Posted in Spanish learners

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?


I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

10 thoughts on “10 problems Spanish learners have when speaking English

  1. I struggled learning the English language for many years due to my busy schedule and tight budget. My goal is to speak and comprehend English like a native, and to find the best English teacher on Skype. I am really pleased that a website like exists to help me find a English teacher online. I get to learn 1 to 1 English lessons and converse with a very good teacher. I don’t have to be physically present to go to a class. All I need is internet access and get online through Skype. I want you to experience this. Check it out and see for your self 🙂

  2. great points about linguistic transfers, and the need for the TEFL teacher to consider social linguistic patterns in the students’ native language in order to address the mistaken transfers. Using these mistaken transfers serve as excellent leanring moments and mini lessons. As a linguist, it cannot be stresses enough that good English language teachers should have a basic foundation in the study of linguistics, specifically phonology and phonetics. Thanks for your great insight and advise for the TEFL teacher community. I teach Colombian students in an American school in Colombia, and many of these students get to 12th grade still saying “I can go to the bathroom?”

  3. I have just started to teach English to a Spanish couple in Holland. I speak no Spanish and they do not speak Dutch, so your comments have all been very usefull. Pat Jennison – English national living and teaching in Eindhoven.

  4. What about the perpetual “a travel” or “My town had a party” (they haven’t checked the definition of ‘a fiesta’ in the Cambridge English dictionary). Then there is the sometimes heard and (probably) unintentionally personal “I don’t understand *you*” (=student thinking in Spanish and translating ‘no te/le entiendo’ directly, without realising the error/cultural difference).

    In fact it was one of my more very able students (thanks Alberto, if you get to read this!) who first told me an anecdote about this from his own personal experience. Apparently, he went into a business meeting and, during some conversation, said those exact English words to someone over the table. As he said, “I knew from the instant ‘look of death’ I got, that I’d said something wrong!”.


  5. Hi there! This is a great post. I found it by chance doing a google research, but maybe somebody can help me out.
    I am from Spain and ended up in USA teaching Spanish to children in kindergarten, first and second grade. I am having some difficulties with the second grade teacher… she gets mad when I try to teach the vowels, she says kids get confused and fail english tests (or some other tests, I don’t know) afterwards. She said this happened last year and happened last time they learned the vowels for first time. I really don’t want to bother her, but it feels important to me that they learn that special sounds when they are little. And they do it so good! even better than second graders. I tried to find an article or something to support my posture, but I can’t find anything.
    I appreciate any kind of help please.

  6. May Day! Some Spanish speaking students learning English in California are mad at me, their profe for checking them on yelling “a la berga” at the top of their lungs every ten seconds. They told my boss I say the word stupid. Not estupido. They don’t seem to understand swearing is swearing, Spanish and English have different swear words. What’s la profe gonna do? Odale, pues.

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