Top 5 Spanish Mistakes That Make You Sound Like a Gringo

Cerveceria Libre

Happy hour at Cerveceria Libre (photo: Dave Lee)

No one wants to sound like a gringo when speaking Spanish.

Sounding less gringo means less hassle, lower prices and a more satisfactory travel/living experience.

The following are five common gringo Spanish pitfalls and how to avoid them:

1. Puedo tener

This is the holy grail of gringo Spanish errors. You will never, ever hear a native speaker say this when ordering something.

“¿Puedo tener una hamburguesa con queso?” in Spanish, for example, would be like saying in English, “Am I able to have a cheeseburger? Am I physically able?”

When ordering in Spanish you have many options, and these two are the best:

a) Quiero

It’s not rude. It’s fine. Just add “por favor” at the end.

b) ¿Me da…?

While in Colombia ¿Me regala…? might be more common, the good thing about ¿Me da…? is that it works throughout all of Spanish-speaking Latin America (go to Peru and say ¿Me regala…? and they’ll think you want something for free).

These constructions are also comfortable for gringos because they’re questions – they feel like the “Can I have…?” “Can I get…” we’re so used to.

2. Quisiera/Me gustaría

This is textbook Spanish. I’ve heard native speakers use “quisiera” before when ordering, but maybe one in a thousand times.

And “me gustaría” doesn’t really work unless you put a verb after it. When ordering, refer to the suggestions above.

3. “Un otro”

This sounds horrible to my ears, so I imagine to a native speaker’s ears it must sound like a house-cat dragging its claws across a 15-foot chalkboard.

“Un otro” simply doesn’t exist in Spanish. If you want to say “another” or “another one”, just say “otro/a”.

4. Por/para

“Por” and “para” are tough. I still have nightmares about them. Two of the most common errors associated with these prepositions are “gracias para” (use “por” because it’s an exchange), and “estoy esperando por/para ti”.

“Estoy esperando por ti” is actually technically OK, but it’s better to say, “Te estoy esperando” or “Estoy esperándote”.

And “estoy esperando para ti” is just wrong.

5. ¿Es posible…?

Ahhhhhh, how gringos love the “¿Es posible….?”. They use it for everything. “¿Es posible tener un BigMac? Es posible usar el teléfono? Es posible entregar la tarea tarde?”

Using this construction isn’t wrong, it just makes you sound like a middle-aged school teacher from Indiana on vacation in Cartagena.

If you want to know if it’s OK to do something, say, “¿Se puede…?” or “¿Está bien si….?”

Again, grammatically “Es posible” is OK, it just makes you sound like a huge gringo. Which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.

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About Mark Wetzler

Mark Wetzler fell in love with Colombia in 2007 after a 45-hour sailboat hell ride from Panama to Cartagena. His work has appeared on Roads and Kingdoms and the Matador Network. Follow his adventures at whereswetzler.com.

Comments

  1. Excellent and very helpful tips! We could use some more! Thanks

  2. Michael Rasmussen says:

    ¡cien gracias! Hopefully you’ll follow up with mistakes six to twelve to round out the dirty dozen gringoisms.

    “Me gustaría” was a surprise. Learning site Memrise pounds that one into students. Your suggestion of “Me da…” – so easy to remember and it reinforces proper pronoun use.

  3. Haha Thank you. I thought I was doing well .. ish but I make all these mistakes except ‘es posible’. Really need to up my game where Spanish is concerned I’ve been ‘getting by’ for way too long

  4. This is BRILLIANT ahahah “house-cat dragging its claws across a 15-foot chalkboard” is so on-point. SO much of what you learn in high school Spanish is just wrong.

    I’d say 99% of why my Spanish isn’t terrible is from talking to locals and just… copying how they say things. Down in Envigado at Colombia Immersion there’s a language exchange every Friday with tons of locals, it’s been really helpful for practice.

    • Michael Rasmussen says:

      Great. Now I just need to figure out how to migrate my job to there and I’m set.
      Or get a new job.

  5. Kevin Getz says:

    ¿ Por que necesita decir..”quiero…?

    no seria bueno, “un cerveza, por favor”, por ejemplo?

    • Hola Kevin,

      Si dices simplemente, “Una cerveza, por favor,” ¡está perfecto!

      Yo sólo quería destacar dos frases que puedes poner antes de “una cerveza”, porque a veces pueden ser útiles (y a veces suena más natural).

      Pero sí, “Una cerveza, por favor” está perfectamente bien.

      -Mark

  6. As long as Medellin Living keeps using the word “gringo” I will never take you seriously. Stick to bar and restaurant reviews. That’s all you are worth!

  7. How about we stop using the word ” gringo” for a american..

    I worked and lived in medellin for 2 years and despised the word.. Everyone one in my office knew it and respected me feelings and never used it…

    I am a American.. In miami i would never call a Colombian a ” spic or wetback”

    They are ” Colombians”

    As a american i find it very disrespectful …

    Just my opinion!!

    We allow a whole country to disrespect us as americans … ( yes i understand they do not mean to disrespect us) but they are!

    • Well Bryan, the word ‘gringo’ is used for more than Americans. Latin Americans who live in Europe refer to their hosts as gringos, which destroys their idea of it meaning foreigners!

  8. Also .. This is why Colombia will always be 3rd world and will always have conflict ..
    There is NO respect in the country!

    We should be setting examples on how to succed and not allowing disrepectful behavior.

  9. By using the word ‘gringo’ here in the context of errors, you are implying ‘stupid gringos’. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word:
    ” Among Spanish Americans, a contemptuous name for an Englishman or an Anglo-American.”
    The worst aspect of this is ex pats using the word about themselves when most Colombians and other Latin Americans I know wouldn’t dream of doing so.

    • There is another word that sparks angry and disrespect as well . That word being the “N” it some cultures it is ok to use, it some groups of leople it is in to use… However it still spells ignorance and disrespect !! Same as ” gringo”

      Bottom line its a ” slang ” term that spells disrespect …

      My opinion!!

  10. Everyone chill with the word gringo. It is used to refer to Americans all over Latin America. It can be used with disrespect, but most do not use it for that. Maybe it would be better to do a post on the word.

    • Oh really Andrew. Did you think we were too stupid to know that already? Popularity of usage doesn’t make it acceptable necessarily. Also, a post has already been done on this: the usual “oh we’re only being affectionate” kind of argument.

      • Yef – we know this is a heated topic, however, nobody is calling anyone “stupid” so please keep your comments friendly, otherwise we will delete them for not adhering to our editorial policy.

        The article we published about Colombians’ use of the word “gringo” can be found here.

        • I was referring to the context of the word “gringo” in the title, by associating it with linguistic errors which all human beings make. As for my reply to the post by Andrew, I was trying to point out that he was being patronising, by providing information that we were already aware of. I have not called anyone stupid, and my comments have been in no way offensive. If you don’t want heated discussion, don’t use terminology which you know will offend. Perhaps you should be pointing your warning at the author of the article. What exactly does he mean in this context? When latin Americans, or any other nationality or culture, make errors in English do we use perjorative words to describe them? i certainly don’t!

        • Dave. I refer you to a similar heated discussion on this topic from a while back: Dating Colombian Men. Someon made the following remark to a contributor:

          “Please excuse us while we all puke from Bridgewater’s ultra-PC comments. Keep your gringo values in gringolandia, marica.”

          Why did you allow such an offensive comment without the same warning you have recently given to me? Be careful not to exercise double standards.

          • This website has over 6,000 published comments since 2009, but it wasn’t until the last two years that we introduced a comment and editorial policy and began to more aggressively delete offensive or abusive comments (most are now deleted while in the moderation queue, and therefore readers never see them).

            Due to the time it’d require, we did not, however, go back and review all previously published comments. We focused on applying our new standards going forward. The one you quoted was left in 2014, and I just removed it.

            If you would like to discuss our policies further, you’re welcome to email me at dave@medellinliving.com

  11. Michael Rasmussen says:

    ¡Basta con el comentario de “gringo”!
    ¿Podemos tener un alto de este? ¿Es posible por nosotros hacemos un fin a lo?
    Me gustaría un poca de paz aquí, un poco de razon. Sí, la palabra no es buena. Pero, ¿es necesaria para tenemos un otro y un otro y un otro comentario?

    ¡Basta! por el amor de dios.

    (Did I misuse por and para enough? 🙂 )

  12. Mikey_Travels says:

    What is so wrong with sounding like a gringo? Yes, I am working my butt off to learn Spanish but I don’t think that in 2.5 months I’m going to sound like a native. I just want to be able to communicate and understand others. Maybe in a year of five of working hard on my Spanish I will sound less like a gringo.

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