Learning a new language is bound to involve a few stumbles and gaffes. Usually others will laugh off your mistakes if they see you're earnest. You might even laugh them off, too, once enough time has gone by. Here's a road map to help you spot some of the more common Spanish mistakes before you dig yourself in too deep:
Be Too Literal
Sometimes the literal translation isn't correct. Take caliente, which means hot. Apply it to objects – food and cooking utensils or pavement in the sun, for example – and you're fine. If you're talking about yourself, the words estoy caliente (literally, I am hot) carry a definite sensual or even sexual connotation. You'd be a lot better off saying tengo calor (literally, I have heat). Even though the direct translation sounds a little odd in English, it's the proper phrasing in Spanish and will help keep you out of some very awkward situations.
Spanish and English are full of cognates, or very similar words that mean the same thing in both languages. Autobus in Spanish, for example, means exactly the same as a very similar English word: Bus. Notorio in Spanish means the same thing as its English twin, notorious.
Assuming a Spanish word means the same thing as a very similar English word is one of the most common mistakes in Spanish (for foreign speakers) and, while you can often get away with it, rest assured that assuming words are cognates will get you into trouble eventually. Take embarazada: A man who uses this word, thinking it means embarrassed, will be embarrassed because it actually means "pregnant."
Don’t Pay Attention
Sometimes cultural differences are subtle, and they vary from community to community, from country to country, and of course depending on the personalities involved as well. I learned this lesson in a hurry when I walked away from a woman that kept saying “Blanca,” to me. I felt very insulted because I thought she was making fun of my white skin. Turns out that Blanca was her name, and she was just trying to be polite and introduce herself. I was the one being rude, out of ignorance and fear. Taking a few minutes to observe that folks don't always preface their introductions with mi nombre es (my name is…) as I was taught in Spanish class would have avoided the problem entirely.
Parrot a Potty Mouth
Just like in English, some Spanish speakers are pretty foul mouthed… and others will be offended by such language. So before you mindlessly mimic exclamations, especially those made in surprise or anger, find out whether they're fit for repetition in polite company. This advice isn't only for exclamations you learn from Spanish speakers in person; it goes double, or even triple, for phrases picked up from television, radio and other popular media.
Let the TV Be Your Guide
Just as with English television, Spanish TV comes in highbrow, lowbrow, and just plain awful versions. Don't let television define the culture for you. Get out and watch actual people interacting, and you'll be less likely to come across as your own personal sitcom.
American English plays fast and loose with its vowel sounds: Vowels make multiple sounds depending on the letters around them, context (read vs. read) or sometimes just because (e.g. through and though). Most of us are also awfully fond of using the schwa (“uh”) sound for various vowels. Carrying the schwa over into your Spanish pronunciation is a common mistake. Follow these habits in Spanish and you're sure to get lots of perplexed looks from Spanish speakers. Take the time to be clear and precise with your vowels, though, and you'll be understood: Each vowel makes just one sound in Spanish. No matter what.
With Spanish being spoken in so many countries, it should be little wonder that sometimes the same word has evolved into different meanings within various regions. Take ahorita for example. Depending on which country you're in, ahorita can mean “right about now,” “exactly this instant,” “in a bit,” or refer to “a short time” in past or future. If you'd like to avoid this common Spanish mistake, you're going to have to ask for clarification about what certain words mean in a particular region (or to a speaker from that region).
Sometimes the same word carries a perfectly innocuous meaning in one country but is considered foul in another. Take “cojer.” In Spain, it means simply to “get” as in go get me a soda. But in other countries (Mexico in particular) it can also be used as a crude reference to sexual activity.
It’ll Be Okay
Maybe you've already committed a few of the gaffes I laid out here. If you haven't, don't worry – you will. I have yet to meet a language learner that hasn't. Just remember that if you keep practicing and brave making occasional mistakes in Spanish, one day you'll look back at those red-faced moments and laugh about them—in fluent Spanish.