“Top Ten Dead-Giveaways That You’re a Foreigner Speaking Spanish, Even if You Speak Well …!”

We recently received an email asking for a list of the biggest ‘dead-giveaway’ mistakes a Spanish learner typically makes. We put a call out on the forum at our sister site Notesfromspain.com asking for help, and this is the list you helped us come up with:

Dead-Giveaway 1: Past Tense Confusion

Getting confused by the difference between the pretérito indefinido (canté/estuve/escribi) and the pretérito imperfecto (cantaba/estaba/escribía).

Solution: Check out our Inspired Beginners Podcast number 19 (great no matter what your level!), where we look at how these two key past tenses, the Pretérito Imperfecto and the Pretérito Indefinido, can be used together to tell a great story in Spanish.

Dead-Giveaway 2: Por/Para

No getting away from these two – you have to knuckle down and learn the differences, but fear not, soon it becomes second nature, and we have the perfect…

Solution: Listen to our Inspired Beginners Podcasts 27 (Por) and 28 (Para) (again, our Inspired Beginners reviews are great for all levels!)

Dead-Giveaway 3: The Rolling ‘R’

There is a subtle difference between the pronunciation of ‘r’ and ‘rr’, for example in pero/perro, caro/carro, and many Spanish learners are convinced they will never be able to pronounce a proper rrrrrolling ‘r’.

Solution: Practice! Ben was convinced he couldn’t do it either, but endless attempts have led to a half-decent ‘perro’ – so don’t give up, just rrrrrr all day long, and pay careful attention to how Spanish speakers differentiate between the two.

Dead-Giveaway 4: Ser/Estar

Just as with Por and Para, the Ser y Estar ‘problem’ drives many Spanish learners mad, but worry not! We have a a very good bit of audio to sort these two out as well!

Solution: Listen to Inspired Beginners 23, Ser y Estar

Dead-Giveaway 5: ¡Doy Propinas Demasiado Grandes!

Giving excessive tips (propinas) is a sure sign of being a foreigner on holiday in Spain. Spaniards tend to leave somewhere between no tip at all (when drinking in bars, or for a menu del día at lunchtime), to around 5% (if service is really good, usually at dinner in the evening or for a smart lunch).

Solution: Do as they do and don’t feel guilty about it! Spanish waiters receive a fixed wage, but tips make a nice extra.

Dead-Giveaway 6: Using “El Subjuntivo”

It’s not such a nightmare as you think to start using the subjunctive! You have to start eventually, and if you are at a comfortable intermediate level, nows the time to get going!

Solution: Have you downloaded our mega subjunctive report yet? We also cover a lot of subjunctive usage in the analysis section of many of our special Gold Audios.

Dead-Giveaway 7: Word Order and More…

Failing to make adjectives and verbs agree with the gender and number of objects/people… word order in sentences… using the right prepositions… This covers an awful lot, but the solution to all of these problems is the same…

Solution: It helps a lot to find someone to correct your mistakes as they happen. Marina constantly corrects Ben’s mistakes in our audio (and these are genuine mistakes!) Find an online or real-life intercambio and ask them not to worry about correcting your mistakes – making mistakes and having them corrected is the best way to learn!

Dead-Giveaway 8: Falsos Amigos

Why does Actualmente mean Currently (and not actually, which is de hecho), and how can Sanidad mean health system (and not sanity, which is juicio or cordura)?

Solution: We have a special report for this too available here, with a complete list of false friend pairs and more!

Dead-Giveaway 9: Saying Please and Thank You Too Much!

The British, to name but one nationality, use please and thank you quite a bit more than the Spanish use ‘por favor’ and ‘gracias’.

Solution: Don’t worry about it, we don’t think there can be too many ‘por favor’s and ‘gracias’ in the world, so keep throwing them in whenever you would in your own language, and save your efforts for bigger challenges like Por/Para and the Subjunctive!

Dead-Giveaway 10: The Gender of Words

How annoying that the Spanish language has to decide if things are Masculine or Feminine! What’s more, there are ‘trick’ ones that really look like they should be the other way round, like ‘la mano’, ‘el sofa’, ‘el problema’, and ‘el tema’.

Solution: You’ve just got to learn them! But don’t worry, the exceptions to the obvious, like those above, are few! There is further discussion (with more examples) of this in the second Q and A recording in Notes in Spanish Gold Season One.

36 thoughts on ““Top Ten Dead-Giveaways That You’re a Foreigner Speaking Spanish, Even if You Speak Well …!”

  1. Tony Keeble

    Great report of giveaways. The biggest giveaway I discovered (with English people) is the over use of ‘No problema’)… my Spanish friends and colleagues soon pointed out that the Spanish don’t use it very much, much more common useage (certainly in south east Spain) is ‘No pasa nada’.

  2. Nigel

    Ben & Marina more good stuff. Keep up the good work. Tx.

    However a thought: if you appear too spanish don’t complain when the reply comes back in an ‘argot/slang’ filled torrent.’

  3. Ben Post author

    @Tony – that’s a great one, you are right ‘no problema’ is a dead-giveaway, as it ‘una mas cerveza’ instead of the correct ‘una cerveza mas’-

    @Nigel – good point!

  4. deebee

    Muchas gracias Ben y Marina por estos ‘tips’. Siempre trato usar el pretérito as alguna cosa que ya ha ocurrido y está terminado, y el imperfecto como parte de un relato o historia. De momento estoy trabajando con las primeras tres capitulas del Gold. Fabuloso. Día por día puedo entender las voces mejor y mejor.

  5. Anna

    The please and thank you is a definite. When I lived in Spain, being American – and well raised – I was always saying please and thank you. My husband and stepson constantly told me “no es necesario” and I would simply reply “para mi lo es”. I agree, the use of por favor y gracias is never over used.
    Keep up the good work. Tho I am pretty bilingual – I love your stuff.

  6. Sarah Spencer

    Another great email from you guys! Your emails, of all the “newsletters” I receive, are by far the ones that get opened the most! And it’s nice to be referred back to some of those really useful podcasts.
    Thank you for your continual encouragement to improve our Spanish!

  7. Jamie

    I find that over use of personal pronouns is another dead giveaway. Drop the “yo” and just say, “necesito dejar de fumar”

  8. Marketta

    What a great list. Even though I’m considered high intermediate level and I have a good accent, I still need practice with the things you pointed out. Through constant practice, I learned to roll my r’s but it didn’t come overnight. Muchas gracias.

  9. Marketta

    As far as excessive use of “yo”, personally I think that instead of having a blanket rule to drop it, it would be better to learn those instances when you would use it ie: for emphasis. For example, the primary elections are in progress in Florida right now. So in emphasizing his accomplishments, every politician’s message puts the emphasis on “yo”. “Yo reduciré sus impuestos.”, (I will lower your taxes). To me, this sounds more effective than simply “Reduciré sus impuestos.”

  10. Ted

    Great stuff and thank you, thank you, thank you, Ben and Marina, for continuing to teach! You’re both so good at it! By the way, have you stopped celebrating Spain’s incredible performance in the World Cup yet? 😉 Hope not. It was amazing.

  11. Marta

    Really wonderful stuff! I am an American living in Spain and constantly make these mistakes and as I hear them coming out of my mouth, I immediately wish I could take them back. I am still looking for a way to say, ‘I’m looking forward to it’ or ‘Can’t wait!’ in a Spanishy way….ANY HELP PLEASE!!!

  12. Craig Mumm

    Hi Ben and Marina, I love your videos! I just got back from a month in Colombia where the people do in fact use “gracias” and “por favor” very much. The accent in Bogota is wonderful. Very easy for a gringo to understand.

  13. Carla

    Me hace mucha ilusion–I’m looking forward to it, I found this, not sure if it’s right.

    Ben and Marina, Your “Notes in Spanish” is the best spanish learning site on the web…really. I’ve learned sooo much.
    Thank you!

  14. David de Clermont

    “Gringo” is generally a pejorative and ugly word; just because it is heard more now that does not make it more acceptable. It means only that the user is ignorant. The correct terms are “estadounidense” o “norteamericano”, or if you like colloquial words….Yanqui. It is like calling a Spaniard “Spic” or an African descendant “nigger”. Very poor taste all round.

  15. Ben Post author

    Thanks for all the great new comments! The list of common mistakes is growing and growing!

    @Carla – Me hace mucha ilusion is certainly what I’d say too to say you are looking forward to something.

    @David de Clermont – I’m sorry you were offended by our original post title –
    ‘Gringo’ for me is just intercangeable for ‘guiri’, the term used for western foreigners in Spain, which I don’t find at all offensive. I think most people just think of the term as a fun word for a bumbling foreigner – again, apologies for any offense, I’ve changed ‘gringo’ for ‘foreigner’ in the title now – we certainly don’t want to risk offending anyone!

  16. Graham

    Great stuff – many thanks! I’m spending 3 weeks in Madrid so your 5th tip will save me money too. I got caught out by (incorrectly) using Estar rather than Ser to describe being a tourist; difficult to get my head around this one as (sadly) I am not able to be a tourist all the time!

  17. Roderick Donahue

    Yikes… I’m in spain right now and my tutor just game me the SAME notes! Tengo que estudiar MUCHO!

  18. Liz

    For me one of the biggest giveaways is the foreigner’s habit of enunciating each word separately – for example, the “no me importa”, rather than the more Spanish sounding “no meimporta”, where the two vowels are sounded as one.

  19. Margot

    Taking into account Dead-Giveaway 7….. it seems a little edit is in order re: ‘Dead-Giveaway 8: Falso* Amigos
    ¿Qué opinas?

    Perdona, Ben…soy siempre cara dura 😉 La lista es muy buena

  20. Linda

    Ben and Marina, great job as always!

    Marta: Here in the Americas, you often hear the following for “looking forward to”:

    Tengo muchas ganas de…

    Tengo muchas ganas de verte.
    I can’t wait to see you.

  21. Linda

    Tony: You’re absolutely right about “no problema” being a dead giveaway! If someone insists on using “problema,” the phrase needs to be: “no hay problema”

    Around here (eastern U.S.), you’ll often hear the following phrases to signify the same thing:

    No pasa nada.
    No te preocupes.
    Todo está bien.

  22. Graham S

    Ben & Marina

    I bought a book in the USA recently entitled ” Correct Your Spanish Blunders ” ( a thousand of them) by Jean Yates. It lists the most basic of errors, which makes me squirm, knowing I make them regularly, to others much more advanced. A very good book for the real afficionado.

  23. Kentaro

    El problema que tengo es limitarme a un solo léxico. ¿Adoptar el habla de los mexicanos? ¿los guatemaltecos? ¿los borinqueños? ¿los españoles? ¡Supongo que eso es parte del placer de aprender un idioma! Pero muy a menudo se me salen de la boca palabras coloquiales de varios dialectos, lo cual resulta ridículo (o incomprensible) para la persona con quien hablo. Bueno, menos mal. Con el tiempo se aprende.
    Yo también seguiré dando las gracias como me da la gana (aunque este costumbre de no utilizar “porfa/gracias” solo he encontrado en España, muchísimos latinoamericanos lo dicen aun más que nosotros, “gracias muy amable, gracias muy amable, gracias muuuuy amable”) ^_^

    Desde California, gracias a ustedes dos Ben y Marina ¡muy amables! ^_^

  24. Ted

    Reading a book called “Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish” by Joseph Keenan and I wonder what ya’ll think of his top 10 list: 1. pronunciation, especially not saying the vowels as they’re supposed to be said, 2. using the wrong word/false cognate, without shame 3.yo-ismo, 4. using ”uh” and ”er” instead of Spanish equivalents (este, o sea, etc.), 5. not greeting shopowners or other people whose space you’ve invaded, 6. talking too loudly (though I recall a NIS lesson in which Ben and Marina remarked on how loud and boisterous the Madrileños are!), 7. not using adjectives boldly, 8. dressing like a slob.

    Do people dress more formally in Spanish speaking countries than in the US? Hard not to, I’ll give you that, but I though the youth culture had defeated all gestures toward formality.

  25. Marketta

    My vote goes to those who are not offended by the word “gringo”. I’ve taken many classes and both teachers and students use it. My Latino friends use it all the time and they would never intentionally insult me. I refer to myself and my friends as Gringos. It’s used with good intentions which makes it more of a fun term rather than a racial slur.
    There’s even a really popular book called “Spanish for Gringo’s”.

  26. cdowis

    Another give-away is the use of English transitional words, e.g. “well” and “so” instead of pues and entonces.

  27. panos

    Hola Marina y Ben.
    No soy Gringo pero soy Griego .Tus correos hacerme que sentarse que pretenezco en una familia o en un equipo que
    keep on trying.

    Gracias y saludos desde Grecia

  28. Ben Post author

    Thanks for all the new warm comments and great new suggestions – you have no idea how much we love getting these comments from you all!

    @Margot – yes, oopps, corrected, thanks!
    @GrahamS – A thousand of them! Wow! Don’t let them overload you!
    @Ted – great list! I think the Spanish do try to take a bit more care of their dress than the majority of the Brits, can’t speak fo the American youth though! I have a friend that lived in Italy and now knows Spain, and she thinks the Italians take even more care of their style than the Spanish!

  29. Lelia

    I wonder if this site could start a page with conversation classes starters. There are some many of these in English on the internet but almost none in Spanish. Thank you so much

  30. Bill Vance

    Great to get your e-mail it has made me revise my notes in spanish again especially those high lighted by you. Bill Vance

  31. Jo

    Hi Ben & Marina

    I noticed when I travelled South & Central America & when I’ve been in Spain that many people don’t use the perfecto tense they only use indefinido, I still use both correctly as I was to be accurate, I guess all English people don’t speak with correct grammar. Do you find people use both tenses??


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