10 problems Spanish learners have when speaking English

Sometimes it feels as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall. No matter how many times you tell your Spanish students to say: “She has blue eyes” they continue to say “She has eyes blues.

cats eyes

Blue eyes or eyes blues?

What’s their problem?

Are they lazy?

Are they stupid?

Do they not listen to you?

Before you start blaming THEM, think about your own second language learning history for a minute.

Are there any mistakes you make over and over again?

If your answer is NO, I’m not convinced you are being 100% honest.

The truth is that we all make mistakes when using our second language.

It’s entirely natural to do so because our use of our second language is always influenced by our native tongue.

In this blog, I’m going to point out 10 reasons why Spanish speakers make certain errors. Knowing about these problems may help you and your students find ways to resolve them.

1. How many vowel sounds are there in Spanish? How many in English?

Spanish has 5 vowel sounds and English has….12. The other problem is that the length of the vowel sound is not an important feature which leads to classic misunderstandings such as: In Spain, there are many hot bitches!

2. Consonants also cause problems for Spanish speakers. Some English phonemes have equivalents in Spanish but others are distinctive sounds.

Ζ /∫ / ð / ν / ʤ / ʒ /  h have no real match in Spanish.

How many consonant clusters can you spot?

How many consonant clusters can you spot?

3. Consonant Clusters are far more common in English than in Spanish. A simple word (for native English speakers) like ‘breakfast’ is tough for Spaniards who will often pronounce it ‘brefas’ and omit the ‘f’ and the final ‘t’ because they are attached to another consonant. They also need a run-up to manage names like ‘Stephen’ and insert a vowel sound before the first cluster of s / t and will often say ‘Estephen’.

4. The relationship in English between pronunciation and orthography (sound and spelling) is a nightmare for Spanish speakers because these two aspects are joined at the hip in their language. Words sound as they are spelled and are spelled like they sound. This is clearly not the case in English.

5. Whereas English is generally categorised as a stress-timed language, Spanish is usually considered to be a syllable-timed language. In English, we would put the beat on the content syllables in this sentence:

The Beatles were bigger than Elvis.

A Spanish speaker might pronounce each syllable equally and this might sound robotic to English speaker ears and we might struggle to identify the key content.

The / Beat / les / were / big / ger / than / El / vis.

6. The Spanish language doesn’t really have contracted forms in the same way as English. This means they can’t always hear them (I’ll see you tomorrow: Yes, I see you tomorrow) or they misuse them (Are you Pedro? Yes, I’m).

El gato black

7. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (black cat) but the noun generally comes before the adjective in Spanish (cat black). The other problem is that we talk about ‘black cats’ in English but ‘gatos negros’ in Spanish. In other words, the adjective has a plural form which it doesn’t in English.

8. Asking questions with auxiliary verbs is a minefield for Spanish speakers. They often omit them and just use an affirmative form:

You are happy?

Sometimes they remember the auxiliary but put the main verb in the past tense to make sure they are understood:

Did you went to the party?

Question tags are also problematic due to the fact that there is a one-size fits all tag in Spanish (You are hungry, no?) unlike English which is far more structurally complex.

9. Subject personal pronouns (I, You, She, He, We, It, They) are often unnecessary in Spanish as the form of the main verb identifies the subject. This is why you’ll hear Spanish speakers say things like:

Is Bob here?’  ‘Yes, is here.’

It is possible to pass the exam?’  ‘Yes. is possible.’

dog and cat

Friends for real?

10. False friends. Your Spanish students may surprise you with the depth and complexity of their vocabulary. However, these words are often cognates (similar words in two languages such as intelligent and inteligente) and derive from Latin. This can be beneficial to Spanish students who can often understand complex authentic texts in English. On the other hand, just as English speakers often change English suffixes to Spanish ones to form words (apparently to apparentemente), Spanish speakers often try to use a Spanish word only to find that it has a very different meaning in English.

This is a topic I’ll be returning to in a future post but I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excuses for missing a lesson:

Pedro: ‘Sorry professor, I couldn’t assist the class because of my strong constipation.’

So, next time, you groan inwardly or outwardly about a repeated error made by your Spanish students, cut them some slack but explain why they are wrong.

Bibliography:  Swan, M & Smith, B. Learner English. Cambridge. 2001.

Are there any other major differences between Spanish and English which cause problems?


About dilano71

TEFL teacher trainer
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17 Responses to 10 problems Spanish learners have when speaking English

  1. ale7 says:

    Thanks for this post! I was in such a bad mood today after struggling again and again with some mistakes made by some of my students that reading your post and finding in it similarities with my situation has been quite consoling. The mistakes your Spanish students make are, more or less, the same my Italian students make. As you know the two languages are quite similar and using the auxiliary verb when asking a question is something they really can’t understand. I can’t tell the times they have asked me why the English are so strange :)
    I must confess,anyway, I like when they do this because each time it is a good opportunity to talk about cultures and languages and so on.
    I’m sure they will tell me again and again that they usually go somewhere “for visit their parents” or “for buy new clothes” because it sounds so ok to them :).

    • dilano71 says:

      Thanks for your comment. Your point about using these differences to open up the conversation and discuss cultural aspects is a really important one. It’s interesting how we all think other languages are strange but that’s only because we contrast them with our mother tongue and forget about how messy and irregular our language can appear to non-native speakers.

    • magda says:

      Hi! I work as an EFL teacher in Mexico and I’m working on a research… I have many many problems with my students learning the simple present tense. Have you ever had problems with this? I think it is because of the pronunciation of phonemes like: ms in the verb “seems” or ts in “distracts”, we usually don’t pronounce these phonemes together en spanish… what do you think? Have you had this type of problem with your students?

      • dilano71 says:

        Hi Magda, I agree that consonant clusters are not common in Spanish so there is a tendency to insert a vowel sound (often a ‘ee’) between consonants. There is a chapter on Spanish speakers and their problems with English in Michael Swan’s Learner English. If you can find a copy, that may help with your research.

  2. Will says:

    I have exactly the same problem. I teach English in Cambodia and in Khmer (the native language) the colour is always “blue sky” and not “sky blue”. There is a chair red and not a red chair! In Khmer, the adjective usually comes before the noun, in English it’s the opposite. Can be so frustrating at times! I always calming and clearly explain the mistake, and I’m slowly changing them one student at a time!

  3. You make some really interesting points that are particularly good for teachers who don’t speak and understand Spanish. These are some of the many reasons that have led me to adapt my English teaching to my market, i.e. exclusively Spanish and Catalan speakers. The profound understanding I have developed of Spanish and Catalan, living and working here as a teacher and a translator and being married to a Spanish woman, has had a profound impact on every aspect of my teaching and professional life.

    • dilano71 says:

      I think one of the main problems with most TEFL courses is that context is not really considered. Until fairly recently in ELT, using the student’s language in class was frowned upon as ‘immersion’ was the key to acquiring a second language. However, when you’ve taught in monolingual classes, you start to realise that knowing your students’ language enables you to identify the cause of their language problems and this can definitely help to deal with them effectively.

  4. Pilar Elias says:

    Hi! I loved your post. There is also the context attached to words. In Spanish, being emotional and crying is a good thing. In English, if you say you were so emotional you cried it is NOT a good situation, it is downright embarassing! So, culture also attaches a “load” other than a strict meaning.

  5. andrewbcbilbaofce says:

    I agree with the point about culture. Cultural assumptions are a whole can of worms and it is only by having some insight into a learner’s culture that we can begin to “unpick” a learner’s mind and “re-programme” the English-language part of it! A few random examples of problems caused by cultural “baggage”:
    * English has no “madrugada”, but afternoon begins at 12.01, not after lunch; Spanish has afternoon and evening rolled into one; Good day (archaic) and goodnight signify a departure in English but an arrival in Spanish.
    * Many terms in English do not have Spanish equivalents which are concise (anti-clockwise); precise (upside down/back to front/inside out) or accurate (lock the door)
    * Ordinal numbers in Spanish seem to fizzle out after twenty, whereas English goes up to the ninety-ninth, millionth and trillionth example!
    * There are no concise/precise terms in English for manco, tuerto, bizco or birojo.
    * Despite the fact that the word “sandwich” originates in England, we do not distinguish between a bocadillo and a sandwich (baguette is cheating!)
    * English runs out of words for fungi/mushrooms after about two or three (“toadstool” seems a particularly useless word outside fairy tales, as some are edible, whilst some mushrooms are poisonous. Spanish fungal lexis goes on forever. Ditto seafood and even vegetables (Why don’t we have legumbres? Boo, unfair!) and common or garden lettuce
    * English, bizarrely, does not have a separate adjective for a person or thing from New Zealand!

    • dilano71 says:

      Fascinating stuff here. Thanks for sharing it. I love the fact that there are words like manco (one-armed person and tuerto (one-eyed) in Spanish and I wonder about the etymology of these terms – worth checking on google.

  6. traveller says:

    With the advance of international English, the pressure of strong languages like Spanish and Russian modify and enrich the English vocabulary (and perhaps even word order) as we know it. The process is slow and new words force their way into English as mistakes but then slowly become lexicalised. “Metro” for subway is a good example.
    Another interesting example is “I learned him this or that” . This reflects the lexical reality in many unrelated languages (one single verb for “teach” and “learn) so a Portuguese and an Arab saying this in English would perfectly understand each other and never need to use “teach”. .

    • dilano71 says:

      Great comment thanks. Historically, English has always been open to modification and I think this is one of the reasons why it has become an international language. Your point about ‘mistakes’ becoming lexicalised is a valid one which is leading to the emergence of new varieties and an international variety (English as a lingua franca). This may result in native speakers needing to acquire this new variety in order to participate in global discussions.

  7. Ed1234 says:

    Very useful post for spanish students!!! Thanks so much!

  8. yesucanspeak says:

    Reblogged this on YesUcanSpeak and commented:
    Speaking needs time and practice but mistakes can be corrected with focus.

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