Common Problems for Spanish Speakers Learning English as a Foreign Language

The English as a foreign language market (EFL) for Spanish speakers learning English is booming.

With youth unemployment at an all-time high of 50%, many Spaniards see proficiency in English as their ticket to employment both in and outside the country. This is proven by the popularity of Cambridge exams and the improvement in the general level of English. The number of Spanish speakers learning English who take a Cambridge exam has increased by 20% every year since 2008 and in 2014 Spain was the fourth most improved European country in terms of English proficiency. Clearly, learning English for Spanish speakers has become increasingly important.

Read more: English Language Teaching Statistics

Learning English as a foreign language can be challenging regardless of your first language, but there are ways in which your mother tongue can influence your learning process. So while we cannot make generalisations about all language learners (even if they speak the same first language) because everyone is different, it is possible to identify certain issues speakers of one language can all have. In this way we can use this knowledge to assist these learners in our English lessons.

Here let us consider Spanish speakers learning English.


Spanish speakers learning English

Common characteristics of Spanish speakers learning English

Spanish speakers learning English have a natural fluency

When teaching Spanish speakers learning English you might be surprised by how fluent your learners are, regardless of their level of English. Even learners with very low levels of English will have good fluency. This is probably because they are very confident learners. As you will no doubt experience, they are not shy to speak English in the classroom or make mistakes, both of which are characteristics of successful language learners.

Spanish speakers learning English won’t stop talking!

This is every TEFL teacher’s dream! As a result of their confidence and their fluency, Spanish learners love to talk. They will happily sit around and chat all lesson if they could. While this is all well and good, it means you may need to make sure they are on-task during the lesson.  

Thankfully, you should be guaranteed to get a good response from your Spanish learners if they are interested in the topic. They will respond especially well to conversational activities and speaking tasks.

While we don’t want to paint all our Spanish speakers learning English with the same brush, you’ll probably find that your learners exhibit these characteristics. This is good news for us because it means we can prepare for this in our lesson planning!

Now let’s turn to the common problems for Spanish speakers learning English.

Spanish speakers learning English

Common problems for Spanish learners of English

False friends

There are some words which are similar in two different languages. They’ll look and sound the same and, as luck would have it, have similar meaning. Those are the good guys – they’re called cognates – and we’re happy to have them in our classrooms. For example, a banana is a banana (is a banana) no matter if you are Spanish or English, as is an animal and a colour, though they all have different pronunciations in the two languages.

However, there are a few particularly hard English words for Spanish speakers. These are called false friends

They look and sound the same in two languages, but have totally different meanings. English and Spanish have many false friends just waiting to trip your students up. For example, in English you can take out a book from a library, but in Spanish you have to buy a book from a libreria (bookstore), and you might find yourself in a confusing situation if you say in Spanish that you are embarazada (pregnant) when you actually mean that you are embarrassed.

Another word which can cause problems is hacer. In Spanish this word can be used to mean both make and do, with the result that Spanish speakers learning English can confuse the two and use them interchangeably. This can lead to sentences such as I didn’t make my homework or I did a mistake. 

Personal pronouns

Then, there is the issue of personal pronouns. In Spanish, the pronoun su refers to both male and female while in English we have separate pronouns: he and she, him and her, his and hers. It follows that Spanish speakers learning English may have difficulty remembering to use the different pronouns in different circumstances and though this is not a tragic error, it can lead to confusion.

Word order

The order of adjectives and nouns can also cause confusion. In Spanish, the noun is usually before the adjective while in English the reverse is true, so Spanish speakers learning English may end up saying something like I have a family big.

Read more: Word Order in Different Languages


Finally, pronunciation can be extremely problematic for Spanish speakers learning English. Spanish-speakers often have a thick accent when speaking English and though this is often not a problem there are times when it is. Spanish-speakers tend to put an extra e at the beginning of words that start with s eschool. They also have problems with the th sound, and may pronounce the v as b.

Hard words to pronounce in English for Spanish speakers include:

  • ship/sheep
  • kitchen/chicken
  • joke/yolk
  • ask/axe
  • accuse/excuse 

Spanish speakers learning English

Top tips for teaching Spanish speakers learning English

Get them talking

It’s no secret that Spaniards are, for the most part, chatty and outgoing. If you go out anywhere in Spain you’ll find that you have to shout to be heard above all the chatter and it’s no different in the classroom! Make sure your lessons are filled with conversational activities to get your students talking right from the start.

Read more: Cool Conversation Topics for Teenagers

Be practical

Because Spanish students love chatting so much, it’s a good idea to incorporate practical, functional language into your lessons. This includes asking for directions, giving advice, telling an anecdote. This way it will be easy for you to come up with lesson activities which necessitate the use of the target language.

Use authentic materials

A one-way street to boredom is definitely sticking religiously to the coursebook. Coursebooks can often be outdated or irrelevant to your class. Instead, make use of authentic materials to maintain your students’ (and your!) interest. Don’t be afraid to use movie clips, music videos, novels or newspapers in your classroom.

Play games

What’s the best way to make sure your students are always engaged and interested? Play games, of course. Now we’re not talking about Monopoly or Catan but there are loads of games you can play in the EFL classroom which can be adapted to be educational. Taboo and Jeopardy are good options, while Scrabble and Hangman always seem to stand the test of time. 

Mix them up

Literally. Students have a tendency to sit in the same seats in their classrooms. Take some time when setting up activities to mix up the groups so they can talk to different classmates every time. This will help keep your students on-task and keep the activities interesting.

Don’t take your lessons too seriously

…because you know your students don’t! If you get your knickers in a knot about starting your lesson exactly on the dot or marking homework immediately, your Spanish students won’t respond well to you or your lessons. As a result, they won’t enjoy their time in the classroom and this will detrimentally affect their language learning. Rather take a chill pill and go with the flow – everyone will benefit.

Teaching English to Spanish speakers can be so much fun, as long as you are willing to embrace the chaos! Your classes will be loud and energetic but as long as you are having fun, you know your students are too.


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