15 In Chile/ Language learning/ Linguistics/ Spanish


Believe me when I say that I understand the daily struggle of trying to sound more and more like a native Spanish speaker. If you are a native English speaker like I am, there will always be a certain level of interference coming from your first language (English) and affecting your second language (Spanish or whatever other language you may be learning). Unless you started learning your second language as an infant, chances are that you will never sound completely native; however, follow a few of my tips for English speakers to make some of your expressions in Spanish sound the most fluent possible.

Let me stress before beginning that the tips that I am going to be giving in this article are to show you constructions that are preferred by the language, not necessarily to indicate wrong ways of expressing ideas.

1. Using ‘Conocer’

Remember in Spanish class when you learned ‘saber’ and ‘conocer’ and how these verbs both mean ‘to know’ in English? Well, ‘conocer’ is an extremely important verb to be familiar with. One important usage of ‘conocer’ is when talking about places. In Spanish, it is not as common to say that you’ve visited a place. Instead, it would be very normal to say that you ‘know’ a place. For example, “Sí, conozco Italia súper bien. Estudié allá por dos años” (Translation: Yeah, I know Italy really well. I studied there for two years). For English speakers, there is one particular instance where English starts to affect us sounding like native Spanish speakers: 

DON’T SAY: ¿Has visitado España?

SAY: ¿Conoces España? 

To prove my point, in a quick Google search of the two above phrases, “has visitado españa” retrieves 1,290 results, while “conoces españa” retrieves over 9,000 results.

2. Using ‘llevar’ for a period of time

When people ask you questions in Spanish about how long you’ve lived in a certain town, how long you’ve been working in real estate, etc., the structure is a little different than in English. In English if I want to know how long you’ve lived in Chicago, I’d probably say “How long have you lived in Chicago?”. In Spanish, we have a special verb, ‘llevar’, which besides meaning ‘to carry’ or ‘to bring’, can also be used in these sort of situations. 

DON’T SAY: ¿Por cuánto tiempo has vivido en Chicago?

SAY: ¿Cuánto tiempo llevas en Chicago? 

Spanish3. Reflexive Verbs

I personally believe that when English speakers learn Spanish, one of the main things that give us away (besides our gringo accents) is the fact that we try to run away from using reflexive verbs. Obviously in Spanish class we learn all of the reflexives that tend to make sense to us. For example, ‘lavarse’ makes sense because we wash ourselves. Nonetheless, we don’t tend to use reflexives in other circumstances which are entirely natural to Spanish speakers. For example, it feels more natural to a Spanish speaker to say “Me tomé una cerveza” than just “Tomé una cerveza”.

BUT WHY IF IT’S NOT SOMETHING YOU’RE DOING TO YOURSELF? I don’t know the answer at the moment, but as a linguist, I am working on it.  

DON’T SAY: Compré una casa.

SAY: Me compré una casa.

Spanish4. Passive Voice

English and Spanish prefer to frame the structure of the passive voice differently. While in English we are presented with only one option, Spanish has two ways to express passive voice. One of these options is almost always preferred, and of course, it’s the option that has less in common with its English counterpart. For example, in English we could say that ‘it is said that people who sleep more are happier’. In Spanish, we could literally translate and say that ‘es dicho que las personas que duermen más son más felices’, but the preferable way to express the same concept as the English sentence is to say ‘se dice que las personas que duermen más son más felices’, using “se” to frame passive voice. Using the first option in Spanish is not wrong, it’s just not preferred by the language

DON’T SAY: Los cambios son necesitados.

SAY: Se necesitan los cambios.

5. Ordering in a Restaurant

English is a very formal language with a lot of politeness functions. It would be rude for us to directly order food or speak to the waiter without saying something like “I would like pizza, please” or “Do you mind bringing me an extra fork?”. Spanish, however, does not follow this same phrase structure when speaking to the waiter. To a native Spanish speaker, it sounds very awkward to say something like, “¿Podría tener otro tenedor?”. 

In Chile, the most common way to order food seems to just be saying “quiero….”, the English equivalent for a very direct “I want”. In Spanish, however, this is not rude at all. If you want to indicate more formality, say something like “Me da una cerveza, por favor”. 

DON’T SAY: ¿Podría tener una servilleta?

SAY: ¿Te puedo pedir una servilleta?


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  • Reply
    April 16, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Great post, Leah! I’m an English speaker married to a Spanish speaker living in Peru. Just wanted to add that for #2 periods of time, in Peru at least, they always seem to use the verb “tener.”

    Cuanto tiempo tienes en tal lugar?

    But that could very much be a geographical difference 🙂

    • Reply
      Leah Shoup
      April 16, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      That’s so interesting! I’ve never heard it that way here in Chile. I love learning all of the differences for each country! 🙂

    • Reply
      April 17, 2016 at 2:42 am

      I am learning Spanish in Peru and people around me use a lot the verb ‘quedar’ in this context. For example, “Por cuanto tiempo quedas en Perú?”

      Sometimes I feel that I would need to learn Spanish from every hispanohablante country to be completely proficient in that language 🙂 However, at the same time, the differences in grammar and vocabulary between Latin countries (+ España) are endlessly interesting and attractive for learners.

      • Reply
        Leah Shoup
        April 17, 2016 at 8:56 pm

        Hi Stanley! I usually hear the same expression in Chile, but here “¿Por cuanto tiempo te quedas en Chile?” would be like asking “How long are you going to be in Chile?”. I definitely agree!

  • Reply
    Lily La
    April 20, 2016 at 1:08 am

    I’m currently in South America for the first time in my life, and although I’m not nearly good enough to even say I speak Spanish, I love learning it. It’s so much easier than Asian languages. Hopefully, I can improve with time 🙂

    • Reply
      Leah Shoup
      April 26, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      I hope you are enjoying it! Good luck 🙂

  • Reply
    Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine
    April 26, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    This is so interesting! I haven’t picked up Spanish since high school, but I learned Italian in college. It is so interesting that sometimes no matter what I do I feel like I will ALWAYS sound so terrible speaking a foreign language. Tips like this are super helpful. I also am just totally fascinated by the way other cultures speak.

    So glad I found your blog. And your Instagram! Love all the photos.

    • Reply
      Leah Shoup
      April 26, 2016 at 7:10 pm

      I am fascinated as well! We’ll always sound a little foreign, but it’s fun to know ways to sound a little less like a “gringo” 🙂 Thank you so much! Always good to hear good feedback 🙂

  • Reply
    May 19, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Love those murals.

    • Reply
      Leah Shoup
      May 20, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Thanks! I love finding street art.

  • Reply
    emily bennette
    September 13, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I would love to learn how to speak Spanish like a native. I like that you talked about how English is a very formal language and how you need to be aware that Spanish is not like that. It does seem like that bit of information will help you understand translations easier.

  • Reply
    September 21, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    Good tips! It’s so true that there are some ways of expressing things that are just so different – not just from English to Spanish, but also often between countries speaking the same language! Thanks for sharing.

  • Reply
    Shannon Fell
    September 26, 2016 at 11:21 am

    This is a good post! My Spanish teacher told me that you use verbs tomar, beber and comer as reflexive verbs only if indicate the quantity of whatever you’ve eaten or drunk. For example you can say Me comí una ensalada y unas galletas nut can’t say ya me comí. I try to listen to Chileans and I think she’s right. I’d also say that here in Chile, you can mix the present simple and the present continuous, forget about the present perfect and don’t use adverbs. Also you can answer question with Sí, no and everyone thinks that’s normal. Good blog!

  • Reply
    Matteo Triossi
    September 27, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Actually, in Chile they don’t care whether you are a native Spanish speaker as long as you are not Chilean. Being here for eight years, I speak with some Spanish (meaning from Spain) accent, I’ll be forever a forester. Since most chileans do not speak or write a decent Spanish, I would concentrate on imitating the accent if you care.

  • Reply
    scott turner
    April 11, 2017 at 11:31 am

    11 years in chile. alot of these I do correctly withour knowing why . never took spanish classes..just listening and looking up every new word.lpl. great post

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