Five Common Pitfalls for English Speakers Learning Spanish to Avoid

English speakers encounter many pitfalls when they are learning Spanish. Below are five of the most common ones.

El día, el problema not la día, la problema

The often-repeated phrase ‘no problemo’ is actually incorrect Spanish. The correct thing to say is ‘no hay problema.’ One of the first things that is taught when learning Spanish is the fact that all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Generally speaking, nouns that end in ‘a’ are feminine and nouns that end in ‘o’ are masculine, but this is not always the case. Two of the more commonly misused words are ‘día’ and ‘problema,’ which are both masculine even though they end in ‘a.’

 Tengo 15 años not Soy 15 años

Even though it may sound wrong when literally translated by English-speakers, in Spanish, when talking about age, we use the verb ‘tener’ (tengo) even though it means ’to have.’ General rule of thumb: literal translations can be problematic.


 English Speakers Learning Spanish Students very often get mixed up with the meaning of the verbs asistir and atender.

To take a line from the movie The Princess Bride: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’  

 The verbs asistir and atender are false cognates. Asistir means ‘to attend’ and atender means ‘to assist.’


 The verbs mirar/buscar and mirar/ver are often confused. Mirar means ‘to look at’ while buscar means ‘to look (search) for’ and ver means ‘to look at (to see).’  The differences between mirar and ver is a topic for another time.

Ser vs. estar

 The verbs ser and estar both mean ‘to be’ but cannot be used interchangeably. For English speakers, this is one of the trickiest concepts to understand and use well.  Basically, ser is used to describe permanent characteristics and estar is used to talk about temporary conditions (like being sick) and location. Although this is a very simplistic definition, I have attached a worksheet which includes a more comprehensive explanation of these two verbs and some practice exercises.          

Tackling and conquering many of these rookie grammar mistakes is one way to move past the novice/beginner level of Spanish and therefore begin taking that first step toward foreign language fluency.


Ser vs Estar Worksheet

The Spanish verbs ser and estar both mean ‘to be’ but cannot be used interchangeably.  Generally, ser is used to describe permanent characteristics and estar is used to talk about temporary conditions (like being sick) and location.

When to use ser

The acronym DOCTOR is often used to help students remember when to use ser.


Description Es un día bonito. It’s a pretty day.
Occupation Nosotros somos estudiantes. We are students.
Characteristic Ellas son inteligentes. They are intelligent.
Time Son las 3:00 de la tarde. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon.
Origin Mario es de Bolivia. Mario is from Bolivia.
Relationship Nosotros somos hermanos. We are brothers.


When to use estar


Position Mi perro está debajo de la mesa. My dog is under the table.
Location* Ellos están en Washington D.C. They are in Washington D.C.
Action Vosotros estáis corriendo. You (all) are running.
Condition ¿Estás tú enfermo? Are you sick?
Emotion Yo estoy cansada. I’m tired.

*When talking about an event’s location (a party, a concert, etc…) you use ser.

Choose estar or ser to complete the following sentences.

  1. Esta camisa ______de seda.
  2. Tú y yo _____________ comiendo.
  3. Yo __________ en los Estados Unidos.
  4. La fiesta ________________ esta noche.
  5. Hemos trabajado mucho y _____________ cansadas.
  6. ¿Qué hora ________?
  7. Mis padres __________ alquilando una casa de playa.
  8. Yo ___________ de Guatemala.
  9. Vosotros ____________buenos estudiantes.
  10. ¿Dónde __________ tú?


Answer Key:  1. es      2. estamos     3.  estoy     4.  es     5.  estamos     6.  es     7.  están     8.  soy     9.  sois      10.  estás


Diana Lamolinara is a native speaker of Spanish who has lived in the Spanish-speaking countries of Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Spain. She also lived several years in Italy, where she studied Italian. Mrs. Lamolinara has a BS in Business Administration and a BA in Foreign Language Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. Diana has been teaching Spanish to students of all levels from preschool to AP for over 25 years. She is a former homeschool mom. In addition to teaching, Diana enjoys reading, exercising, cooking and taking long walks with her dog in the woods. The Lord has blessed Diana and her husband with four children and three grandchildren.

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