The best way to internalize complicated bits of Spanish is by noticing the context in which they’re used and using them yourself until they become second nature.

Take llevar and traer. Trying to understand them by thinking of them as “to bring” is as frustrating as chopping wood with a blunt axe. To sharpen your Spanish axe, you have to place them in a web of interconnected ideas that elicit an emotional response. Or more simply:

Embed confusing Spanish words inside memorable stories.

Think about what happens when you hear the words “get up.” Your brain has accumulated so many stories throughout your life that the meaning seems obvious (Get up, it’s time for school. Let’s get up that tree. I want you to get up from the floor). Those stories look nothing like the ones you have for, say, “take up” (You’re taking up too much space. The plant takes up nutrients. I want to take up Spanish), but someone who hasn’t collected enough stories for those words will have a hard time telling them apart.

If this is your problem with llevar and traer (or with their equally misunderstood cousins ir and venir), let’s build some stories for them using the conversation below, where Bea and Diego are texting each other a few hours before they head out to Rafa’s party.

Bea.—¡Buenas! ¿Vas a ir a lo de Rafa esta noche?
“Hi! Are you going to Rafa’s thing tonight?”

Diego.—Hola, guapa. Pues no estaba muy convencido. Pero si vienes tú, igual me lo pienso.
“Hi, beautiful. I wasn’t totally convinced. But if you are going, I might consider it.”

The difference between llevar and traer is similar to the one between ir and venir. If you translate them literally (to go, to come), you won’t understand why Diego says «Si vienes tú» (if you come) instead of «Si vas tú» (if you go).

A better approach is to think of venir (and traer) as indications that the mental location of the speaker is the same as the destination.

When Diego says «Si vienes tú» he’s mentally imagining himself at Rafa’s party, so he frames the question from that perspective (if you come).

This is completely optional; it depends on your mental state. He could have just as well used ir: «Si vas tú, igual me lo pienso».

Likewise with Bea, if she had been imagining herself at the party in , she could have asked: «¿Vas a venir a lo de Rafa esta noche?»

—A mí me apetece, pero llevo todo el día currando y pasar una hora en el metro me da bastante pereza.
“I feel like going, but I’ve spent the whole day working and spending an hour in the subway doesn’t sound that appealing.”

—Creo que lo que tú quieres es que te lleve en coche.
“I think what you want is a ride.”

—Jajaja. Un poco, sí. 😊
“Hahaha. Yeah, kind of.”

One of the things that makes llevar extra confusing is that it has many more meanings than just to bring. In this case, we’re dealing with llevar {tiempo} {gerundio}, as in:

Llevo toda la mañana limpiando la casa y has tenido que venir tú a ensuciármela (I’ve spent the entire morning cleaning the house and you had to come here and make a mess.).

That’s an example of the kind of story that is worth committing to memory. If you do, next time you want to talk about the length of time you’ve spent doing something, llevar will come to mind effortlessly.

This is another llevar usage. It means to transport something or someone to a destination. Rather than to bring, in English we might say to take or to give a ride, but what we really need is a story to solidify the meaning. You can use mine for now, but eventually you should come up with your own:

No puedo pasarme todo el día llevándote de compras por la Quinta Avenida (I can’t spend the whole day taking you shopping on 5th Avenue).

—¿Y hay que llevar algo de comer? Porque no sé si me va a dar tiempo de preparar algo.
“And are we supposed to bring something to eat? Because I don’t know if I’m going to have time to make anything.”

—Por eso no te preocupes, que mi abuela me ha dado una receta para hacer tarta de moca y estoy en plena faena.
“Don’t worry about that. My grandmother has given me a mocha cake recipe and I’m hard at work.”

We know Diego’s mental location matches his physical location because he’s decided to use llevar. Using traer would make more sense if he were speaking to Rafa (and was there with him mentally).

—¿En serio? ¡Me encanta esa tarta! Cuando era pequeño se la pedía a mi madre en cada cumpleaños y ella la odiaba porque hacerla era una odisea. ¿Tú cómo lo llevas?
“Seriously? I love that cake! When I was young, I would ask my mom to make it on each birthday and she hated it because preparing it was quite the ordeal. How are you doing?”

—Creo que bien. Llevo una hora mezclando café y mantequilla y de momento no se me ha cortado. 👍
“I think I’m doing well. I’ve been mixing coffee and butter for an hour now, and so far it hasn’t curdled.”

Another meaning of llevar: to be doing something in a certain way (usually bien or mal). In English, we can also say How’s it going? For example: ¿Cómo llevas las clases de guitarra? (How are the guitar lessons going?)

This is the same meaning that we saw in : llevar todo el día.

—Entonces ya lo tienes. Ahora solo te falta hacer las capas de galletas y moler las avellanas.
“Then you’re almost done. Now you just have to layer the biscuits and grind the hazelnuts.”

—¿Esta tarta lleva avellanas?
“This cake has hazelnuts?”

New meaning. It’s very common to use llevar with ingredients. As in ¿qué lleva la tarta que está tan buena? (what did you put in this cake to make it so delicious?)

—Una tarta de moca sin avellanas es como una tortilla sin cebolla.
“A mocha cake without hazelnuts is like a Spanish omelette without onion.”

—Pues en casa no tengo. Me las vas a tener que traer tú cuando vengas a recogerme. 🚗😊
“I don’t have any at home. You’re going to have to bring them with you when you pick me up.”

—Mira qué lista.
“Aren’t you clever?”

If you understood ir and venir above, you’ll have no problem with llevar and traer.

Bea is asking Diego to bring hazelnuts to her location (she is both the speaker and the recipient), so she uses traer. It doesn’t really make sense for her to use llevar, except if she explicitly mentioned another location: Lleva las avellanas a casa de Rafa (Bring the hazelnuts to Rafa’s house).

Diego, however, has two options:

  1. He can see himself already at Bea’s house: Te traigo avellanas
  2. He can see himself at his physical location: Te llevo avellanas

—Lo de las avellanas ha sido idea tuya, así que no te quejes. Además, te estoy ahorrando la vergüenza de llegar a la fiesta con las manos vacías.
“The thing with the hazelnuts was your idea, so don’t complain. Besides, I’m saving you from the embarrassment of showing up at the party empty-handed.”

—Y por supuesto, después de la fiesta querrás que te traiga de vuelta a casa, ¿no?
“And of course, after the party you’ll want me to bring you back home, right?”

Well played, Diego. By using traer, you are subtly implying that you’re already at Bea’s place, therefore it’s the natural place to come back to after the party.

Using llevar would have worked just as well, but it would have been less suave.

—Te dejo venir, pero solo si te portas bien 😉
“I’m going to let you come, but only if you behave.”

I think Bea picked up on Diego’s hint.

Spanish Takeaways

The key to clearing up the confusion between llevar and traer (and ir and venir) is to start accounting for the speaker’s mental location. If it overlaps with the recipient or the destination, use traer (or venir); otherwise, use llevar (or ir).

Llevar and traer also have a bunch of other unrelated meanings. The best way to deal with those (or with any bit of Spanish, in general) is to come up with a one-sentence story, validating it with a native speaker, and committing it to memory using the scaffold technique.

Not only does it help you get rid of the confusion, you also get all the accompanying grammar for free.

Let me know how it goes in the comments.