7 Embarrassing Mistakes English Speakers Make In Spanish — And How to Avoid Them

We all make mistakes when trying to speak Spanish, but the most embarrassing ones can be avoided.
Vergonzosos errores en español representados por un grupo de tres amigos almorzando en una mesa cerca de la orilla del agua con una amiga sosteniendo su cabeza entre sus manos avergonzada.

Making mistakes is a fundamental part of learning a language. Some of these mistakes are charmingly innocent and entirely understandable: confusing ser and estar, mixing up the gender of your articles or conjugating the subjunctive form of your verb incorrectly. Other mistakes will evoke an explosive guffaw from your Spanish amigos. We’ll run through some of the most common embarrassing mistakes that English speakers make when starting Spanish. Read on to spare yourself the blushes that many others have endured!

Disclaimer: Many embarrassing mistakes are inherently rude. These mistakes are the language-learning equivalent of a ’90s Jim Carrey movie and are not for the easily scandalized.

1. Estoy embarazado/a

What you think you’re saying: I’m embarrassed
What you’re really saying: I’m pregnant
What you should say: Tengo vergüenza (lit. I have shame)

It’s a mean language that plots to embarrass you when you’re trying to express your embarrassment. The Spanish word embarazado looks uncannily like the word embarrassed, so English speakers often assume it’s a cognate. Unfortunately, it’s a very false friend.

2. Estoy caliente

What you think you’re saying: I’m hot
What you’re really saying: I’m horny
What you should say: Tengo calor (lit. I have warmth)

You’re roasting on the beach in the south of Spain, fulfilling the stereotype of the lobster-red tourist, and you decide to comment on how extraordinarily warm it is. You turn to your amigo and say Estoy caliente, and he bursts out laughing. You’ve just stated in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way that you’re horny. Take a cold shower, calm yourself down and learn the appropriate way to say you’re hot: Tengo calor.

3. Estoy excitado/a

What you think you’re saying: I’m excited
What you’re really saying: I’m horny
What you should say: Estoy emocionado/a

You’ve just cleared up the confusion concerning caliente and calor and you valiantly continue the conversation. You claim you’re excitado about seeing your friends this evening and once again you’re met with a cackle. Excitado carries the connotation of arousal in Spanish, so you’re much better off plumping for the adjective emocionado.

4. Tengo treinta (30) anos

What you think you’re saying: I’m 30 years old
What you’re really saying: I have 30 anuses
What you should say: Tengo treinta años (lit. I have 30 years)

You may have seen this letter loitering in the Spanish alphabet: ñ. It might just look like an N with an extra little squiggle above it, but this squiggle is crucial when it comes to pronunciation. The ñ is pronounced a little like the -ny- in “canyon,” and it changes the meaning of the word ano, or “anus,” to año, or “year,” and saves you the need to explain a physiologically mind-boggling phenomenon.

5. ¡Qué pene!

What you think you’re saying: What a shame!
What you’re really saying: What a penis!
What you should say: ¡Qué pena!

This is another example of how one little letter can very easily change everything in Spanish. Say cojones instead of cojines and you’re saying “balls” and not “cushions.” Or perhaps you meant cajones, or “drawers.” Say pene instead of pena, and you’ll accidentally be referring to the male reproductive organ, so make sure you enunciate those vowels clearly.

6. Quiero tomar la polla, por favor

What you think you’re saying: I want to have the chicken, please
What you’re really saying: I want to have the johnson, please
What you should say: Quiero tomar el pollo, por favor

Chickens are female, and you know feminine nouns often end in the letter -a in Spanish, while masculine nouns often end in the letter -o. You therefore conclude that pollo is probably a rooster and polla is chicken. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Pollo is “chicken,” gallo is a rooster, and polla is a commonly used colloquial term for the male reproductive organ. Not something you want to be ordering in a restaurant.

7. Preservativos

What you think you’re saying: Preservatives
What you’re really saying: Condoms
What you should say: Conservantes

The old joke is that you add an -o or an -a to the end of an English word to make it into a Spanish one. Well, the word preservativos is proof that this tactic can backfire spectacularly. Ask for some food sin preservativos and you’ll be asking for your dinner without condoms. If you really want to avoid the E-numbers, you’ll have to say sin conservantes.

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