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Difficulties in Spanish

Spanish is often thought to be an easy language to learn, but there are a number of areas of grammar and usage which are hard for English-native speakers to get right, even after years of practice. A notorious difficulty is the correct use of ser and estar. The differences in usage are fully examined at the entries for be, ser and estar. Readers are recommended to study these entries with their contrasting examples. In addition many adjectival entries are specifically marked to guide the user to correct usage, see aburrido, bueno, entendido. Similarly para and por can be difficult to use correctly and again readers are recommended to refer to these entries. The following provides some further hints of where it is easy to make mistakes in Spanish.

Lexical difficulties

Within the Indo-European family of languages, English belongs to the Germanic group, whereas Spanish is a Romance language, with its roots in vulgar Latin. Nonetheless, many English words come from Latin and Spanish words like accidente, enciclopedia, inteligencia, situación, etc. are transparent to the English speaker. These are true friends; they mean the same thing. However, there are also many false friends. These are either words that have a common root but have taken on different meanings over time, or words that just look similar. Below is a list of some false friends. Often more than one translation is possible, so check the relevant entry in the dictionary for more information.

Spanish English translation English look-alike Spanish translation
actual: present: actual: real:
la situación actual the present situation the actual cost el costo/coste real
actualmente: currently: actually: en realidad:
actualmente viven en París they are currently living in Paris he's actually a lot older en realidad es mucho mayor
atender: to pay attention: attend: asistir a:
no atiende en clase he never pays attention in class she didn’t attend the meeting no asistió a la reunión
decepción: disappointment: deception: engaño:
fue una gran decepción it was such a disappointment a cruel deception un cruel engaño
disgustado: upset: disgusted: indignado:
está muy disgustada con lo sucedido she's very upset about what happened he was disgusted at the way we’d been treated estaba indignado por la forma en que nos habían tratado
éxito: success: exit: salida:
la perseverancia es la clave del éxito perseverance is the key to success where's the exit? ¿dónde está la salida?
genial: brilliant, great: genial: simpático:
una idea genial a great idea a genial character una persona simpática
gentil: kind: gentle: suave:
gracias, eres muy gentil thank you, that's very kind of you a gentle voice una voz suave
jubilación: 1) retirement: jubilation: júbilo:
1) su inminente jubilación his imminent retirement scenes of jubilation escenas de júbilo
2) cobra una buena jubilación 2) pension he gets a good pension
librería: bookstore: library: biblioteca:
en venta en todas las buenas librerías available from all good bookstores I borrowed it from the library lo saqué de la biblioteca
pinchar: to burst: pinch: pellizcar:
se divertía pinchando los globos he was having fun bursting the balloons don’t pinch me! ¡no me pellizques!
preservativo: condom: preservative: conservante:
un paquete de preservativos a packet of condoms without artificial colorings or preservatives sin colorantes ni conservantes artificiales
pretender: to expect: pretend fingir:
pretendía que lo hiciera yo she expected me to do it he pretended not to notice fingió no darse cuenta
sanidad: public health: sanity: cordura:
el gasto en sanidad spending on public health to preserve your sanity mantener la cordura
sensible: sensitive: sensible: sensato:
una mujer frágil y sensible a fragile, sensitive woman at your age you should be more sensible a tu edad deberías ser más sensato
Contrast the following:
simpático: nice, pleasant:
gente simpática y cordial nice, friendly people
sympathetic: comprensivo:
his boss was sympathetic su jefe se mostró comprensivo
truculento: horrifying:
la truculenta historia de su asesinato the horrifying story of his murder
truculent: malhumorado y agresivo:
the service was slow and the staff truculent el servicio era lento y los empleados malhumorados y agresivos

There are cases where the English and Spanish words share a number of meanings but they diverge in one or more senses. These are known as partial false friends. The difficulty here is that often it is the meaning that does not exist in English that seems to be the most frequent or important in Spanish. Here are a few examples:

Spanish word English look-alike Spanish Word also means
asistir assist = to attend: no podré asistir I won’t be able to attend no asistió a la reunion he didn’t attend the meeting
agenda agenda = diary: lo anotó en su agenda he wrote it down in his diary
dirección direction = address: ¿tienes su dirección? have you got her address?
coincidir to coincide = to agree: coincidimos en que ya no hacía falta we agreed that it was no longer necessary
declarar to declare = to give evidence: Morales declaró ante el juez durante dos horas Morales gave evidence in court for two hours
denunciar to denounce = to report: denunciaron el atraco inmediatamente a la policía municipal they immediately reported the hold-up to the municipal police
embarazo embarrassment = pregnancy: durante el embarazo during pregnancy
exposición exposition = exhibition: una exposición retrospectiva de la obra de... a retrospective exhibition of the work of...
formidable formidable = tremendous, great: una idea formidable a tremendous idea
importante important = considerable, significant: sufrieron importantes pérdidas they suffered considerable losses
manifestación manifestation = demonstration: una manifestación en contra de la guerra a demonstration against the war
posibilidad possibility = opportunity: tuve la posibilidad de estudiar en Estados Unidos I had the opportunity of studying in the United States
profesor professor = teacher: mi profesor de inglés my English teacher
registrar to register = to search: registraron la casa del sospechoso the suspect's house was searched
sugestivo suggestive = stimulating: publicó un artículo sugestivo sobre el tema he published a stimulating article on the subject
vital vital = life (before noun): su ciclo vital dura sólo cuatro semanas its life cycle lasts only four weeks

Grammatical difficulties

The subjunctive mood

The use of the subjunctive is very frequent in Spanish and often causes native speakers of English difficulties. This is a summary of its main uses.

1) wishes or commands:
prefiero que no se entere I’d rather she didn’t find out
ojalá fuera más cariñoso I wish he was more affectionate
papá dice que esperes dad wants you to wait/dad says wait
2) conditions:
si tuviera un hobby, no se aburriría if he had a hobby, he wouldn’t be bored
siempre y cuando no llueva as long as it doesn’t rain
no iré a menos que se disculpe I’m not going unless he apologizes
aunque lo supiera, no te lo diría even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you
3) emotional reactions, attitudes or judgements:
siento que no puedas venir I’m sorry you can’t come
me sorprende que no haya llamado I’m surprised he hasn’t phoned
es ridículo que digas eso it's ridiculous that you should say that
tengo miedo de que se ofenda I’m worried she might take offence
4) hope:
espero que te guste I hope you like it
ojalá tengan éxito I hope they succeed
5) intention:
te lo digo para que lo sepas I’m telling you so that you know
ponlo de manera que todos podamos verlo put it so that we can all see it
6) doubt, uncertainty:
dudo que entienda I doubt he’ll understand
no creo que lo sepa I don’t think he knows
no estoy seguro de que sea ella I’m not sure it's her

Compare the above examples with the certainty and near certainty of the following: estoy seguro de que es ella (I’m sure it's her) and creo que lo sabe (I think he knows), where the indicative is used.

7) possibility:
quizás llame más tarde maybe he’ll phone later
no quiero arriesgarme a que me vea I don’t want to risk her seeing me
lo más probable es que acepte she’ll most probably accept
Oxford University Press