Introduction: Spanish is a Romance language and part of the Indo-European language family. It is closely related to Italian and Portuguese. Spanish is a major language, with up to 400 million native speakers in Spain, Latin America and the USA.
Alphabet: Spanish uses the Latin alphabet. The vowels can take an acute accent, and there is the additional letter ñ. When spelling English words or writing them from the teacher's dictation, beginning Spanish students may make mistakes with the English vowels a, e, i. The consonants h, j, r, y may also cause trouble, since they have significantly different names in Spanish.
The English writing system itself causes no particular problems to Spanish learners. Beginners, however, may be tempted to punctuate questions or exclamations as follows, since this is how it is done in Spanish: ¿What is your name? / ¡What a goal! Punctuation of direct speech may also be a problem because quotation marks are not used in Spanish.
Phonology: The phonological system of Spanish is significantly different from that of English, particularly in the aspects of vowel sounds and sentence stress. These differences are very serious obstacles to Spanish learners being able to acquire a native-English-speaker accent. Coe (1987) says:
"European Spanish speakers, in particular, probably find English pronunciation harder than speakers of any other European language."
Spanish has 5 pure vowels and 5 diphthongs. The length of the vowel is not significant in distinguishing between words. This contrasts with English, which has 12 pure vowel sounds and 8 diphthongs (*but see below). The length of the vowel sound plays an important role. It is not surprising, therefore, that Spanish learners may have great difficulty in producing or even perceiving the various English vowel sounds. Specific problems include the failure to distinguish the sounds in words such as ship/sheep, taught/tot, fool/full or cart/cat/cut.
Producing English consonant sounds is not so problematic for many Spanish learners, but difficult enough! They may have problems in the following aspects:
Spanish is a syllable-timed language*. When Spanish speakers transfer the intonation patterns of their mother tongue into English, which is a stress-timed language, the result may sometimes be barely comprehensible to native English speakers. This is because the meaning or information usually conveyed in English by the combination of stress, pitch and rhythm in a sentence is flattened or evened out by the Spanish learner.
* See this Language Log page for a more nuanced dscussion of the prosody of Spanish.
Grammar - Verb/Tense: Although Spanish is a much more heavily inflected language than English, there are many aspects of verb grammar that are similar. The major problem for the Spanish learner is that there is no one-to-one correspondence in the use of the tenses. So, for example, a Spanish learner might incorrectly use a simple tense instead of a progressive or a future one: She has a shower instead of She's having a shower; I help you after school instead of I'll help you after school. Problematic for beginners is the formation of interrogatives or negatives in English. The absence of an auxiliary in such structures in Spanish may cause learners to say: Why you say that? / Who he saw? / Do you saw him? / I no see him. / I not saw him.
Grammar - Other: Spanish word order is generally Subject-Verb-Object, like English. However, Spanish allows more flexibility than English, and generally places at the end of the sentence words that are to be emphasised. This may result in non-standard syntax when Spanish learners speak or write English.
There are numerous other minor differences in the two languages that may result in negative transfer. Here are a few examples. The way that things are done in Spanish can be inferred from the mistake in English:
Vocabulary: Due to shared Latin influence English and Spanish have many cognates, and the corresponding collection of false friends, such as eventual (English translation > possible) or particular (English translation > private). Since the Latin-derived words in English tend to be more formal, the Spanish student will benefit when reading academic text. He or she may sound too formal, however, if using such words in everyday spoken English. Conversely, phrasal verbs, which are an essential aspect of colloquial English, are difficult for Spanish learners and may obstruct listening comprehension.
Long noun groups such as the standard language classroom teacher-student interaction pattern, commonly found in academic English text, are troublesome for Spanish speakers, whose language post-modifies nouns.
Miscellaneous: Spanish has a strong correspondence between the sound of a word and its spelling. The irregularity of English in this respect causes predictable problems when Spanish learners write a word they first meet in spoken language or say a word first met in written language. A specific problem concerns the spelling of English words with double letters. Spanish has only 3 double-letter combinations cc, ll, rr. English, in comparison, has 5 times as many. Spanish learners often reduce English double letters to a single one, or overcompensate by doubling a letter unnecessarily; for example hopping for the present participle of hope.
Coe, N. in Swan, M. & Smith, B. Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems. (1987) Cambridge University Press.
* The assertion that English has 8 diphthongs applies to standard British English pronunciation (also called Received Pronunciation). [Click for a brief discussion of diphthongs in Standard American English].