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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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.

Makin’ Frands

I keep returning to the pub that I visited on my disastrous first day in Spain, and it’s become one of my favorite places! I’ve met a good number of regulars, so it’s great for Spanish conversation practice, and the waiters are always very generous, giving me an inordinate amount of free food every time I come by and criminally undercharging me for drinks. Often, I end up staying for hours, talking to the waiters and listening to the loud, slangy Spanish being shouted around the bar. 

“Helen, I want you to meet my wife,” said Ángel — a large, fit dude from the Dominican Republic, the kind of guy who would be intimidating if he didn’t smile so much — one evening as he worked as the bartender, filling up cañas, little glasses of beer. He gestured for his wife, who was sitting at the opposite end of the bar, to join us. “She works in the kitchen. Carmen, this is Helen, from the United States,” he said.

Carmen and I gave each other two kisses, a greeting I was still getting accustomed to. I liked her immediately — she was stylish, beautiful, and extremely friendly, like everybody in Spain. 

We made a good pair, and the next day we ended up spending the whole evening together, walking around the mall and killing time at bars, eventually returning to the pub while Ángel finished closing up for the night. By that point, it was nearly midnight and I was absolutely exhausted — my brain refused to speak another word of Spanish — but Carmen was more than willing to speak for me.

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 I wonder which one of these girls has cataplexy???

“Helen, estás haciendo amigos!” Ruben exclaimed when he saw me enter the pub with Carmen. He switched to pidgin English for my benefit. “Makin’ frands!”

“She does speak Spanish, you know,” Carmen told the waiters as they finished cleaning the pub, sweeping the floor and rearranging chairs. I could feel my head starting to bob a bit, and Carmen grabbed my hand reassuringly. “Earlier we were talking perfectly, but I think she’s tired now!”

“She’s going to get a strange accent if she learns Spanish from you and Ángel,” said José, a regular and a friend of Carmen’s. Leaning towards me, he introduced himself in the Spanish way — with dos besos and flattery. “Look at those eyes. Guapísima, joder.”

“Really, though,” he said to Ángel. “She’s gonna start talking like a cross between a madrileña and a South American, don’t you think?”

“I’m Caribbean, coño!” Ángel said. “There’s a difference!”

“We should do something next weekend, do you want to go to el centro? Or to Segovia?” Carmen asked. “Helen hasn’t travelled at all yet.”

The rest of the night passed in a blur of rapid Spanish — I was having a hard enough time staying awake and upright in my chair, I didn’t have the mental resources to dedicate to interacting in a foreign language — but in the end, it was decided: Carmen, Ángel, José and I would go to Segovia.

And the next weekend, we went!

State vs State

One of my history classes ran into a little English phoneme difficulty today.

Mid-lecture, a student raised her hand and said, “Yes, what is the difference between estate and estate? They are different words? You pronounce them differently?”

Juanra, the teacher I was helping — he’s young, fashionable, and constantly on the brink of despair about his badly-behaved students — replied, “Well, yes, you have estates like the land the nobles owned, and then you have estates like the United Estates.”

“And you say them the same way?” 

“Well…”

“No,” I said quickly, hoping Juanra would forgive me for cutting him off. “No, they’re different words, they’re pronounced and spelled differently.”

Juanra helpfully wrote the two words on the board for me: ‘State vs. State.’

“One of them has an ‘e’,” I whispered.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the blackboard. “Joder.” 

“So you say them differently,” I told the class as Juanra added an  ‘e’ on the blackboard. “The first word, the land the nobles owned, that’s an estate. And the second word is just state.”

The entire class, in unison, made a confused noise.

“Can you hear the difference?” I asked.

“No,” they said.

Estate,” I said, as clearly as I could. “State.

“Ehm, that is the same word,” one of the students offered helpfully. “You are not saying a different word.”

“Yes, she is,” said Juanra. “She is saying first estate and second estate.”

“Uh,” I said. “Here, let’s all listen again. In Spanish, y’all don’t have this ‘s’ and ‘t’ sound together in your words, so it can be very hard to hear and make that sound in English. The first word is estate. The second word is ssstate.”

Essstate?” Juanra asked.

Sssstate.”

“Sssstate,” said one of the students, and then the whole classroom was filled with hissing as they tried, some more successfully than others, to make the ‘s’ sound without adding an ‘e’ to the front of it.

I felt like an English-language superhero.

Like Espiderman. 

Teacher, I Don’t Understand

So far, I am loving teaching at my school — a bilingual colegio (public middle/high school) in Alcorcón, Madrid.

Here’s how the bilingual education program works:

All students at the school receive at least some of their education in English, with the more proficient students spending more time in classes taught in English — each grade level is divided into 5 different classes, depending on English proficiency.

Teaching core subjects in a second language creates an interesting classroom dynamic, which I will write about at length later, because it’s fascinating. Basically, though, class time is divided between teaching actual content and making sure the students are able to understand and process the English being used in the lesson, giving them plenty of opportunities to ask clarifying questions and practice new vocabulary.

I had expected to be teaching English language classes, but I am actually working in the Geography and History department, which I think I prefer. None of the teachers that I work with are native speakers of English — that’s my job, to be a native speaker — but they have a pretty good grasp of the language. Often, though, a teacher will misunderstand what a student is saying, and will then give an answer that the student was not looking for, which further confuses the matter. 

I’m not allowed to speak to the students in Spanish, or even to tell them that I understand Spanish, so that they have no choice but to communicate with me in English. For the most part, I’ve been successful at playing dumb about Spanish, but I slipped up a bit today — I was trying to explain what a mace is (the medieval ball and chain weapon, right?), and as I was drawing a picture of a mace on the blackboard, one of the students said to another, in Spanish, “Is that a fishing pole catching the sun?”

Without thinking, I turned around and replied, “No, it’s a mace, I’m not done yet!” 

So that was my bad. 

The students have a decent grasp of English, kind of — their level of fluency varies from “age-appropriate” to “clearly just making random noises and hoping that it sounds like English”. I wouldn’t say that any of them are bilingual, exactly,  but most of the students can understand me when I talk and can form simple responses.

One of the funniest things about the students, though, is that they all mispronounce the word “yes”, regardless of their English level. It usually comes out somewhere between “yisss” and “djesss” — they always drag out the “s”, which I find hilarious, because I think they’re imitating the way native English speakers make the “s” sound — it’s a much stronger sound in English than in Spanish.

So we have conversations that go like this:

Me: Does that make sense? 

Students (in unison): Yissssss.

The fact that they mispronounce “yes” doesn’t exactly make me confident that I’m being understood, but it sure is charming.