11 Common Mistakes Spanish Learners Make and How to Fix Them

The Most Common Mistakes Spanish Students Make

Over the years of teaching my wife created a list of the most common mistakes students make when learning Spanish. To help you make sure you’re not making the same mistakes, today I am going to share the list with you. Are you guilty of any of these?

Cognates and False Friends

There are thousands of words in Spanish and English that not only look and sound the same, but also have the same meaning, which makes learning a little easier. These words are usually cognates. Words that have the same linguistic origin. Conversely, there are also dozens of words in Spanish that appear to be the same, but have very different meanings. These are called false friends. False friends can be frustrating and confusing, and may even put you in embarrassing situations where you think you know what someone is talking about, but later find out you misunderstood the whole conversation just because you didn’t know the right meaning of one simple word. We have all been there, feeling ashamed having to explain to someone that the other day when we went to the movies we were not actually “exitados de ver la película” but instead “emocionados de ver la película.” Awkward! So I’m going to help you win the battle against some of these horrible opponents we call false friends.

1. Realizar ≠ To realize:

The word “realizar” means “to do” or “to accomplish something.”

“Realize” in Spanish is “darse cuenta” (conjugation: Yo ME doy cuenta, Tú TE das cuenta, El/ Ella SE da cuenta, Nosotros NOS damos cuenta, Ustedes/ Ellos/ Ellas SE dan cuenta).

2. Embarazada ≠ Embarrassed

“Embarazada” means “pregnant.”

If you want to say “embarrassed” in Spanish, you’d say “avergonzado” or “avergonzada”

3. Parientes ≠ Parents

“Parientes” means “relatives”.

“Parents” is “padres” in Spanish.

4. Suceso ≠ Success:

“Suceso” means “event”.

If you want to say “success” in Spanish you’d say “éxito.”

5. Introducir ≠ To introduce

“Introducir” means “to put in,” “to insert,” or “to enter.”

“To introduce someone” is “presentar”.

6. Actualmente ≠ Actually

“Actualmente” means “nowadays,” “in this day and age,” “now”, and “at the moment”.

There’s no exact way to say “actually” in Spanish, but these are some options: “La verdad es que,” “de hecho,” “en realidad.”

7. Soportar ≠ Support:

“Soportar” means “to stand.”

“To support” is “apoyar”.

8. Sentencia ≠ Sentence

“Sentencia” in Spanish is the punishment given by the court or judge to a criminal.

The word in Spanish for “sentence” is “oración” or “frase.”

9. Colegio ≠ College

“Colegio” is any kind of private school (elementary school, highschool, any school that’s private).

The word for “college” in Spanish is “universidad”.

10. Buscando para ≠ Looking for:

This is not a false cognate, but a case of a literal translation gone wrong.

“Buscando para” is what many English Speakers say instead of “Looking for.”

“Buscando para” is wrong. It doesn’t exist. If you want to say “looking for” in Spanish say only “buscando”.

11. Ser vs Estar:

Ser and estar can get really complicated to learn since they seem to follow their own rules on how and when to use each of them. But the good news is that there is a very easy way to know when to use one or the other!

The main difference between these verbs is that:

-SER is most commonly used to talk about things that exists in a way that cannot be changed or that would be quite difficult to change.

  • Nationality
  • People’s physical appearance
  • People’s personality
  • Occupation

-On the other hand, ESTAR expresses a state, something that can change and/or varies from time to time.

  • Emotions
  • Locations
  • Weather
  • Temperature

Of course there are a few exceptions to this rule, but this is basically how SER and ESTAR work.

Knowing when to use ser or estar is not that complicated once you think about what you are describing. Just ask yourself “Is that permanent?” “Can that change at some point?” Then you will find it easier to know if you should go with one or the other.

Practice reading the above examples out loud, or even writing them down again. This will help make what you just learned stick. Keep a steady practice regimen, and you will make significant progress. You can even download the PDF with all of these phrases here:

Watch the video to hear the correct pronunciations:

Do you identify with this list? What did she miss?

The Most Common Mistakes Spanish Students Make

March 22, 2019


It's a good post, very interesting, thank you.

There are a few other areas where English speakers learning Spanish struggle:

  • Direct and indirect object pronouns
  • Definite and indefinite article use
  • Por v Para
  • Cual v Qué
March 22, 2019

You're right! Maybe I'll try to make a post about some of those as well. So many tricky aspects of Spanish. Especially the subjunctive.

March 22, 2019

Everyone makes the sopa/soap mistake!

Sopa = soup Jabón = soap

Also estar caliente is very commonly misused.

If you feel hot please use "tengo calor" My sister told a guy in a club in Madrid the wrong phrase, because it was very warm inside and she needed to cool off. He thought she was um.."hot and bothered" and wanted to go outside for some extracurricular activities. She was safe but avergonzada, and had to explain.

March 22, 2019

Great post I lingot you, thank you for your time and effort in making this thorough post, I learned a few new things in Spanish today from your post, I hope in the future you will continue making posts like these. It was excellent and VERY helpful

March 22, 2019

¡Gracias! I'm glad you found it useful. We made a video version too in case you want to hear the correct pronunciation:

I'll post more in the future.

¡Saludos! -Jim

March 22, 2019

Thank you! Suggest a clarification, something like: "Realizar ≠ To realize, to become aware". Plus a note, something like: 'To realize' in English can also mean 'to cause to happen, to accomplish', i.e. the same meaning as 'realizar'. (Examples: To realize/realise a dream---. It's one thing to make a plan but how do we realize/realise it?)

[EDIT: Similarly, I'd suggest please clarify that in English 'sentence' can mean a judge's sentence too and that 'phrase' is differentiated from '(language) sentence'. Thanks.]

March 22, 2019

the false cognates mentioned in the original post, tend to come about from english speakers, not really speaking english very well! the "false cognates" are actually (modern usage) cognates of older and therefore lesser-used english words

March 25, 2019

I like your and May's YouTube channel "Spanish and Go". People should check it out.

March 22, 2019

Thanks so much! We appreciate that. We have much more to come soon.

¡Saludos! -Jim

March 22, 2019

Thanks for the post. To make things even more confusing, there are often other meanings for false cognates that are close to being a cognate - for instance, in English, we can realize our dreams, and in Spanish, embarazoso means embarrassing.

March 22, 2019

Great points! Thanks for chiming in. We might have to make a part 2! Un saludo.

March 22, 2019

I remember when I was studying an Erasmus-semestre in Madrid and one night friends drove me and another German student more or less home in Madrid and the other German guy said "Gracias por conducirme" <-- how the spanish friends laughed, hahahaha

Like, "thanks for driving me!" "Danke dass Du mich gefahren hast"

(they said you should say "gracias que nos lleváste a casa, tío!")

March 22, 2019

I had to think about that for a second. But yes, unless you have a steering wheel on your body, they aren't driving YOU. A friend will carry you home "llevar a casa" instead. Good laugh.

March 22, 2019

Muy util!! The ser vs. estar is something I've been struggling with despite being on level 22! This helped a lot, thank you!! Here are a few lingots

March 22, 2019

Great post! Very helpful!!! :)

March 22, 2019

whoa thanks this helped

March 22, 2019

I find it interesting that éxito sounds like yet another English word (exit). Also, In English, "sentence" can be used to mean what sentencia means, but as you said, it does also mean frase/oración.

March 22, 2019

They are false friends, not false cognates. They are actually cognates, because they come from a Latín or French word.

It is an excellent summary (another false friend).

March 22, 2019

wow, i just have to say that this post helped me so much, and i'm only just starting to understand Spanish. Take a lingot for your help!

March 23, 2019

In Honduras (and I think most of Central America), el colegio is a secondary school (jr/sr high school) either public or private. La escuela is a primary (elementary school) or one of special training (Un escuela Bíblica). As you stated, post-secondary school is la universidad.

March 23, 2019

Muchas gracias. It's really helpful.

March 23, 2019

great list.

March 23, 2019

Can we chastise those who say "Rio Grande River" also?

Also, Salud Health Center is a real place, but sounds kind of redundant. I'm tempted to start calling them Ensalada Health Center.

March 26, 2019

Por vs Para?

March 23, 2019

Also forgetting accents...

March 23, 2019

Native Spanish speakers forget accents all the time too.

March 23, 2019

Thanks for sharing this. Since introduce has multiple meanings in English, does it also in Spanish? Could it be used as in introducing a person but it's just more common to use the verb, presentar?? or is it never used for that purpose?

March 23, 2019

Introducir is "to put" or, figuratively, "to add"/"to enable", it is never "presentar".

March 24, 2019


March 24, 2019


March 24, 2019

Thankyou for the very helpful post. I sent you a lingot.

March 24, 2019

Glad you found it useful! ¡Gracias!

March 26, 2019

Your list of false-cognates includes Spanish words that do have cognates in English.

For example "Sentancia" and "Sentence" are cognates. El criminal recibe una SENTANCIA leve. The criminal is receiving a light SENTENCE.

And "realizar" and "realize." You can REALIZE your goals with diligence and a little hard work. Puedes REALIZAR tus metas con diligencia y un poco de trabajo duro.

Sometimes English words of Latin origin will gain additional meanings but often the original Latin (and by extension, Spanish) meaning is retained in at least some of the uses of the word.

March 25, 2019

The list doesn't have false cognates (words that look similar and have similar meaning, but they don't have the same origin. i.e.: isla - island). It is a list of cognates that are usually false friends.

March 25, 2019

buscando para is actually buscando por. as in "estaba buscando por ti" etc.

March 22, 2019

Or just "Te estaba buscando".

March 22, 2019

I am level 75 and still struggle with estar vs ser, so thank you for putting up this post.

March 25, 2019

Thank you very much. Useful even though I am french-speaking.

March 25, 2019

Love this entry and love you for making it!

March 25, 2019

¡De nada! :)

March 26, 2019

You can't said "de nada" if the other person didn't thank you. To say you are welcome you can say "encantado" or "fue un placer".

April 2, 2019
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