Whether you’ve studied Spanish in the past or you’re just getting started, you’re well aware of the fact that it’s not as easy as people think. Many tourists and passers-through over the years have felt that they mastered the language only because they repeatedly uttered syllables that sounded something like toros or cerveza to local bartenders. If you plan on functioning in Spanish society at any level, however, knowing just a few words and catch phrases ‘just ain’t gonna cut it’. Despite one’s best efforts, any foreign language is a challenge to use and pronounce properly.
Hopefully this list of the 20 (or so) of the most difficult Spanish words for Americans will help you on your journey to fluency.
Difficult words in Spanish for Americans
One of the biggest challenges when speaking this language ispronouncing some of the sounds in Spanish, in particular the ‘r’. Saying a single ‘r’ or a double one can sometimes mark the difference between entire words, as in the case of peroand perro, the former meaning ‘but’ and the latter ‘dog’. The difficulty increases when pronouncing words that contain multiple single and/or double ‘r’ sounds, examples being: irrumpir, ferrocarril, ornitorrinco, ronronear, zurcir and prórroga.
Other words in Spanish just have one, two, or even several too many syllables for comfort. Some examples are: esternocleidomastoideo, otorrinolaringólogo, anddesoxirribonucleótido. Ok, that was a mouthful!
Although most Americans are familiar with Roman numerals, finding them in the middle of sentences and then having to say them as numbers in another language can be tricky. As we would say “the 21st century” in English, in Spanish it would be el siglo XXI, the numerals being said as the number veintiuno. As this is a century we commonly refer to, it’s quite manageable, but when you start reading texts about history – like on plaques outside historic buildings – it can get more complicated.
As we do in English, Roman numerals are also used in Spanish to designate monarchs, but without using ‘the’ and using an ordinal number. This isn’t a problem when we refer to the current king, as he is known as Juan Carlos I – the numeral being pronounced as ‘primero‘ – but does become confusing when referring to the many Fernandos and Alfonsos that have reigned throughout the country’s history.
Confusing meanings between Spanish and American English
Beyond mere pronunciation, syllable count, or confusing script, lies the whole universe of the meaning of words. If one isn’t careful, he/she can easily confuse words that appear to be the same in Spanish and in English. Here are some of the most common mistakes:
- discutir: This verb looks suspiciously like ‘discuss’; however, excepting very few contexts it means ‘argue’.
- compromiso: This noun has a striking resemblance to ‘compromise’, but in fact means commitment.
- educación vs. formación: When talking about academics, in Spanish we have to use the latter term; the former refers more to ‘upbringing’.
- presentar vs. introducir: A typical American error – although good for a laugh – is when they ask to be introducido to someone. Little do they know, the correct way to say this is to use the verb presentar; introducir means to physically put something inside something else!
- excitado vs. emocionado: When you’re excited about something, make sure to use the adjective emocionado; excitado refers to one being ‘aroused’.
- club vs. discoteca: If you’re in the mood for some music and dancing, make sure you ask for a discoteca, not a club; the latter in Spanish describes a very different type of establishment.
Believe it or not, the hardest words to pronounce in Spanish are the borrowed words you already know in English! These ones take practice, as they include terms such as YouTube (pronounced you-TUFE in Spanish) or the names of places such as Burger King (pronounced burguer kin) or Starbucks (pronounced estárboc). Attributing a particular pronunciation to a a certain place or thing your whole life and then having to change the way you say it is not easy. Keep and open mind and do your best with these types of words. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
On your way to perfecting your Spanish, make sure you don’t forget your English. Many English-speaking people in Madrid have the nasty habit of mixing the two languages, and thus, not speaking either one of them correctly. The point of becoming bilingual is just that: speaking two separate languages. If you render yourself able to communicate only with those who speak a mix of the same languages you’ve studied, you’re worse off then when you started!