3 quick tweaks to make your Spanish seem more natural

There is a concept in second language acquisition called “language transfer” or “L1 interference” (L1 means your first language – the one you’ve learned since infancy). This happens when you apply the rules of your L1 to your L2 (second language). A common L1 interference mistake for Spanish speakers learning English is saying your age like “I have 29 years” because in Spanish, you use the verb TENER (to have) to express your age (“Yo tengo 29 años.”)

These mistakes are completely logical and understandable, yet they also seem very unnatural and strange to a native speaker, who might not understand what the other person is trying to communicate.

Here are 3 quick tweaks you can make to your Spanish communication to avoid some of that “L1 interference”!

1. Drop the personal pronouns

English speakers tend to overuse personal pronouns because English requires personal pronouns to make a complete sentence. Spanish DOESN’T because the verb conjugation already shows us who the subject is.

In most contexts, dropping the pronoun is preferable and sounds more natural in Spanish.  “Hablo español. ¿Hablas español?” sounds more natural than “Yo hablo español. ¿Tú hablas español?”.

Personal pronouns are used in Spanish to clarify or emphasize. Of course we know that the third person singular and plural conjugations are used for multiple personal pronouns. Like, “Habla español” doesn’t give us much information about who speaks Spanish – ¿él? ¿ella? ¿usted? In this case, a pronoun would be used to clarify who is being talked about.

However, the pronoun is normally dropped after everyone in the conversation knows who the subject is. For example, someone may say “¿Ricardo habla español?” and since the interlocutor knows that the subject is Ricardo, they could just answer “Sí, habla español bien.”

There may also be a misunderstanding in a conversation that needs to be clarified. “ELLA no habla español, pero yo sí” “SHE doesn’t speak Spanish, but I do.” Here you are emphasizing that SHE doesn’t speak Spanish, but someone else does.

In general, English speakers should try to fight the urge to use personal pronouns when the conjugation alone is enough!

2. Avoid capitalization (but not all the time)

Days of the week, months of the year, nationalities, languages, book/movie/song, etc. titles are capitalized in English.

We write: Monday, January, Guatemalan, Spanish, The House of the Spirits.

In Spanish, all of those would be written in lowercase: lunes, enero, guatemalteco, español, La casa de los espíritus (in the case of a title, the first word is capitalized, and the rest of the words are lowercase, except for if there is a proper name in the title like “Don Quijote de la Mancha”)

Names, occupational titles, countries, cities, holidays, historic events/periods are capitalized in both languages:

Real Academia Española / Royal Spanish Academy

Doctora Ramírez / Doctor Ramírez

El Salvador / El Salvador

Nueva York / New York

Día de Independencia / Independence Day

la Edad Media / Middle Ages

3. Communicate dates properly

In English, we say “I have to turn in my Spanish homework on Tuesday.” In Spanish, you want to take out that “on” and change it to “the”, which sounds completely unnatural in English, but the other way around sounds completely unnatural in Spanish! The way to say the sentence in Spanish is “Tengo que entregar mi tarea de español el martes”

Another big difference is how we communicate the calendar date. In English, we format this with “Today is [day of the week], [month] [ordinal number]” OR “Today is [day of the week], the [ordinal number] of [month]”, such as “Today is Tuesday, September 1st” or “Today is Tuesday, the 1st of September”

Spanish is similar, except ordinal numbers (second, third, fourth, etc.) are only used for the first day of the month, and cardinal numbers (two, three, four, etc.) are used for the rest of the days in the month.

Also, you should format the date like the second English example above: “Hoy es [day of the week], el [ordinal/cardinal number] de [month].”

So, “Hoy es martes el primero de septiembre. Mañana es miércoles, el dos de septiembre”

Also, keep in mind that many Spanish-speaking countries format the date going from the smallest unit (day) to the largest unit (year), so September 1st, 2020 is 01/09/2020, while 09/01/2020 is actually January 9th!

Hopefully these quick tweaks can help you communicate more naturally in Spanish!

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