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Top 10 Problems of the Spanish Language (Pt. 2)

Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish

As we saw last week, mastering the Spanish language is no mean feat, and not only for those learning the language, but also for those of us who are native speakers.

In the previous post we saw 5 problems of Spanish, but focusing on spelling issues (e.g.: h, b/v, g/j, q/k/c and z/c). Now, in this second part, I will talk about another 5 problems which can be a real nightmare for those of you learning Spanish as a foreign language, and this time, focusing on grammar rather than spelling. Let’s begin.

1. The subjunctive

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood that we use to express “various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred” (Wikipedia). It’s a very common mood among Romance and Germanic languages, but rather scarce in the English language, for instance. For this reason, English people learning Spanish usually struggle with the subjunctive. In fact, many English people who speak Spanish almost perfectly are frequently incapable of using this mood, even after years of being fluent in the language. So how do we speak “in the subjunctive mood” in English? Well, we simply use constructions with modal verbs or infinitives, which give that unreal tone to the sentence.

2. Verb tenses

I have a challenge for you now: guess, approximately, how many tenses there are in Spanish. If we check this article by the Royal Spanish Academy, will be able to count 16 verb tenses (simple + compound). Compared with Spanish, the English language is relatively easy in this regard, as it has around 12 tenses; that’s 4 less than Spanish.  Okay, admittedly, 4 doesn’t seem that many, but believe me when I say that, as regards languages, 4 verb tenses make a huge difference.

3. Verb forms

In English, each verb tense doesn’t mean different verb forms, except in the Present Simple, where the third person takes a final –s. We say: I eat, you eat, he/she eats, we eat, you eat, they eat. So we’re basically repeating eat for every person, except for the third one. Well, check out what happens in Spanish: yo como, tú comes, el/ella come, nosotros comemos, vosotros coméis, ellos comen. Yep, that’s right, it’s a different ending for each person. And this happens in every simple verb tense. For example in the Spanish future simple, we say: yo comeré, tú comerás, él comerá, nosotros comeremos, vosotros comeréis, ellos comerán.

It can be horrible, really. And it gets even worse when it’s an irregular verb, like ir (go), whose root changes completely depending on the tense and verb form. For example, in the present we say: yo voy, tú vas, etc.; but in the future it’s: yo iré, tú irás, etc. As you can see, the two verb forms have nothing to do with the other despite being the same verb. And there are many irregular verbs in Spanish, so please, think twice before complaining about irregular verbs in English!

4. Accents

In this case, we’re not referring to the way someone speaks, but to a mark that some languages use in some words to express pitch, stress or vowel quality. In particular, in Spanish we use accents to mark stress; and these are a real problem for many Spanish speakers, let alone learners.

The thing is that, in theory, it’s easy to know where to put an accent, as there are 3 basic rules which let us know which words need it and where. For example: we need an accent in words ending in a vowel, s or n where the stress falls on the last syllable. Yes, let’s be honest: if you’re a native Spanish speaker and don’t know how to accentuate with these basic rules, you probably didn’t pay much attention to your Primary teacher. The real problem comes when we come across emphatic accents (que/qué, como/cómo, etc.), diacritic accents (tu/tú, si/sí, etc.), certain hiatus (acentúas) and some more that you’ll encounter and/or forget to use.

5. Noun gender

This is also another problem of the Spanish language, especially for foreign learners. If you think about it, noun gender makes no sense unless we’re talking about a human being or animal with sex. I mean, how do we decide that a chair, una silla, is feminine and a phone, un teléfono, masculine. It’s a real mystery, really, and a great problem if you come from a language where noun gender hardly exists, like English.

Besides, even if you come from a language with noun genders, like French or German, beware, because many nouns change gender from one language to another. For instance, we say la nariz (feminine) in Spanish, but le nez (masculine) in French. Why? I have no idea…

BONUS: LL and Y

Finally, as a farewell gift, I’m bringing up another spelling issue in Spanish: the use of LL and Y. It turns out these letters, nowadays, represent the same sound when followed by a vowel. For this reason, apart from the typical problem of misspelling words, there are numerous homophones: poyo/pollo, cayo/callo, maya/malla, etc.

As we’ve seen in these two posts, the Spanish language will never stop causing us trouble, so you’d better get used to it. My advice is to read a lot and, little by little, you will start overcoming most spelling problems. And you, what other problems have you come across in Spanish? Let us know in the comments!

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