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Spanish Is Hard

So says a friend of mine who's learning the language whenever I ask him how it's going. In particular, he's a bit put off by all the verb conjugations, not at all happy about the subjunctive, and still trying to work out just what the conditional in Spanish is equivalent to in English.

In other words, he's having the usual experience any American has with Spanish. At first, Spanish seems like a breeze. All those delicious cognates, spelling that actually makes sense, only one accent mark as opposed to the many in French, no declensions as found in German, Russian, or Latin, and lots of native speakers around.

This feeling seems to fade after a month, a year at most. At some point, the past tense, imperfect, and future, plus the present perfect and past perfect show up. This is where the panic about verbs begins. When my friend asked me if there were any more besides these, I said that there were a lot more because these are all indicative mood verb tenses, and you also have the subjunctive and conditional moods, and the imperative.

He seemed disturbed, and declared that he would learn Spanish but without the subjunctive. I wished him luck with that, then pointed out that I couldn't actually say that in Spanish without using the subjunctive. He's since relented, realizing that the subjunctive is essential. It's also maddening for non-natives and takes some practice, actually a lot of practice.

Let’s take a brief look at the challenges in Spanish. It’s an important language in the Western Hemisphere, and the second most widely used language in the United States. A little preparation and awareness about Spanish will go a long way toward mastering it.


Because Spanish is spoken in twenty countries, including all but a few in the Americas as well as Spain, there is an incredible variety in pronunciation. It's not as simple as how "c" is pronounced in Spain (like a "th") versus Latin America (like an "s"), or a matter of what to do with the "ll" or "j". There's much more to it, so much that I can't possibly begin to describe it all here.

This is even a problem for Spanish speakers. When I watched Y Tú Mama También recently, I was frustrated because I had a hard time with the Mexican Spanish used by the main characters and had to rely heavily on the subtitles. Then I heard on the podcast Desde El Baño Sofia, an Argentine, talk about how she and her friends watched the film and had to use the subtitles, too, because they were unaccustomed to the pronunciation. Sofia has done many podcasts on pronunciation, and it's worth downloading them and listening to the samples she's collected from across the Spanish-speaking world if you want to hear the differences.

The problem here is not pronouncing the language correctly as much as understanding what people are saying to you. Expect to spend a lot of time listening and practicing, and make certain to expose yourself to Spanish from a wide variety of locations. And know the phrase “una vez mas, por favor” and “mas despacio” or whatever else you need to tell people to slow down and repeat themselves.


The twenty countries where Spanish is spoken each has its own ideas about what words mean, and often a common word in one location can be highly offensive or pejorative in another. Or the meaning may be entirely different, and at times it may mean nothing at all.

The idiom “en bolas” is a prime example. In Spain, it means "naked, nude, in the buff," but in Mexico, this phrase is used to mean "in a group" or "together." Imagine the possible confusion in a group of people from Spain and Mexico.

Worse are words like coger, which in Spain is a common verb used to mean "to catch [a bus, train, taxi, etc.]," along with many similar meanings, but throughout most of Latin America, it means "to fuck," and therefore isn't used much in daily conversation.

It gets even worse with Spanglish, the hybrid of English and Spanish used amongst heritage bilinguals in the U.S. This quasi-language varies from region to region, sometimes even from neighborhood to neighborhood, and that's before the personal code-switching among users starts.

False Cognates

The next trap Spanish learners fall into is false cognates, often also called false friends. Because Spanish shares a lot of Latin roots with English, many words sound familiar. Some have the same, or at least a similar meaning, while others do not. Here are a few worth knowing straight away.

constipado/a having a cold, stuffy nose (not constipated)
embarazada pregnant (not embarrassed)
preservativo condom (not preservatives)

There are many, many more, and having a good dictionary or reliable friend is indispensable for sorting out which similar-sounding words are actually cognates, and which will lead to a great deal of confusion or embarrassment.

So have fun with Spanish, but be careful. It's not as easy or simple as you might think. Nor, however, is it impossible, and it is quite worth the effort.

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