The following errors are five really simple things that we did wrong for a long time without even knowing it. They are also errors that I hear a lot of English speakers make when they are learning Spanish. If you can drop these five little errors you will make a big jump forward with your ability to speak Spanish.
1. Un otro/una otra doesn’t exist. – This is one that I still catch myself on from time to time. We are so used to saying another in English that tacking on the un/una in front of the word otro/otra when asking for another of something is just ingrained in our way of speaking. IT’S WRONG!
Drop the un/una. For example, if you are ordering another beer you say otra cerveza por favor.
2. Demasiado mucho doesn’t exist – When we learn Spanish most of us are taught that the word demasiado means too, as in too much. This is true, things can be demasiado grande (too big), demasiado pequeño (too small), or demasiado caro (too expensive).
So if there is too much of something it makes sense to us to say demasiado mucho. WRONG! It’s just demasiado. Habia demasiado trafico (The was too much traffic), demasiado gente (too many people), demasiado ruido (too much noise), etc.
3. Cuál es vs. Qué es – This one is pretty simple once you get it straight in your head. The literal translation of qué is what, and the literal translation of cuál is which. This is what we learn when we are first learning Spanish. However, cuál can also be translated as what in some specific instances.
Qué es: is used for what is when you are either asking a question about a specific thing (i.e. there is no choice involved).
Ex: ¿Qué es Día de Muertos? ¿Qué es la bandeja paisa? ¿Qué es el fútbol?
Cuál es: is used when asking a question where there is a choice involved. In other words, you are not referring to a specific thing.
Ex: ¿Cuál es tu pelicula favorita? ¿Cuál es lo mejor restaurante de tu ciudad? ¿Cuál es tu preferencia?
4. Present Gerund to express a future action doesn’t exist - OK, this sounds pretty complicated, but it’s not.
Let’s look at one simple example: My mother is coming on Friday.
You might be tempted to translate this as: Mi madre está viniendo el viernes. – WRONG!
In Spanish it is translated as: Mi madre va a venir el viernes.
The rule here is that estar + gerund is really used only to express a current action. Estoy trabajando – I am working (in this moment).
Future actions are commonly expressed using the present tense of the verb ir + infinitive. I am working tomorrow – Voy a trabajar mañana.
5. Poder is not used for abilities – From day one when we learn Spanish we are taught that poder means to be able (Or as my first Spanish professor in Guatemala put it “to can”). Poder is one of the most used verbs out there, but despite meaning to be able, it is not used when talking about abilities.
For example in English if we say “Can you swim?” we take this to mean the same thing as “Do you know how to swim?”
If we translate this directly into Spanish and say “¿Puedes nadar?” what we are really asking is “Can you swim right now?”, that is “Can you jump in the water at this moment and start swimming?”
Instead in Spanish we only use the verb saber. “¿Sabes nadar?” – “Do you know how to swim?”
This goes for all abilities:
Can you dance? - ¿Sabes bailar?
Can you play the guitar? – ¿Sabes tocar la guitarra?
Can you read? – ¿Sabes leer?