How to Speak Spanish Like a Native

You’ve probably figured out by now that truly mastering a second language is difficult. It takes time, patience, and dedication.

However, if you ever visit Spain and want to blend in flawlessly without the hassle of actually learning Spanish, you really only need to know five phrases. With these up your sleeve, you’ll be able to have a typical Spanish conversation without a single problem! Nobody will ever guess that you’re a guiri (that’s Spain Spanish for ‘gringo’)!

The Only Five Phrases You’ll Ever Need:

Buenas: Only guiris say ‘hola’. Whenever you greet somebody, say ‘buenas’, as in buenas tardes or buenas noches (if it’s the morning, you can say ‘buenos’, short for buenos días, but let’s be real, you’re not getting up that early anyway).

¿Que tal?: Forget ‘Como estás’, that’s not what Spaniards say. You can ask about pretty much anything using ‘Que tal’, which is useful if you’re not in the mood to form actual sentences. ¿Que tal tu dia? ¿Que tal te va? ¿Que tal el trabajo? So native!

Vale: Want to reassure the locals that you’re following them, even though you really haven’t understood a thing? ‘Vale’ is the phrase for you! It means something like ‘Okay’, ‘Right’, or ‘I get it’, and you can say it literally whenever you want. Try to develop a look of perfect comprehension when saying ‘Vale’, because chances are you have no idea what’s going on, but it hurts your pride to tell a native speaker that.

Joder: The f-bomb. Like ‘vale’, you can say this whenever you want, including in front of your students, without fear of using the word incorrectly. It’s always appropriate to say ‘Joder’.

Hasta luego: Don’t say ‘adios’, that’s what gringos do. You need to say ‘hasta luego’, see you later, even if chances are good that you will never see this person again. To REALLY blend in with the locals, try to drop as many letters from this phrase as you can until it becomes a nearly indecipherable ‘TAUEO’. Say this loudly and with confidence.

These five phrases make up probably 75% of the conversations I have here in Spain. Really, this is all you need to know!

Example Conversation:

Me: Buenas!

Friend: ¡Helen! Joder. ¿Que tal?

Me: Bien.

Friend: Vale.

Me: Vale, TAUEOOO

Friend: TAUEOOO

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The Best Thing About Spaniards

I really, really love living in Spain. It’s wonderful — my only regret is that I can’t participate more fully in la vida española (thanks, narcolepsy). 

I know that it’s not good to make generalizations about an entire country, blah blah blah, but since day one I’ve been constantly struck by how generous Spaniards are. They give things away without a second thought, and without my asking for anything!

Here is a sampling of the things I’ve been given during my two months here in Spain:

-An absurd amount of free food, drinks and coffee for no reason;

-It was drizzling one day when I went to the bar, and one of my waiter friends disappeared briefly and returned with a fancy umbrella of unknown origin, insisting I keep it;

-Juanra, my favorite teacher, gives me plums, bread and, most recently, a map of Lisbon, Portugal, where he visited on a weekend trip;

-In Segovia, not only did my friends pay for my cochinillo, but one of them also bought me a piglet-shaped magnet/bottle opener as a souvenir;

-Today, I visited the bar, and one of the regulars, a young-ish dude with wild dark hair and bright blue eyes, produced a potted plant out of nowhere and gave it to me as a gift. I thought it was a joke, but he insisted that I keep it. IMG_1549

Thank you, bar regular!

Sleep Study in Spain

There’s only one medicine, sodium oxybate, which treats all the symptoms of narcolepsy — daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks, REM intrusions, the whole deal. I’ve never tried this drug because it’s very tightly controlled, but it’s life-changing for so many people with narcolepsy, and honestly, my life needs changing. The medication I’m on doesn’t cut it, and my quality of life is poor. 

So, I’ve started the process here in Spain to get sodium oxybate. The first step, after an initial appointment with a sleep specialist, was to undergo a sleep study to confirm that I have narcolepsy, which I did this past Wednesday and Thursday at the Institute of Sleep in Madrid. I’ll write more about my experience during the sleep study later — for now, enjoy this picture of me all wired up!

(Actually, after this was taken, I got tubes in my nose and electrodes on my neck, chest and hands, too. I felt like a cyborg!)

You Are Brave.

I have a confession to make.

So many people have told me that I’m brave for moving to Spain. It’s something I can count on, the part of the conversation where they ask, “¿Estás sola en España?” — Are you alone in Spain? And I say yes, and they say, “Joder. Eres valiente.” — You are brave.

And I never know what to say in response, because here’s my confession: It’s really not that hard.

Having narcolepsy is a thousand times harder than living alone in a foreign country, so much harder that it seems almost stupid to compare the two. Living in Spain isn’t difficult the way having narcolepsy is difficult. Life in Spain is challenging, sure, but it’s the good kind of challenge, it gives you depth. You learn to survive on your own and speak a second language and make friends and navigate a totally foreign culture. That’s challenging, but that’s growth.

You don’t grow from having narcolepsy. Narcolepsy keeps you flat, isolates and humiliates you, keeps you from thinking and laughing and speaking the way you normally would. It consumes you, you spend every moment thinking about it, because you have to. Do I have enough energy to go to the grocery store? Will the next fifteen minutes be good minutes, can I use that time to cook lunch? If I take my medicine now, will I feel okay when I get to school? Careful, don’t laugh, you’ll have cataplexy. Don’t feel frustrated. Don’t get excited.

“You’re shy, aren’t you,” people tell me here, because I don’t talk much, I don’t express much, I’m reserved. But I’m not shy. If emotions gave you seizures, how much would you let yourself feel?

Narcolepsy steals everything it can from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it and no words that make it less painful. There’s nothing redeeming about having narcolepsy.

My mom and dad have both told me, on separate occasions, that if they could be the one with narcolepsy instead of me, they’d do it. I know the proper response is for me to say, “No, I could never do that to you,” but honestly, if I had a choice, I would let them have narcolepsy and I would be the healthy one. It’s horrifically selfish of me, obviously, but having narcolepsy is torture, and I don’t want it, and if I had a choice, I would pass the burden on to someone else. 

Aside

Conversations with my Students

Some conversations I had today with my little Spanish angel students:

  • “Teacher!! I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE!!! I saw you going into your apartment AND YOU HAD PIZZA!”
  • “Teacher, if you want to say ‘I farted’ in English, can you say ‘I made a mess?’ You can, right? I know you can. No, you can. I know it.”
  • “Teacher, Borja from Cuarto has a crush on you!! Do you like him? Can I tell him you like him?!” (NB: Borja is 15 years old.)
  • “Teacher, how much money do you make?”
  • “Are you dating Other Teacher? Are you IN LOVE with Other Teacher?!”
  • “Teacher, what color hair does your mom have? And what’s her name?”
  • “Teacher, did you know that in English if you want to say ‘I’m gonna puke’, you say ‘Chewbacca is coming’? No, this is true! I KNOW it’s true!”

Dear Spain, You Learned Wrong

Learning a foreign language is fascinating to me, and I am constantly surprised by the nuances that get lost in translation. I’ve been laughing a bit at the things Spaniards are being taught during their English classes — which are taught by other Spaniards, not by native English speakers — that are just flat-out wrong.

Most commonly, Spaniards learn to say things that are grammatically correct, but that no native English speaker would ever say. When Americans learn Spanish in school, we encounter a few of these types of things, too — for example, we’re taught to say “Encantado” when meeting someone. PSA, this word literally means “Enchanted”, and it sounds just as stupid in Spanish as it does in English.

The most common “technically correct but sounds weird” error that I’ve heard here is that, when you ask a Spaniard, “How are you?”, they respond with “Fine.” This happens 100% of the time, regardless of the English fluency of the person I’m talking to. “Fine” is a literal translation of “Bien,” which is the appropriate response in Spanish, but in English, if someone just says “Fine,” it comes off as a bit guarded, or even defensive, to a native English speaker, as if you’re dismissing their casual question.

Because I am a crusader for English fluency here in Spain, I’ve taken it upon myself to gently correct people about this, when appropriate, to varying degrees of success. One of my waiter friends has gone from saying “I am fine” to “I am very very fine”, and another has stubbornly insisted that there is no point in saying he feels “good” if he is only “fine”. I have had a few receptive students, though, who now say “I’m good!” while giving me a huge thumbs-up. This seems more sarcastic than anything, but I’ll take what I can get.