes make jokes about how a few drinks of alcohol can improve their Spanish abilities. In reality, this is an entirely real phenomenon. Alcohol doesn't make you smarter (it is actually the opposite), but it does lower your concerns about saying words and sentences incorrectly. When you learn to ignore any concerns about saying things incorrectly when sober, your Spanish will be just as good as it is with the help of beer!
Native speakers rarely would judge you for making mistakes, so there is no good reason to be worried about mistakes in the first place. If you do meet someone who does judge you for this, they’re not the type of person you’d want to befriend anyways. Do you judge a non-native English speaker for making English mistakes? Of course not! In fact, you are often quite impressed by their ability to speak more than one language. The same is true when Spanish speakers hear you speak Spanish. I have many Nicaraguan friends, and they all agree. When they hear an foreigner attempting to speak Spanish, they are impressed by that person, and appreciate the fact that you are learning their language. They don't judge or criticize your mistakes, in fact, they expect mistakes.
To summarize, people will completely understand that Spanish is not your first language. They actually expect mistakes, and know that grammar and pronunciation mistakes are completely normal. As soon as you realize this also, you’ll be having more conversations, which means more practice, which means better Spanish!
Mistake 5: Not Understanding the Importance of Pronunciation
Before I moved to Nicaragua, I spent months learning Spanish vocabulary by myself with flashcards. I thought I had a pretty decent vocabulary when I got there.
However, I was quickly frustrated that people could not understand me, even though I was certain I had memorized words correctly. I thought “I’m certain this is the definition that my flash cards taught me, why can’t they understand me.” Similarly, I couldn’t understand other people at all, even though I thought I had a decently large vocabulary. Also – I could read most Spanish, why was I not able to understand that same Spanish when the other person was talking?
The answer is that I learned Spanish vocabulary words with my own pronunciation. I knew all the letters in certain words, but I had no idea how that word was actually pronounced.
I had to basically re-learn the “right” way to say all those thousands of words I had learned by myself with flashcards. I would have saved so much time if I had learned the right pronunciation in the first place, and I want readers to learn from my mistakes. When learning Spanish vocabulary, you must always pay close attention to pronunciation. It will help you understand others, and it will help you communicate to others when you are certain you know how a word is spelled.
Many Spanish apps and online dictionaries will tell you how a word is pronounced, but they are truly no substitute for hearing from a live, native Spanish speaker.
However, be careful that emphasizing pronunciation doesn't lead to the opposite problem - worrying too much about pronunciation. It is completely unnecessary, and a waste of time, to try for perfect pronunciation. Remember, the goal is communication. You don't need to say it perfectly for the other person to understand. However, it needs to be close enough that they can understand.
Learning Spanish is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will surely require a lot of time and work. Everybody makes mistakes, and you will inevitably see things you should have done differently. The best way to accelerate your Spanish is to know what the common mistakes are, and try to consciously avoid them as much as possible. I could have cut my learning time in half if I knew what to look out for in the beginning. However, with this advice, you can limit these mistakes.
So, I want you to relax, recognize it's a marathon, and keep learning. Don't overthink it, and just try to communicate. Practice with an app such as Babbel or Rosetta Stone. Speak with a Spanish-speaking friend. Watch movies in Spanish. If you want professional help, Hablamos Today offers both formal grammar lessons, and conversation immersion sessions. You can do it, and we want to help you.
Do you have additional mistakes that should be added to the list? Do you have any disagreements with me about what is/is not important? Please let us know in the comments!
Hi! I'm Creighton, a co-founder of Hablamos Today. I moved to Nicaragua in 2016, hoping to escape the rat race, learn Spanish, and start a business.