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!

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.

How to Get Sick in Spain

First of all, let me say that I absolutely love the Spanish people. Everybody here is so friendly and so open, it’s wonderful. They are just the best.

I am starting to learn, though, that the Spanish have some strange ideas that seem to be ingrained into their collective psyche. For example, they believe that being cold makes you sick. Not in the American “you’ll catch a cold going out like that!” way, but in a serious, “why aren’t you wearing your slippers? You might get sick if your feet get cold!” kind of way.

Every time the temperature drops below 80 degrees here, people start to bundle up, I’m assuming so that they can avoid getting sick. I’m talking winter coats and scarves here — they take being warm seriously.

Today, I met a friend of mine — Ruben from the pub — on the street. It was about 75 degrees and raining a bit, and I was wearing jeans, a thick sweater and a scarf. He pulled at the sleeve of my sweater, concerned, and said, “That’s all you’re wearing? Where’s your coat? You never wear enough clothing, you’re going to get sick if you keep up like this!”

“Uh, I don’t think I’m going to get sick,” I told him. 

He just shook his head. “You don’t care about getting sick? Crazy girl.”

I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t think that’s how the immune system works. 

Cultural Differences: Hola, Guapa!

In case I haven’t made this clear already, everything in Spain is different. Usually, this is kind of cool and exciting and overwhelming all at once, but sometimes it’s just strange.

One of the things that’s been super weird is the fact that Spaniards love to make comments about your appearance. The way you look is a topic that is plenty open for discussion (just like the question “How much money do you make?” and “How many boyfriends have you had?”. But I digress).

If Spaniards think you’re pretty, you’ll know it, and you’ll know it multiple times a day, because everywhere you go there will be somebody who says “guapa” to you before resuming the conversation they’re having with their friends.

It’s not just a creepy middle-aged dude thing, either — I’ve gotten the “guapa” comment from old women and girls my age. It’s not really sexual harassment, either, the way it would be in the States. It’s just a stranger making an unsolicited comment about your appearance. You know, totally normal, acceptable behavior. (Uh…)

At this point, a trip to the grocery store wouldn’t feel complete without passing a couple of old men who mutter “Que guapa”. Entering a classroom without hearing the girls squeal “Guapaaa!” would make me feel like I’m losing my touch.

The only time I’ve every really felt uncomfortable about being “guapa” was when I was introducing myself to one of my classes. I asked if anybody had questions for me, and one 13-year-old boy raised his hand and said, “My question. How is it that you are so pretty?”

I was so taken aback by how blatantly inappropriate this was that I responded by looking at the floor until Juanra, the teacher I was working with, restored order in the classroom. In what world is it okay for a student to make comments like that about a teacher?! When in Spain, I guess…

Me llamo… Helen?

A few days after my arrival in Alcorcón, I went back to the restaurant with the nice waiters who had taken pity on me during my overwhelming first day here. I’d adjusted to life in Alcorcón, somewhat, and I was able to recognize that while I had originally thought that they worked at a ‘fancy restaurant’, in reality it was just a pub that had a patio, not upscale at all.

The red-haired waitress was taking orders outside, on the patio, and she remembered me. “Hola, guapa!” she called in her thick Andalusian accent. “Sit down, wherever you’d like!” She ran inside the bar and returned with the waiter who had brought me free food.

“Do you have money this time?” he asked good-naturedly. I pulled out my wallet, embarrassed, offering to pay him for the other day, but he waved me off. “No, no, don’t worry about it. That was on us.” The red-haired girl nodded and brought me a café con leche without my even having to ask for it. 

I was so excited to see both of them that I felt a familiar heaviness at the back of my neck, rushing in waves down my spine and through my limbs. No, not now. You can’t have an attack in front of them. My face twitched from the effort it took to fight the cataplexy, and I wanted to get up and leave without finishing my coffee. I wanted to lock myself in my room where nobody could see me.

The free-food waiter came over to where I sat on the patio. “What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to pronounce it with short Spanish vowels, Elén, and trying to keep my voice steady. Don’t have cataplexy. Come on.

Helen,” the waiter said, pronouncing the ‘H’ like a Castilian ‘J’ — from the back of his throat, strong, as if he was trying to cough something up.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to be more clear.

“Yes, Helen! In Spanish, though, you would be Elena.”

“I don’t feel much like an Elena,” I told him. “It doesn’t fit me.”

“We will call you Helen, then,” he said, still hitting the ‘H’ much harder than an English speaker would have. “It’s nice to meet you, Helen.” And with that, he returned to the bar where the other waiters were standing. They all leaned towards him as he spoke, glancing at me, and I was sure that he was telling them what we had just talked about.

I couldn’t see right, the patio looked blurry and unreal. I needed to go have cataplexy. I stood up, walking quickly and guiltily past the waiters, like I was trying to hide that I was drunk or on drugs or something. Act normal. Act normal. Do I look normal? Can they tell something’s wrong?

I made it to the bar’s bathroom, fumbled with the lock, and collapsed onto the less-than-clean bathroom floor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. I was learning how to handle cataplexy. The moment of complete surrender was beginning to come as a relief, the fact that I didn’t have to fight it anymore, that I could give in — surrendering felt good. And of course, when my eyes opened, I felt worlds better than I had coming into the bathroom.

When I stepped back onto the patio, the waiters greeted me with “Helen!” I was right — he had told them my name, or what he thought was my name.

I didn’t know it at the time, but ‘Helen’ would quickly become my actual name here in Spain. I’ve been here for nearly a month now, and every single person I’ve introduced myself to has, without exception, misinterpreted ‘Elaine’ as ‘Helen’, adding a strong Spanish ‘H’ to the beginning of my name. I’ve tried to correct them — ‘Elaine’ doesn’t even have an ‘H’ sound! —  but ‘Helen’ has stuck. It’s growing on me a bit, and the horrible strong ‘H’ is actually kind of endearing. So, if we meet in Spain, I guess you can call me Helen.

Lost in Translation, Tinder Edition

Since arriving in Spain, I have spoken exclusively Spanish. Spanish is not my first language, so I have made a lot of mistakes. 

I have accidentally asked my Airbnb host if he was gay (I was trying to ask if he understood me. I have since learned that “Do you understand?” can also mean “Are you gay?” (Side note: He is, in fact, gay)).

I have also taken offense at my flatmate for saying that it’s a horrible shame that my dad’s side of the family is Polish (she was actually saying that it’s a great coincidence. My bad, Alti!).

But there is one mistake that tops the list so far.

Full disclosure: I have downloaded Tinder in the hopes of practicing my Spanish conversation skills via texts with Spanish natives. Obviously Tinder is the most shallow thing ever, and I had my reservations about downloading it because I do not want to be a shallow person, but fellow expats in Spain have recommended using it to improve your conversational Spanish skills. Over here, Tinder is used as a way to meet and talk to new people, and not necessarily as a dating app. Cultural differences, I guess!

(NB: MOM STOP FREAKING OUT TINDER IS NOT A HOOKUP APP OVER HERE. YOU CAN USE IT TO JUST CHAT.) 

Getting Tinder was by and large a good idea, seeing as it has given me plenty of opportunities to make small talk in Spanish, and I have not yet met any creepers or been propositioned. Actually, nobody’s even flirted with me. It’s all been astonishingly respectful.

(NB: IN CASE THIS WASN’T CLEAR, I AM NOT USING TINDER AS A HOOKUP APP. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES, MOM!)

Unfortunately for me, yesterday one of my small talk Tinder buddies told me that he has just graduated from college. The phrase he used was “terminar la carrera”, “to finish a degree”. Sadly, I assumed that “carrera” meant career, because that makes sense, okay, and that he was telling me he just got fired. My response, roughly translated, was, “I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s such a shame you went to college. I hope you get a different degree soon.”

The next time I went on Tinder, he had blocked me. Beautiful Tinder-based friendship over.

On the bright side, at least I won’t make that mistake again!