People make it seem like it’s easy to learn English these days – watch some Marvel movies on Netflix, play around on the Duolingo app, and boom! You’re ready to hit New York City. Except, it never really works like that. The English acquisition process is a long and difficult one, and for learners in Spain and Latin America? Well, things are particularly taxing, despite extensive English education in many schools. A lot of students in Spanish-speaking countries study English for years, only to leave school remembering only a handful of phrases and song lyrics. But if movies and music in English are popular in these countries and English is taught in schools, why in the world is it so hard to learn? Because English is weird, and it’s weird in ways that are particularly flummoxing for native Spanish speakers.

Special Spelling

Spanish spelling is logical. English spelling is a nightmare. In Spanish, letters make only one or two sounds, so words are spelled the way they sound. In English, well let’s just start with what the BBC says is the most common word in the English language – “The.” Look at it with fresh eyes and think about how you would naturally try to pronounce “The.” Ta-hee? Like thousands of other words in English, it is pronounced nothing like it is spelled, and the worst part is that even when you learn how to decipher and say the word “the” (rhymes with “me”), half the time it’s not even pronounced like that and sounds like “thuh” (technically, /ðə/).

How to combat this? First off, prefixes and suffixes are your friends. If you know what half the word is, the other half can be spelled very strangely and you can at least have a good chance at deciphering it, if not pronouncing it properly. And second, use those English captions and subtitles on movies and shows. You will get used to hearing and reading words properly at the same time, and after a few minutes you won’t even realize you’re doing it.

Foreign Phrasals

A lot of English speakers have no idea what a phrasal verb is, yet use them effortlessly (and abundantly). For the record, a phrasal is an idiomatic expression combining a verb + another element. Sounds simple enough, and in fact, Spanish has phrasal verbs too, but of course none of them match up with the ones in English. For an example of a phrasal, if a couple separates, you say they break up. Perhaps they can make up and ultimately make it, but maybe they just move on. There you have four phrasal verbs about making and breaking things in various directions that will absolutely bewilder a non-native speaker.

There is no simple trick for these besides not trying to find a trick. Don’t overthink them. Don’t try to make sense of them all and rationalize how “flip out” is like how your commonsense has been “flipped” upside down and you’re “out” of your mind. That kind of thinking will likely only confuse you more. Just remember it so you can use it, and use it some more so you can remember it.

Pronoun and Preposition Problems

This is a case where English has several different words for something for which Spanish only needs one. It starts off manageable with the pronouns – English specifies gender for possession, while Spanish does not. “His” and “her” would both be “su” in Spanish.

It gets much more difficult with the prepositions. The Spanish word “en” does triple duty for the English words “on,” “in” and “at.” That doesn’t sound like a big problem until you’re trying to remember which one to use for which exact situation. Choosing the wrong one will sound (and be) incorrect.

For example, take transportation. You go somewhere “in” a car, but “on” a bus. “On” a plane, but “in” a boat. Saying, “I went there on a car” is a tiny difference of one letter that sounds massively wrong.

What is the best way to deal with this? Realize that these are common errors, and that there are strategies for remembering them, like using specificity for prepositions. Otherwise, it’s like the old joke of how to get to Carnegie Hall. You practice.

Accurate Adjectives

In English, most adjectives go before the noun (a beautiful beach), while in Spanish they go after it (una playa hermosa). This seems like a simple distinction until you start trying to talk and find that your naturally ingrained conversation patterns and sentence structures come out wrong. You have to think about it a lot, and the worst part is that saying it incorrectly sounds very, very wrong. “I am a student good.” Not good.

This is perhaps the easiest one to remedy through repetition. Listening, reading and speaking will get you accustomed to the reverse order until it finally clicks.

A Long Road

These are just a handful of the issues Spanish speakers face when learning English. There are plenty more, like accent difficulties (because English has sounds that simply don’t exist in Spanish) and the wide variety of ever-changing slang used in English. It is not an easy journey, but being aware of these challenges and how to face them will help native Spanish speakers on their path to learning English.

About the author

Justin Benton

Justin Benton

Justin Benton is a writer and English teacher based out of Colombia.