“Paying attention” is an English idiom which means “to focus one’s attention on” or “to be attentive to.” Like other idioms, it does not translate literally into other languages, especially Spanish. (That is to say, “pagar atención” – from pagar, “to pay,” and (la) atención, “attention,” is incorrect.)
However, there are two ways to say it depending on what it is to which is being paid attention. If paying attention to a person, the phrase is “prestar atención,” which in a literal word-for-word translation means “to lend (one’s) attention.” On the other hand, if paying attention to an idea or a thing, one would use “poner atención.” which if taken in a similar literal translation means “to put (or set) attention.”
- Correct: Presten atención al maestro cuando les habla. ✔
(Pay attention to the teacher when he speaks to you.)
- Incorrect: Pongan atención al maestro cuando les habla. ✘
Note the different connotations in the following two similar requests made from a a speaker (in our example, a teacher):
- Ésto es muy importante. Pongan atención por favor.
(“This is very important. Pay attention [to this concept/thing], please.” The teacher is explaining something to his/her students and does not want distractions.)
- Ésto es muy importante. Presten atención por favor.
(“This is very important. Pay attention [to me], please.” The teacher is demonstrating something, and wants his/her students to watch closely.)
I suppose it’s similar, slightly, to how Japanese translate the verb “to have” (or “to be/to exist”) as 有る（ある, “aru”) for objects and concepts but as 居る（いる, “iru”）for living things. Peculiar…but very interesting. Is this difference in Spanish for similar separation of living and non-living things? I wonder…Thanks for the neat Spanish lesson, mom! 🙂