Where High School Spanish Went Wrong

A few weeks ago some of my students were complaining about their high school Spanish classes, and how some things they were taught do not apply here in Chile. Some of it has to do with differences in the vocabulary used in Chile (somehow this conversation always starts with students asking me how to say stapler…). But then I thought of a couple of things I was taught in high school Spanish that I have never heard a native Spanish speaker use.


Via kobiz7 on flickr.

First, let’s talk about telling time.

In every single Spanish class that I took in high school, I was taught to tell time like this. If it’s from minute :00 to :30, you would simply say the time. For example, 6:20 would be son las seis y veinte (it’s six twenty). For :15 and :30 you could use the words cuarto and media. In my experience this is fine, except people usually drop the y when saying the time, and would say son las seis veinte instead.

What I have never EVER heard from the mouth of a native Spanish speaker, is how you say time from minutes :31 to :59. As it is falsely outlined in this article (yet another reason to never trust about.com for anything), I was taught to use the next hour and then subtract the time, using the word menos.  For example: If it is 6:40, I would say son las siete menos veinte, or literally translated “it’s seven minus twenty”. I can’t count the number of times this stupid rule would trip me up in Spanish class,  and I found it really hard to believe that everyone in the Spanish-speaking world was so great at subtraction, and instead of saying “it’s six thirty-two”, they would say “it’s seven minus twenty-eight”.

Come to find out, Spanish speakers don’t use this method. Or at least I’ve never heard it. Maybe in Spain? Anyway, this is what I’ve heard. Either people just say the time as is. If it’s 6:37, people say son las seis treinta y siete. Or, if it’s a round number such as 6:45, people might say es un cuarto para las siete, in other words, it’s quarter to seven. The same goes with 6:50, it would be diez para las siete, or ten to six.

I’m curious to know if other people were taught this way in high school Spanish. And more importantly, does anyone know if this system of telling time is used anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world?

Lower deck shop clothing

Via British Red Cross on flickr.

Now, let’s talk about wearing clothes. 

I was always taught that the correct word for “wear” (as in clothes or jewelry) was llevar, which in Spanish is also the word for take or carry (don’t get me started on my frustrations with the difference between llevar and traer, that is for a different post).

I distinctly remember when I finally realized that (at least in Chile) llevar is not used to mean “wear”. I was at Farellones ski center with work and I said to my boss, “Pucha ojalá hubiera llevado mi banano hoy.” Meaning, “Shucks, I wish I had worn my fanny pack today.” (Can’t exactly remember WHY I was wanting my fanny pack, but yes, I do own a fanny pack, and no, you aren’t allowed to judge. They are very useful and practical.) My boss instantly corrected me. “Traído”, she said, because she thought I was trying to say “I wish I had brought my fanny pack today” and incorrectly used the verb llevar instead of traer (see above).

Then I realized. Chileans say usar when they are referring to wearing clothes, not llevar. Or sometimes they use the phrase andar con, like Ni se dio cuenta que andaba con la polera que me regaló (He didn’t even realize that I was wearing the shirt he gave me). Or sometimes they don’t even use a verb. Mi prima? Es la niña con la bufanda roja, allá sentada en el sillón (My cousin? She’s the on wearing the red scarf, sitting over there in the chair).

According to WordReference.com, wear can be llevar, so maybe this is just something that is not used in Chile.

What do you all think? Is it time to update high school Spanish text books? Can you think of anything else you were taught that isn’t used in common speech? 


27 thoughts on “Where High School Spanish Went Wrong

    • Ahh! Bueno saberlo. De verdad nunca lo he escuchado, y he estado en Argentina un par de veces. Quizás nunca pregunté la hora no más…jaja. Gracias por comentar!

  1. First of all, most high school Spanish teachers are probably passably fluent with a patient listener at best. We were told we were being taught vocab from Spain and Mexico. Uhm yeh. They should just drop the vocab and the vosotros because you can learn that when you go to Spain, and instead teach vos which is used in many Latin American countries. And Mexican vocab? It made it seem like every country below the Rio Grand was one big Mexico. All spicy enchiladas and tropical Cancun like temps. Plus, they didn’t even teach us the most important conversation inserts like how Mexicans sometimes say “mande?” instead of “como?”. GAH! That messed me up so much in my call center job.

    • We had a couple of native speaking teachers when I was in high school…but it didn’t seem to help any. Luckily some of my teachers, junior and senior year, had studied abroad in South America so they taught us about culture from Uruguay and Argentina, but before that, everything was focused on Spain or Mexico. It’s funny to think that now I probably speak better Spanish than my high school Spanish teachers.

  2. I guess many people that want to learn Spanish well enough to teach it, may think “Well, I´ll go to the source, I´ll learn in Spain, that will be like, awesome!” And then learn Spanish they way is spoken in Spain.
    What other language speakers rarely know is that Spain is full of regional differences in language terms, even inside the same country, they have lots of dialects almost as much (if not more) that the ones among different countries in America.
    So, I can tell you for sure, “las siete menos veinte” instead of “veinte para las siete” is a Spanish spoken form, only used in Spain, and not even in all Spain! XD.
    A friend of mine studied in Spain for a few years, and came back talking about those differences, he said “un cuarto para las nueve”, or “nueve cuarenta y cinco” everyone started scratching their heads.
    There are many language differences among Latin American countries, but I bet you can safely tell what time is it the same way in everyone of them 😀

    • Thanks for your input, Marmo. Somehow I knew you would know! It’s annoying that people think the Spanish language=the way it’s spoken in Spain. Because the truth is, more people speak Spanish OUTSIDE of Spain, and it would make more sense to teach Latin American Spanish in US high schools. Luckily none of my teachers ever taught us the vosotros form, which is good for me because I NEVER have had to use it.

      • I think it would be the same for a person who learned English in England, and then moving to Texas or New Orleans xD. My guess is that your first time in Spain would be as shocking as it would be for any of us; sometimes when I watch something from Spain I have to focus really hard to understand what are they saying xD.

  3. Whether or not foreign language textbooks should be updated, I think we can all agree that the best way to learn a language fluently is to go abroad 🙂

  4. En España sí se dice “Las siete menos 20”, y se dice en toda España. No decimos, por ejemplo, “las siete menos veintitrés”, redondearíamos y diríamos también menos veinte, a no ser que quieras exactitud completa y entonces dirías las seis y treinta y siete”.

    Lo de llevar, también lo decimos. Hoy llevaba chaqueta, hoy no llevaba falda, etc. Pero también se usan otras cosas, como para señalar, puedes decir ” la de la chaqueta es mi prima”, o “hoy no me he puesto chaqueta”.

    Si os sirve de consuelo, a mí también me enseñaron mucho inglés que no se usa de verdad, o que al menos no se usa en todo el mundo anglo-hablante.


    • Siempre me ha llamado la atención la forma “vamos a por ellos”, en lugar de la que acostumbramos en América, “vamos por ellos”, eso no es solamente una diferencia conceptual, es estructural. El “Vamos a” se usa antes de un verbo solamente a este lado del Atlántico, como en “Vamos a bailar”.
      Es curioso este cambio, me gustaría saber cómo ocurrió.

    • Ahh me alegro mucho que no digan “siete menos veinitrés” porque suena muy ridículo para mi! Pero te lo juro que en mis clases de castellano en el colegio nos enseñaron así!

  5. I could probably write several pages about this topic! I know that my greatest stumbling blocks when I moved to Argentina were 1) dropping the tú form and becoming accustomed to using vos 2) learning the mountains of slang words that exist only here and 3) developing an ear for the unique Argentine accent.

    While I had to unlearn a lot of things from high school Spanish, I do owe my teachers a debt of gratitude. I really did learn quite a bit from them!

    • It’s true, without the solid base that my high school teachers taught me (mostly in Spanish 1, actually!) I think I would be quite lost. I do well with classroom learning, and not sure I could actually learn a language entirely through immersion, without the help of the classroom and a teacher. 🙂

      I learned the vos form when I lived in El Salvador, and then I had to unlearn it when I came to Chile. 😛

      • I still think I’d win a throw-down with most of my Spanish teachers, who actually were fairly few, since I switched to French before graduation. Not the native speakers, but the others, well… Yeah. But they tried, and we were not an easy crew!

        In other news, I hear “faltan 10 minutos para las X” almost always, and nearly never “X menos 10), so I concur! And I still can’t get llevar and traer right reliably, though I think I’ve finally ironed out ser and estar and por and para for the most part. It’ the final frontier (until I discover something else I’ve been doing wrong for years). Fun post, abby!

  6. El español varía mucho sus acentos y sus modismos regionales de un país a otro e incluso dentro de un mismo país, por lo que nunca terminas dominando todas las maneras de hablar de cada uno de ellos. Bàsicamente, lo mejor es aprender una base gramaticalmente sólida, que es muy similar en casi todos los países (excepto España, Argentina, Uruguay y Paraguay) y desde ahí construir tu propios “diccionario personalizado”

    • Hola Ro, de dónde eres? Dirías que en Chile el español es muy similar?? No sé…hay MUCHOS modísmos y una manera de conjugar la forma tú/vos que no existe en otros países. Pero tienes razón, la mejor manera de aprender es tratar de aprender un idioma estándar y no perderse en los modismos. Gracias por dejar un comentario!

  7. Oh so fun! I can’t imagine ever saying, “son las 7 menos 20” here but I learned it that way.

    I remember always using, “Pienso que…” and when I got to Chile, my old host brother would crack up everytime I said it because it was like I was making some philosophical proclamation… and then he told me to tone it down and say, “creo que …”.

    The present perfect tense isn’t really useful here in Chile either. I always had such a hard time teaching it to my English students because there was no Spanish comparison i their opinions. They insisted the only ways to say I’ve been waiting for 15 minutes were, “llevo 15 minutos esperando” and “estoy esperando hace 15 minutos”.

    • Haha yes, I remember saying “Pienso que…” back in the day as well! I got quite a few funny looks and then realized everyone just says “Creo que…” which I think is interesting because it’s kind of the opposite in English. “I think…” is much less profound than “I believe…”

      And you’re right about the present perfect. Although I still use it because it just still sounds WRONG to use the present simple. I had a student who had studied in Spain last semester who used the present perfect instead of the simple past, and that was weird to listen to, and I could help but correct her every time! Instead of saying “Compré una polera ayer” she would say “He comprado una polera ayer.”

  8. Hi Abby! Sorry I didn’t introduce myself before. I’m from Chile and I know how hard is for non native spanish to understand our slang or just the way we use the grammar. When we learn from a teacher in a institution or some other formal education centre we use the formal way, and sometimes very oldfashoned. It happens the same way in english learning. You learn the formal way and once you’re in contact with the real day by day use of the language you can feel like you’re a robot or something. My advice is this: there’s no one way to say what time is it, even inside a coutry or a city. Just learn a few ways to say it and use the one you like it. Anyways, the one how’s around you is going to get it! Lol If you have any doubt, give me a call! 🙂

  9. Wow, we didn’t have the option of taking Spanish in school – Just Welsh, French and German. This is why I’m glad I’m going to take Spanish classes when I get to Mexico so I can learn Mexican Spanish rather than British Schoolroom Spanish. 🙂

    • Really? No Spanish? My high school only offered Spanish and French. And Russian for awhile, but they phased it out because it was a remnant of the Cold War and they thought it was less useful that the other two languages I guess. Although for me, learning any foreign language is useful!

      Have fun learning Spanish in Mexico…it is best to go right to the source!

  10. Yes! My host brother always corrected me on “creo” vs “pienso” too. And another difference b/t Spain and Chile that I still struggle with is echar de menos vs extrañar. I studied in Spain first so I learned “echar de menos” as the standard phrase… until I went to Chile next and (after a LONG time) realized that no one really uses it there.

    As for the question of why most schools teach Spanish from Spain… it seems to be the same in Spanish-speaking countries learning English. Even in Latin America, where most people are MUCH more likely to encounter American English, the schools usually teach British English. My guess is that in both cases it’s left over from the colonial attitude, assuming that the European/”original” form is better.

    • That’s funny…I think I hear “echar de menos” here in Chile much more than “extrañar”, but I do hear both.

      One I almost never hear is “me haces falta”, which my ex-bf from El Salvador used to say a lot.

      Yes, schools do teach British English here…but I find most Chileans speak a more American type English because of the influence of the media from the US.

  11. Teaching either English or Spanish really depends on where you live.

    For instance when I first went to a Spanish class in England, they taught Spanish from Spain and my parents are from Chile. So sometimes I would say things in Chilean and my teacher would correct me, because I wasn’t speaking Spanish from Spain.

    Here in Chile I have worked with customers from all over Latin america, and it took me some time to get used to talking in a more neutral Latin American Spanish and leave aside the Chilean slang (not to mention to speak slower too).
    Also speaking in British English to Chilean friends (more used to US slang) sometimes ask me, why did you pronounce that word that way? Why did you say “nappy” instead of “diaper”? etc.
    I even know of Portuguese translators that specify that they teach either Portuguese from Portugal or Brazil.

    So coming back to the subject, I think you can either specify the type of English / Spanish / Portuguese that you teach. Like: Spanish from Chile, Spanish from Spain, British English, Brazilian Portuguese, etc.
    Or you can either try and teach a more neutral language, but you would need to know more about how the language that is spoken where you are teaching and mix that with the type of Spanish that you learn’t.

    In general it takes time getting used to speaking in a neutral language, but it can be done. The objective is to make sure that you are understood, it might not be 100% exact but it works.

    Definitely a good article!

    Kind Regards
    Felipe Amigo L.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s