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Common Errors

Posted by sebastian agosto - 5 - 2013 0 Comment

Chilean Adventures in Speaking and Writing English—Part 1

By Edward J. Gonzalez

In the process of learning and using a foreign language, it’s very common to use one’s mother tongue to navigate through the strange and sometimes difficult new structures we encounter. Linguists call this process Language Transfer; this means we make use of mechanisms in our native language when trying to produce sounds, words, sentences and ideas in the target language. Or, more simply, we try to speak English using Spanish. There are two types of transfers: Positive and Negative.

Some transfers are positive because both the native language [Spanish] and the target language [English] have the same word, grammar rule, meaning, etc. so there’s no problem. Both concrete and abstract words such as chocolate, sofa, cereal, and justice, memory, optimism are virtually identical in both languages. When we say in English sentences like “chocolate is delicious”, “Cuba is an island” and “Technology causes problems” we don’t have trouble understanding, both because the words and the syntax (order of words) are similar.

But sometimes we employ what is known as negative transfer, where the native structure/meaning doesn’t fit well into the target context. We’ve all heard the Exit/Exito and Pollo/Chicken, Repollo/Rechicken jokes. This is negative transfer.

Given that virtually all English learners in Chile have Spanish as their native language, these transfer errors are predictable and I hope to shed some light on them in this Adventures section.

In my years teaching English here in Chile I’ve been able to collect many errors, both spoken and written, and it’s the aim of this segment to analyze and clarify what they are and how to fix them.

All errors are from real people, many of them students.


Error 1: They make estrict diets. Why this happens?

What’s going on here? Let’s highlight the parts of the sentence that are problematic and employ some form of negative transfer

They make estrict diets. Why ___ this happens?

Make: in Spanish there is only the word “hacer”, in English we have “do/make” so errors are bound to happen. Generally, make pertains to things we construct/create and do pertains to protocols we follow.

We make

art, cakes, pizza, profits and friends because none of those things existed before we attempted to create them.

Before there were only

a blank page, flour, dough, a business opportunity and a stranger;

we had to construct something novel out of them.

We do

our job, the laundry, exercise, our nails because we are just following a pre-established process.

It’s helpful to think of do as relating to a recipe step 1, step 2, step 3 . . .

it can be a long and complex recipe but the steps already exist.

So, a diet presumably has steps and rules you need to follow:

eat less, cut out sweets, eat more vegetables, etc.

You can make a diet, but that means you are creating one, as a nutritionist would.

“You should go see Dr. Fitness, he tailor-makes diets according to your specific needs.”

For further do/make info visit this page [Link] and take the quizzes it offers

Estrict: this is a common mishap for Spanish speakers because the consonant cluster [st] never appears in the same syllable in Spanish. You can say “astringente” but the [s] and the [t] are in different syllables: as-trin-gen-te

So the common remedy is to stick an “e-“ in front of the [s] and create . . . a new syllable!


Other common examples are

“es-top”, “es-trong”, “es-pace”, “es-print”.

In all cases a new syllable is created to fit the Spanish phonetic pattern.

Tip: focus on that “s-“ and make it a little longer “ssssss”. Only then produce the rest of the word: “sssssss-trict”.

Missing “does”+ happens: in wh- questions [Link] in English we need something called an auxiliary (usually ‘do’) which marks certain grammatical functions. When creating questions, words have “moved” from their original positions and “do” serves as a kind of place holder that marks these movements:

  1. This happens for some reason
  2. This happens why for some reason (answer replaced by question word; in Spanish this function might be enough to ask a question “¿esto pasa porqué?)
  3. Why this happens ____? (“why” has moved to the front to mark that it’s a question)
  4. Why do this happens (‘do’ has been inserted because wh- question words have to be linked to a verb and only certain verbs are in that position)
  5. Why does this happen_? (once everything is in its right place, the sentence has to obey the rule that the first verb in the main clause carries the tense*[Link] , so the “–s” in happens moves to the newly inserted do and we get does)

The final and correct sentence is then:

They do _strict diets. Why does this happen_? 


Error 2: Is impossible to do it without time.

Seems right, doesn’t it? So what’s wrong? More specifically, what’s missing?

__ Is impossible to do it without time.

The pesky “IT”: in English it’s a must to have a subject at the beginning or head of the sentence in affirmative statements. This is a simple but prevalent example of negative transfer. In Spanish we just say “Es imposible hacerlo sin tiempo” and we don’t need to specify a subject. In English we need that “it”. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific;

it’s equivalent to “la cosa” or “la cuestion” but it needs to sit at the beginning of the sentence.

Other examples:

__ Are pretty the roses/son lindas las rosas.

__ Came at 5 o’clock my friends/viene a las 5 en punto mis amigos.

__ Cleans carpets really well the shampoo/limpia alfombras muy bien el shampoo.

All would be straightforward, simple, no fuss sentences in Spanish, but in English they are missing that “it”.

Remember also that you can contract the “It” and the “is” into “it’s” to produce

It’s impossible to do it without time.


Error 3:  A balance diet always will be the best.


So, what’s going on? A couple of things, highlighted below:

A balanced diet always will always be the best.

I’ve done two things:

1) I’ve added a “–ed” suffix to balance which turns it from a noun (a thing) to an adjective (a description of a thing). The “–ed” gives it that descriptive flavor, as in

tired, tailored, colored, painted, heated, etc.

TIP: It’s important to remember that adjectives tend to go to the left of nouns in English as opposed to Spanish (compare: una dieta balanceada).

2) I moved the always after the will. This is because frequency adverbs (almost always) go after modals. This doesn’t have to be the case in Spanish, where “siempre” can go

right to the top of the sentence: “siempre una dieta balanceada será la mejor”

or somewhere in between: “una dieta balanceada siempre será la mejor”

or as in English: “una dieta balanceada será siempre la mejor”

this is due in part because Spanish incorporates future tense into the verb: será, podrá, querrá, irá; English keeps its future “will” separate from the verb.

So again the final sentence would be:

A balanced diet will always be the best.


Error 4: if nothing likes you, just stay home.


The key issue here is how Spanish speakers and English speakers like things.

It’s very common for a gringo to say “yo gusto las papas fritas”, and we laugh a little and tell him “me gustan las papas fritas”, and he says “o? tu también? Que bueno.”

What English speakers don’t have is that “me” from Spanish. It would be like saying in English “to me like the French fries”.

In Spanish it’s common and almost unavoidable to use “me”:

“me voy a sentar”,

”me estoy preparando unos tallarines”,

”me cansé y me fui pa’ la casa”.

In English, people like the same way they eat, or drink or love or carry things/people. It’s just another transitive verb (takes an object, like french fries above).  In Spanish, things affect us with their attractive characteristics, they impress us with their noticeable shape or taste or personality, and so Spanish speakers, in a way, say that things are likeable to them.

The other classic confusion comes from a boy, let’s call him Jake, and a girl, Samantha, who like each other. In spanish, “a Jake le gusta Samantha y a Samantha le gusta Jake y en fin ellos dos se gustan”. So when a spanish speaker tries to say this in English we get something along the lines of “to Jake Samantha like” or “to Samantha Jake like”. (What?)

So let’s keep it (as) simple (as possible) and break it down this way

S(ubject) V(erb)  O(bject) Meaning
Jake likes Samantha (Jake has feelings for Samantha, she is likeable to him)
Samantha likes Jake (Samantha has feelings for Jake, he is likeable to her)

You can also think of “like” as you would other emotional feelings

Jake quiere/admira/extraña/odia/piensa (en) Samantha
Samantha quiere/admira/extraña/odia/piensa (en) Jake

It no longer seems so strange when the gringo says

Yo gusto las papas fritas

So the final sentence should be:

If nothing likes you, stay home. (remember nothing is likeable to you) so . . .

If you don’t like anything, stay home.


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