Major Differences Between Spanish and English 1/5: The Look Of Spanish

While I strongly believe it’s much more helpful for a beginning student to practice vocabulary (meaning-rich content) and pronunciation (lots of listening and speaking) over grammar, I do think that it helps to be more comfortable and excited about learning a foreign language if you have a little bit of an overview.  In this five-part series I’ll share with you some of the major ways that Spanish is different from English:

  • The Look of Spanish – Differences with the spelling, punctuation, and written markings of Spanish
  • The Sound of Spanish – A brief overview on how Spanish pronunciation compares to English pronunciation
  • The Words of Spanish – Things to know that are inherently different about Spanish words (like why there’s more than one way to say the word “the”)
  • The Structure of Spanish – How word order is different in Spanish
  • Addressing People in Spanish – A look at how Spanish makes a more precise distinction than English about addressing people formally, informally or as a group

I hope this information is helpful to you!  For now, we’ll start by looking at how written Spanish differs from written English.

The Look of Spanish

Differences between written Spanish and written English may not be the most important difference to discuss for when it comes to improving your spoken Spanish, but it may be the easiest to wrap your head around, so that’s why I start here.  Thankfully, English and Spanish share the same alphabet, so there’s that!  There’s also an upside to pay attention to written Spanish because there are so many words that LOOK SIMILAR in Spanish and English that this can actually be a confidence booster!  There’s a fancy name for words that look similar in two languages and mean the same thing: they’re called cognates.  Check out this website for an awesome infographic that shows some useful congnates: 75 Most Helpful Spanish Cognates.  There’s some good info on patterns in the beginning of the article, but you can also just scroll down aways for the infographic.

Here are three areas that written Spanish and written English differ.

Spelling

One difference that you may note is that for words that are similar in Spanish and English, Spanish will not double up the consonant.  Here are two examples:

  • Intelligent in Spanish: inteligente
  • Possible in Spanish: posible

Of note, though, is that you DO see the letter combination “ll” in Spanish.  This makes a completely different sound than the single l in Spanish.  However where the sounds of English and Spanish are similar the consonants aren’t doubled up as is common in English.

Punctuation

(A) Question marks and exclamation marks are not just used at the end of phrases in Spanish, but they are also used at the beginning, upside down!  It’s not just at the beginning of a sentence that the upside down question mark or exclamation mark is seen.  It may be in the middle of a sentence, if the sentence contains multiple complete ideas.  The grammatical explanation for this is that the upside down mark appears at the beginning of independent clauses (a phrase that by itself contains a complete idea).

See how this plays out in the following Spanish conversation:

  • Hola María, ¿cómo está usted? (Hello María, how are you?)
  • ¡Muy bien gracias! (Very well thanks!)

For an interesting explanation about why Spanish came to have these upside down question and exclamation marks, check out this article on Quora.

(B) Additionally, Spanish uses commas and periods slightly different than English does.  Spanish switches the use of the period and the comma when it comes to indicating thousands and cents:

  •  2.000 dólares = 2,000 dollars
  • 2,00 dólares = 2.00 dollars

Written Markings

(A) Spanish has a few additional markings including accent marks and tildes. The tilde is the squiggly line that sometimes appears over the n and changes its sound to sound like the ‘ny’ in the word canyon.

Exampleniño (child), pronounced NEE-nyoh.

(B) Accent marks over vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú) cause the vowel to be pronounced louder than it otherwise would be.

Example:  matemáticas (mathematics), pronounced mah-tay-MAH-tee-kas.

Accent marks can also help to differentiate two words that are spelled the same but mean different things, as in te (you) and (tea).

(C) Spanish also uses one other marking that English doesn’t use: the umlaut, or la diéresis in Spanish, two dots above a u.  Specifically, it can appear in four syllables, and changes their pronunciation from the normal patterns of Spanish:

Syllable without umlautPronunciationSyllable with umlautPronunciation
gue"gay"güe"gway"
gui"ghee"güi"gwee"
que"kay"qüe"kway"
qui"key"qüi"kwee"

An example of a word with the umlaut is the word nicaragüense, which means Nicaraguan.

That’s it for now…

We looked at three ways that written Spanish and written English differ.  We learned that Spanish doesn’t double up its consonants in words that are similar to the English.  Also, Spanish uses quesiton marks, exclamation marks, commas and periods slightly differently than English.  Finally, we learned that Spanish has a few additional written markings including the tilde and accent marks.  Hopefully this will help make the look of written Spanish less mystifying!

Next we’ll go over the pronunciation of Spanish and how it differs from the pronunciation of English.

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