Common mistakes of Spanish-speaking English learners

AKA Annals of English learners: the blog post

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, most of my employment consisted of teaching English to Spanish speakers in corporate environments in Buenos Aires. I did my best to teach them English, considering the circumstances, but they also taught me a lot of Spanglish. Those mistakes, common in Spanish speaking learners, were the subject of a video series on my youtube channel that I called Annals of English learners. This is a bit of a companion piece to it. This post is mostly intended for teachers, but maybe learners can benefit from it too.

1- Wait me; explain me

Saying wait me or explain me instead of wait for me and explain (it) to me. The reason is Spanish, of course: in Spanish esperar can take a person as its object without the need for a preposition, so that esperame = wait for me; the same is true of explicar: explicame = explain (it) to me. An historical aside: the use explain with me, which reminds me of the still current visit with me, used to be acceptable in English.

2- The important is

In English, in order to “turn an adjective into a nominal phrase”, you can use the article the before the adjective and some sort of dummy word like one or thing after, as in the important thing is or the intelligent one is. Spanish requires no dummy word, and only requires the appropriate article. So, because lo importante = the important thing and el/la inteligente = the intelligent one, mistakes like the important is… are very common.

3- Because vs. Because of

It is pretty common for Spanish speakers to mix up because and because of. This is not really due to interference from Spanish, because Spanish also has this distinction: porque = because, por = because of. In my opinion, the problem is that usually nobody (including the textbooks) bothers to drive this point home pointing to the parallel difference in Spanish.

4- Exists a company

In English, to indicate that something exists, you usually say there is if the thing is singular and there are if the thing is plural. You can also say there exists and there exist, but these alternatives are very formal and relatively uncommon (because of this, usually learners are not aware that they exist). In Spanish, you can say hay = there is/there are or existe/existen = there exists/there exist.

What happens here is that, first of all, there is/there are is difficult for Spanish speakers to get right, because of the singular/plural distinction which does not exist in Spanish (something Italian speakers would have no trouble with). Because of that, they tend to avoid it; and also, in Spanish saying existe/existen is much more common and less stuffy than there exists/there exist. So you encounter the common mistake exists a company that…

5- I will open you; we have to sell them

It is very common for a teacher to hear open you and sell them instead of open the door for you and sell to them. This is textbook interference, and here is why: in Spanish, you can say te abro = you-OBJECT I-will-open meaning te abro la puerta = i will open the door for you. Concurrently, you can also say venderles, because in Spanish third person object pronouns clearly indicate when such object is indirect, and when it is direct. So in Spanish, sell them would be venderlos/venderlas and sell to them = venderles. The distinction does not exist in English, which makes a preposition indispensable. But a non-native speaker will not easily and readily adopt the English sentence structure when it conflicts with the one already present in his native language, especially when it requires adding or taking out words, or changing the word order.

6- I am agree

In Spanish, the most common way to express agreement formally is to say estoy de acuerdo. In other words, in Spanish agreeing is not a single verb, but a phrase using the verb estar, meaning roughly be. So Spanish speakers, after learning the English personal pronouns, and be and agree, commonly say I am agree, he is agree…

7- They problems

This one has to do with pronunciation, and is my favorite Spanish speaker mistake. This is because, by pure accident, it almost perfectly emulates some dialectal and sociolectal pronunciations of the usually homophonous words they’re, their, there.

To begin with, Spanish speakers (and foreign language speakers in general) who learn English in class and rarely speak to native speakers, as opposed to people who learn it interacting with natives, are not aware that they’re – their – there sound the same in English. They are also not aware of the fact that these words have another pronunciation when unstressed (though they are also homophonous with each other when unstressed). This, along with their greater exposure to written English than spoken English, means they will rarely mix these words up when writing English.

So, when Spanish speakers say these words, they do not reduce them when they are unstressed, and also do not pronounce them in the same way. They usually pronounce there as a two syllable word (ˈde.aɾ in broad transcription of a broad foreign accent). They seldom say they’re, saying they are instead, even when reading they’re aloud. And when saying their, under the influence of the spelling, they try to approximate something like ðeɪɹ, which is pretty much impossible to say (and not just for non-natives). So, in the best case scenario it comes out like ðeɪ (homophonous with they), or in a broad accent like de̯i (homophonous with they and day).

And that’s how Spanish speakers get to saying they problems, a pronunciation otherwise found in parts of the American South and in African American English.

8- They’re not going to bit you

Spanish does not have what is known in linguistics as non-concatenative morphology, i.e. the derivation or inflection of a word by means other than affixes (of which suffixes and prefixes are the best known examples for both speakers of Spanish and English). Examples of this in English are apophony, which is a change in the vowel of the root form of the word (singular foot, plural feet), and consonant mutation, which is a change in a consonant, which in English usually happens in the last consonant of the word in question (noun house haʊs, verb house haʊz).

In Spanish, there are changes to root vowels in the case of conjugated verbs, but those changes are also accompanied by a suffix. In English, on the other hand, many irregular verbs, or strong verbs, are inflected in their past tense and participle forms by root vowel changes alone. Examples of this are sit, sat, sat; ring, rang, rung; bite, bit, bitten. Spanish speakers, if they’re lucky, learn these in context when reading or listening; but usually learn them by pure rote. Because of this and the lack of a suffix (especially in the past tense form), they remember the forms, but have a hard time remembering which is which. So they say things like they’re not going to bit you.

9- Pepsi is worst

Spanish has no separate forms for the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, using only the definite article to mark the difference. Where English says Pepsi is worse than Coke and Fanta is the worst in my opinion, Spanish says la Pepsi es peor que la Coca and creo que la Fanta es la peor. So, you would expect to find examples like Fanta is the worse (= worst) and I think Pepsi is worst (= worse) in equal parts. However, usually examples of misuse of worst are more common than examples of misuse of worse.

Here is my theory as to why: sometimes, a student will attempt to say Pepsi is worst than Coke, but because of the three-consonant long cluster created by worst than, it will come out as Pepsi is worse than Coke. This sounds perfectly right and the student will not be corrected, and rightly so. Getting something right by accident is still getting something right. Because the student is aware of the pronunciation difficulty involved in saying worst, sometimes when they are being corrected on the use of worse vs. worst, they assume that they are being corrected on pronunciation (i.e. pronouncing s instead of st), not on using the wrong word. This reinforces the overuse of worst.

10- Thanks god

This one is textbook interference. In Spanish, you say gracias a dios (thanks (be given) to god), so instead of thank god they often say thanks god. Teachers will also find themselves saying that when their students get this one right thanks to them.

(As a last note, how should we interpret thank god? Does it mean let’s thank god or thank god! (imperative)? What do you think?)

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