7 Struggles Spanish Learners Understand All Too Well
If you’re a Spanish learner just about anywhere in the world, you’re in pretty good company. Spanish is the third most studied language in the world after English and French, and it’s the most studied language in the United States by a large margin.
This is mostly thanks to demographics, but Spanish also happens to be one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, which means it’s kind of the perfect gateway language for someone who’s just dipping their toes into bilingualism. Low-hanging language fruit, if you will.
All of that also does absolutely nothing to account for the fact that as a Spanish learner, you will struggle. And the struggle is real.
7 Battles Every Spanish Learner Must Wage
1. Navigating all the regional differences
Here’s the thing — almost all languages contain multitudes of regional differences and dialects. But Spanish is kind of way up there when you consider the scale of its global reach that was established under colonial rule.
Spain, or where it all started, is today home to less than 10 percent of the world’s Spanish speakers. So where are they all now? Spanish is an official language in 20 countries (particularly throughout Central and South America) and it’s also widely spoken in a handful of others. Beyond Europe and Latin America, there are sizable Spanish-speaking populations in the Philippines and certain parts of Africa.
All of this is to say that if you’re a Spanish learner, everything you learn is probably conditional on which side of the planet you’re on, and even then, you can’t even begin to get into some of the more country-specific slang and local regionalisms until you have a reason to specialize in, say, Colombian Spanish over Mexican Spanish.
This means you always have to keep verb forms for vosotros in mind, even if you’re pretty sure you’ll only ever be using usted. This also means you can never take for granted that what might be a pretty innocuous term in one country might actually be slang for genitals or sex in another (we’re looking at you, concha and coger).
2. Native speakers talking very fast
It’s not entirely in your head — Spanish is generally spoken at a rate of 7.82 syllables per second, which is quite a bit faster than English at 6.19 syllables per second. This also doesn’t even begin to account for the speed differences between, say, Mexican and Dominican Spanish. Depending on who you’re talking to, the Spanish might be coming at you like a medium whirlwind or a grande whirlwind, but still a whirlwind nonetheless.
3. False friends that are not your friends
False friends, or false cognates, can present a stumbling block in any language. But for Spanish learners with a background in English, the minefield is especially loaded.
You know how people sometimes pretend to speak Spanish by tacking -o or -a onto the end of English words? That actually has a basis in the fact that there are quite a few words that sound almost exactly or nearly the same in English and Spanish (cognates, in other words). Take “problem” and “problema” for example, or “national” and “nacional.”
But if familiarity breeds comfort, it can also make you a little too comfortable, and that’s when cringey mistakes start to happen. Some words appear to be cognates but are actually gotcha moments waiting to happen. Perhaps the most famous one is embarazado, which doesn’t mean “embarrassed,” but rather, “pregnant.”
4. Understanding por vs. para
This isn’t the only grammatical hurdle a Spanish learner must wrangle with, but it’s probably way more confusing to you than ser vs. estar. Generally speaking, you use para to talk about goals, purposes or destinations, and you use por to talk about causes or reasons for something, as well as for time and prices. But anyone who’s studied Spanish for more than 5 weeks can tell you that this doesn’t always feel like a very clear distinction in practice. For instance, when you say you’re doing something “for” someone, is it on their behalf or to do them a favor? Makes you think.
5. Not sounding like a gringo when you roll your R’s
This one pretty much speaks for itself. Depending on your native language, that little trill you’re supposed to pull off whenever you see the double R might feel especially unnatural to you, which means you’ve probably overcompensated here and there and blown your cover. Not like you had anyone fooled to begin with, but it’s more satisfying to blame your mouth for not cooperating.
6. Knowing when to say se
Between reflexive pronouns, the imperative tense, and all the rest, there are so many ways to say se in Spanish (and that’s not to be confused with sé, or the “I know” form of the verb saber).
In Spanish, you can say that someone “went to bed” or that someone “put themselves to bed” by adding in me, te, se, nos, etc. You can also use se to indicate that two people are doing something to each other, to indicate passive voice (“one mails their ballot” or “the ballot is mailed”), or in an impersonal sense (kind of like how in English, you would say “you can get your hair done at that place” without literally meaning “you”).
And that’s not even covering all the potential uses of se. Sometimes you use it to indicate that something happened accidentally — se me rompió el espejo literally means “the mirror broke itself on me.” I mean, don’t take the heat if you don’t have to.
7. Verb conjugations — lots and lots of verb conjugations
If your memories of Spanish class are mostly full of conjugation tables, just know that’s not always such a prominent feature of every language. Spanish has more tenses than English, and there are also four different ways to say “you” (depending on if it’s singular or plural, or formal or informal). On top of that, there’s the whole matter of the subjunctive mood, which means more verb endings to memorize. And let’s not get started on irregular verbs. Truly rude.