You may have found yourself quite confused...


... if you’ve ever tried to directly translate the English in your head to the Spanish coming out your mouth. While Spanish and English largely follow a relatively similar structure and many like words, don’t fall into a trap of trying to translate in your head constantly. It may sound abstract or advanced to think in Spanish; but this is something best done from the very start.

To demonstrate the trap, have a look as some of these interchangeable words in English that simply do not add up in Spanish:

To know: Saber + Conocer
To come/go: Venir + Ir
To bring/take: Traer + Llevar
To ask: Preguntar + Pedir

Spanish draws a line in the sand between:

- Asking a favour or permission / asking a question

- Asking if you are acquainted with something / if you have the knowledge or skill of something

- If you are coming / going / bringing something from somewhere or to somewhere

These are distinctions not usually made in English. In English we tend to say either:


Are you coming to school tomorrow? Or are you going to school tomorrow?


*You might very well know that ‘coming’ and ‘going’ are not in fact interchangeable! But (as a great Englishman once said) it appears to be a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance.


In English our separation of going and coming is very flimsy and arguable. But in Spanish: to go (ir) and to come (venir) have two separate and distinct meanings depending on the direction of the movement between the speaker and the place. 

Image by Penelope Ray

In the same way, there are also two different words for to bring (traer/llevar), depending on the direction of what is being brought:

¿Puedes venir a mi trabajo mañana y traerme las llaves?  
Can you come to my work tomorrow and bring me the keys? (I am at my workplace)

¡Por supuesto que puedo ir a tu trabajo mañana y llevarte las llaves!
Of course I can go to your work tomorrow and bring you the keys! 

Come, go, bring and take are often seen as interchangable in English… And certainly used as if they were. But in Spanish you need 4 separate words with 4 separate meanings! Read a very funny and enlightening story of how Spanish teachers explain the difference here.

Don’t despair; it will eventually sound very strange to you when you hear ir and venir or similar words being used incorrectly. And this is what we mean by thinking in Spanish.    

Another example that often confuses beginners (and even intermediates) is the difference between saber and conocer. In English: I know Italy the same way I know my great uncle and how I know how to drive or surf (all not particularly well). In Spanish though, there are two separate words to describe how I know something or someone. 

Saber is used to describe knowledge of something:

que Machu Pichu está en Perú
I know that Machu Pichu is in Peru. (I’m aware of it’s geographical location)

Conocer is used to be acquainted:

Conozco Machu Pichu en Perú
I know Machu Pichu in Peru. (Because I have been there)

Likewise, preguntar is used to ask a question of knowledge while pedir is used to ask permission or a favour. 

¿Puedo preguntar qué tienen de menú hoy?
 May I ask what is today's menu? (I want to know what it is – information)

¿Puedo pedir el menú del día? 
May I ask for today's menu? (I would like to order it - request)

As you can see by these examples, translation is a delicate and imperfect art form. It takes years of dedicated training to become a simultaneous translator! Make it easy for yourself and don’t attempt this amazing feat. Determine individual words in their own right; learn to accept Spanish words as concepts in your head rather than as their English word equivalent. 

As an example exercise: picture a real chair in your mind or imagine sitting on one when you think of silla, and try not to think of the actual word chair. Repeat this whenever you learn a new word or grammatical concept. It may seem more difficult, but in the long run it will make thinking in Spanish come naturally! 

Download a Printable Version

Click for access to PDF version

Not sure which course is right for your Spanish level? Test your Spanish level now!

Ready to start learning? Find a class and enrol now!

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Each month we'll send you Spanish language tips, practice exercises, useful links, special offers and fun upcoming events.

View past newsletters

Join our online community!

Become our friend on facebook or follow us on twitter. Connect with us and become part of our online spanish community.