This page contains information about the major differences between Spanish and English, as well as the particular difficulties native-speakers of Spanish may have in learning English.


Spanish is a Romance language and part of the Indo-European language family. It is closely related to Italian and Portuguese. Spanish is a major language, with up to 400 million native speakers in Spain, Latin America and the USA.


Spanish uses the Latin alphabet. The vowels can take an acute accent, and there is the additional letter ñ. When spelling English words or writing them from the teacher's dictation, beginning Spanish students may make mistakes with the English vowels a, e, i. The consonants h, j, r, y may also cause trouble, since they have significantly different names in Spanish.

The English writing system itself causes no particular problems to Spanish learners. Beginners, however, may be tempted to punctuate questions or exclamations as follows, since this is how it is done in Spanish: ¿What is your name? / ¡What a goal! Punctuation of direct speech may also be a problem because quotation marks are not used in Spanish.


@The phonological system of Spanish is significantly different from that of English, particularly in the aspects of vowel sounds and sentence stress.~ These differences are very serious obstacles to Spanish learners being able to acquire a native-English-speaker accent. Coe (19eight7) says:

"European Spanish speakers, in particular, probably find English pronunciation harder than speakers of any other European language."

Spanish has five pure vowels and five diphthongs. The length of the vowel is not significant in distinguishing between words. This contrasts with English, which has twelve pure vowel sounds and eight diphthongs (*but see below). The length of the vowel sound plays an important role.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Spanish learners may have great difficulty in producing or even perceiving the various English vowel sounds. Specific problems include the failure to distinguish the sounds in words such as ship/sheep, taught/tot, fool/full or cart/cat/cut.

Producing English consonant sounds is not so problematic for many Spanish learners, but difficult enough! They may have problems in the following aspects:

  • failure to pronounce the end consonant accurately or strongly enough ; e.g. cart for the English word card or brish for bridge or thing for think
  • problems with the /v/ in words such as vowel or revive
  • difficulties in sufficiently distinguishing words such as see/she or jeep/sheep/cheap
  • the tendency to prefix words beginning with a consonant cluster on s- with an /ε/ sound; so, for example, school becomes eschool and strip becomes estrip
  • the swallowing of sounds in other consonant clusters; examples: next becomes nes and instead becomes istead .

Spanish is a syllable-timed language. When Spanish speakers transfer the intonation patterns of their mother tongue into English, which is a stress-timed language, the result may sometimes be barely comprehensible to native English speakers.

This is because the meaning or information usually conveyed in English by the combination of stress, pitch and rhythm in a sentence is flattened or evened out by the Spanish learner.

- See this Language Log page for a more nuanced discussion of the prosody of Spanish. (If the link does not work, do a search on "Another slice of prosodic sausage".)

Grammar - Verb

Although Spanish is a much more heavily inflected Inflections are the letters added (usually) to the end of word to change the grammatical form of that word.

For example, the inflection -ed turns a present tense verb in English into the past tense.
language than English, there are many aspects of verb grammar that are similar. The major problem for the Spanish learner is that there is no one-to-one correspondence in the use of the tenses.

So, for example, a Spanish learner might incorrectly use a simple tense instead of a progressive or a future one: She has a shower instead of She's having a shower; I help you after school instead of I'll help you after school.

Problematic for beginners is the formation of interrogatives or negatives in English. The absence of an auxiliary in such structures in Spanish may cause learners to say: Why you say that? / Who he saw? / Do you saw him? / I no see him. / I not saw him.

Grammar - Other

Spanish word order is generally S ubject-Verb-Object, like English. However, Spanish allows more flexibility than English, and generally places at the end of the sentence words that are to be emphasised. This may result in non-standard syntax when Spanish learners speak or write English.

There are numerous other minor differences in the two languages that may result in negative transfer. Here are a few examples. The way that things are done in Spanish can be inferred from the mistake in English:

  • Do you have sister?
  • It's not easy learn English.
  • Where's my pencil? Have you seen him?
  • I am more tall than my brother.
  • Was snowing when I got up.
  • She took off the glasses.


Due to shared Latin influence English and Spanish have many cognates, and the corresponding collection of false friends, such as eventual (English translation: possible) or particular (English translation: private).

Since the Latin-derived words in English tend to be more formal, the Spanish student will benefit when reading academic text. He may sound too formal, however, if using such words in everyday spoken English. Conversely, @@phrasal verbs, such as put up with and give in, which are an essential aspect of colloquial English, are difficult for Spanish learners and may obstruct listening comprehension.~~

Long noun groups such as the standard language classroom teacher-student interaction pattern, commonly found in academic English text, are troublesome for Spanish speakers, whose language post-modifies nouns.


Spanish has a strong correspondence between the sound of a word and its spelling. The irregularity of English in this respect causes predictable problems when Spanish learners write a word they first meet in spoken language or say a word first met in written language.

A specific problem concerns the spelling of English words with double letters. Spanish has only three double-letter combinations cc, ll, rr. English, in comparison, has five times as many. Spanish learners often reduce English double letters to a single one, or overcompensate by doubling a letter unnecessarily; for example hopping for the present participle of hope.

Information sources

On the introduction page to this section of the website you can view the sources of the information on this page.

* The assertion that English has eight diphthongs applies to standard British English pronunciation (also called Received Pronunciation ). [Click for a brief discussion of diphthongs in Standard American English ]