Spanish vs English

¿Hablas español?

About 470 million people do!

In fact Spanish is the second most popular first language in the world (after Mandarin; English is third) and also the third most popular language on the internet (after English then Mandarin).

As a first language it is mainly spoken in Spain, Latin America and the USA but it is also a popular second language with 78 million people speaking it; it is also the most popular language learned by English speakers in the US.

So it is a major player on the world language stage and if you are a TEFL teacher working with Spanish mother tongue students it’s worth knowing a little about it to help with your teaching. This article, then, goes over the main issues which Spanish speakers have when they learn English and has some advice on how to overcome those issues.

But before getting on to all that, here’s a little background to the language…

A Very Brief History of Spanish

When Spain was conquered by the Romans they brought Vulgar Latin with them and Spanish is a direct descendant of that (modern Spanish and modern Italian are, effectively, cousins in the language family).

Modern Spanish then is a Romance language which developed around the Castile region in Northern Spain beginning around the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century. It was however also heavily influenced by what was happening in Southern Spain at the time. In 711 began the Arab conquest and colonization of Spain which lasted for some 600 years. When they left the country they left behind a great deal of their language as well: modern Spanish has around 4,000 words of Arabic origin.

As the Arab colonizers were leaving Spain in the 15th Century, Spanish explorers, conquistadors, and colonizers were beginning to travel to Central America, South America, and parts of North America taking the language with them. Spanish was used in government and local administration in all the colonies. However, despite Spain losing its American colonies four centuries later, Spanish remained, and is still, the official language of almost every Latin American nation.

Similarities with English

Both Spanish and English are SVO languages. This means the way a sentence is structured in both languages follows the pattern of

{subject} + {verb} + {object}

I + speak + Spanish.

This means that, very generally speaking, Spanish speakers do not have huge problems with the way in which English forms sentences.

Likewise, both Spanish and English have very similar alphabets (although Spanish has a few accents we don’t have in English). This might seem of little importance but it is in fact a big help when it comes to teaching English vocabulary and pronunciation in general.

Finally Spanish and English share a high percentage of similar words (often from the same root; English has a lot of Latin based words). In fact something like 30% to 40% of all words English words have a very similar word in Spanish (although beware false friends here!).

In effect, this all means that a beginner student who speaks Spanish as a mother tongue will approach English at something of an advantage: they will see many familiar looking words and they’ll often be able to understand fairly basic structures and sentences quite quickly.

Differences with English

But of course there are differences, too!


To begin with, Spanish has only 5 vowel sounds as opposed English which has more than 14.

Because of this, Spanish speakers find it hard to distinguish between words like seat and sit for example.

In addition you’ll find that in general Spanish speakers have difficulty distinguishing the different ways in which the final -s is pronounced in English plurals and in the third person singular:


Also, Spanish lacks the following sound combinations which we have in English:

  • Vowel diagraphs: ou, ow, eigh, au, aw, oo
  • Consonant digraphs: sh, th, wh, ph
  • Consonant blends: sl, sm, sts, scr, spr, str
  • Initial sounds: kn, qu, wr, sk
  • Final sounds: ck, ng, gh
  • Endings: –ed (pronounced /d/ or /t/ or /ded/ or /ted/)
  • Endings without a vowel: -ps, -ts
  • Suffixes/prefixes: un-, over-, under-, -ly, -ness, -ful, -est
  • Contractions: don’t, isn’t, weren’t, etc…

Finally, Spanish speakers learning English tend to leave out word endings when saying or spelling a word, for example:

restauran – end

instead of

restaurant – ended

Teachers of English should be aware of these differences when teaching Spanish mt speakers. When any of these issues arise you will need to clearly explain how certain sounds are formed in English and give plenty of practice with them to your class using minimal pairs and so on.

Likewise, encourage your students to speak more slowly and make sure they pronounce the full word to avoid the “missing end” we talked about above.


In general, nouns do not have gender in English while in Spanish they do.

So for example in Spanish:

una ciudad = a city (feminine)

una ventana = a window (feminine)

un coche = a car (masculine)

un jardin = a garden (masculine)

This leads to Spanish mt students saying things like:

* I like that car; he is a Ferrari.

* The window is dirty so I think we should clean her.

* an asterisk at the beginning means the sentence is ungrammatical

This is relevant when teaching English pronouns although not usually too much of a problem once you’ve explained to your class.


Spanish verbs have different ending for each person performing an action so there is no need to for a subject pronoun in front of a verb to show who is doing something.Thus some Spanish mt speakers leave out the personal pronoun when they make an English sentence:

* Is working hard.
* Will go tomorrow.

You need to stress, when this happens, that English must include the pronouns:

He is working hard.
I will go tomorrow.

In English the only verb form with an ending showing who is performing the action is the third person singular of the present tense (eat > eats). This may leads Spanish speakers to omit subject personal pronouns when forming English sentences.

word order

We mentioned above that both languages, English and Spanish, are SVO languages so sentences are fairly similar in structure.

However, importantly in Spanish adjectives come after the noun (whereas they come before nouns in English).

la puerta roja = [literally] the door red

This type of MT error is very common with Spanish speakers learning English and needs to be carefully explained and your students given practice with this.

questions & negative statements

Spanish does not use auxiliaries to create a question or a negative sentence. Therefore it is common for Spanish speakers to omit them In English.

While an English speaker may say:

Do you want to go out?
I don’t like dogs!

A Spanish speaker learning English may well say:

* Want to go out?
* I no like dogs.

Again, simple explanations on sentence structure here is the best approach with plenty of practice using, for example, sentence transformation exercises and so on.

On the subject of questions, note also that Spanish uses an inverted question mark at the beginning of a question:

¿Qué hora es?

double negatives

Spanish uses the double negative to reinforce the idea of absence. Unlike English, two or more negatives do not equate to a positive:

No vi nada. = [literally] I did not see nothing.

Useful Links

Teaching English in Latin America – teaching Spanish speakers in Latin America

Teaching English in Spain – about working in Spain

TEFL Training – learn how to teach English effectively

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Posted in Foreign Languages vs English, Linguistics.

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