Essential Spanish Conversation

Anybody living in, or going on holiday to, a non-English-speaking country will no doubt have a bit of sympathy for their compatriots who decide to play it safe and keep to English-speaking areas.  It’s not easy to learn a foreign language especially for those of us who are, to be honest, a bit more mature, however once you decide to live inland, away from the tourist areas,  it becomes a necessity.

There are lots of books and courses out there, claiming that you can learn Spanish/French/German/Turkish (delete as applicable) in 7/12/30/90/100 days (delete as applicable), or just 10 or 15 minutes a day.  What I would like to see is one saying that you can speak Spanish fluently after three years.  We have been here for three years now and, although we know lots of Spanish words, we are far from being fluent.

We can get by on an everyday basis without too many problems and, through watching Spanish TV every day, we have learnt to understand a lot of what people say to us, but our main difficulty is gathering our thoughts quickly enough to be able to reply confidently in Spanish.  We have British friends who have lived here a lot longer than us who say the same.  Somebody, who will be nameless, has a catchphrase: “No problema”, which is fine but it does become a bit repetitive if you don’t say anything else – and that of course is a problema.

Listening to Spanish people talking to each other, I started to realise that lots of phrases came up on a regular basis.  I also realised that many people talk at the same time, without listening too closely to what their friends are saying, which is when I came up with the idea of my” Essential Spanish Conversation” course for all social occasions.  The good news is that it is totally free!

You need enough of the basic language to be able to follow the conversation, even if you don’t understand every word, and then all you do is insert any of the following words and phrases at what seems to be the appropriate moment.

“Si,  Si, Si.” or “No, No, No.”  You will immediately stand out as an extranjero if you use only one Si or No at a time.

“!Claro!” - meaning of course - is particularly helpful if you aren’t sure whether Si or No is the right response.

“Poco a poco” – little by little – is the correct reply when asked how your Spanish is progressing.  (If you are already fluent in Spanish, you won’t need this course.)

“!Madre mia!” is the acceptable exclamation when something shocking or surprising is said to you. It is particularly appropiate when a firework goes off unexpectedly and startles you (this happens frequently in Spain!) or a motorist totally ignores the fact that you have a green man and therefore right of way, accelerating over the crossing ahead of you.

“Más o menos” – more or less – is used a lot when talking about time in Jumilla, where punctuality is virtually unknown.  A friend asked us the other day what time the concert started, to which we replied “A las ocho.  Más o menos”.

“!Jésus!” is the most common response when somebody sneezes, though some people prefer to say “!Salud!”

“!Qué guapo/guapa!” is a compulsory phrase whenever you peep into a pram to admire a baby (which is in itself a compulsory action).  It doesn’t matter if the baby is ugly – Spanish babies are all guapos or guapas.  If the baby really is good-looking, a superlative is called for: “guapisimo” or “guapisima” is what you need.  You know, of course, that guapo is for males and guapa is for females:  usually masculine words end in “o” and feminine words end in” a” in Spanish, though obviously there are exceptions. Who said learning a foreign language is easy?

Spanish people are naturally very helpful.  A common greeting here is “¿Qué tal?” quickly followed by “¿Bien?”, hinting at the expected response, which is of course “Bien” or possibly “Muy bien”.  They also have an uncanny ability to recognise when they have lost you conversationally, asking “¿No entiendo?”  If you didn’t understand, you will then tell them “No entiendo”.

So there you have it.  Instead of just nodding to show that you understand (más or menos), just learn a few common expressions and impress your Spanish friends and neighbours with your language skills.  !No hay problema!

I am sure that this principle also applies to people living in France, Germany or any other foreign country, trying to learn the language.  Do you have any key essential phrases to add to my list?

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  1. Jack Scott’s avatar

    Liam has learned a few useful Turkish words and phrases which gets us by. I remain hopeless. I can’t blame my age. I couldn’t get the hang of French even during my learning years. So I smile alot and hope I don’t look like some kind of village idiot.

  2. Danny’s avatar

    There are a few essential phrases in Cantonese I picked up in Hong Kong. One interesting construction is the yes or no type phrases. The ‘ah’ on the end of a sentence turns it into a question.

    ho m ho ah — is it good (ho) or not good (m ho)
    meng m meng ah — do you understand or not
    ho m ho saik ah — is it good or bad to eat (saik)

  3. Sue Walker’s avatar

    Jack, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes, when I’m not quite sure what is being said, I just smile. I hope that the local people think of me as being very friendly – but maybe they think I am a bit simple!