We’ve all seen those language courses which guarantee that you’ll be speaking “fluent Spanish in 60 days”. Sound great don’t they?
Yet — in common with ‘get rich quick’ schemes or ‘effortless’ weight loss programmes — these courses, more often than not, promise much, but deliver little.
To obtain real fluency in another language there is, regrettably, little substitute for hard graft. Yes, you may be able to get to a basic conversational level fairly quickly, but even the best and brightest students can’t skip to excellence within just a few short weeks.
That, then, is the bad news. The silver lining here is that once you have mastered the basics of Spanish, there are some easy wins which can quickly take you up a level or two. With minimal effort you can make your Spanish sound much more natural by tweaking a few phrases here and there.
You can achieve this by removing from your repertoire the most common sorts of ‘gringo-isms’ that tend to creep in to our speech. Replace a few of these literal translations with the locally-preferred equivalent, stop making the most common mistakes of non-native speakers, et voila, you’ll already be chatting much more like a local.
1. Llevar + [period of time]
Small talk often involves a whole load of questions related to the subject of time: “how long have you been in Colombia for?”; “for long have you been studying Spanish?” etc.
As English speakers, our natural inclination is to translate directly from our own phrase “I have been studying Spanish for two years” and say “Yo he estado estudiando español por dos años”.
Avoid this temptation.
The above is an entirely grammatically correct sentence, but there is a problem: it sounds horrible.
You might even feel it in your mouth when saying such things. The sentence simply has far too many words in it for such a straight forward idea.
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An infinitely cleaner way to express this same concept is with the common expression “llevar + [period of time]”.
Don’t worry too much about the literal translation here. It is an idiom so it won’t make sense. The key thing to note is that it means “I’ve been [x]ing for [x amount of time]”.
So, “llevo cinco meses en Colombia” means “I’ve been in Colombia for five months”; “llevan once años de novios” would be “they’ve been going out (boyfriend and girlfriend) for 11 years”; and “llevamos tres años viviendo juntos” would be “we’ve been living together for three years”.
This is such a beautifully simple way to communicate this same idea, that you’ll come to wonder how you ever did without it.
2. Forget about “es posible”
Asking a question in the format “¿Es posible…?” (e.g. “¿Es posible pagar?” or “¿Es posible llamarme un taxi?”) is just about the quickest way to give yourself away as a Spanish beginner.
To us, this phrasing might sound tremendously polite; rather like saying “Would it be possible to pay?” or “Would you mind terribly calling me a taxi?”. Unfortunately, to Colombian ears it just sounds odd.
Rather than being a clear, direct request, this phrasing makes it sound like you’re just gathering information about the theoretical possibility of a payment being made, or a taxi being called. It does not necessarily mean that you’re actually asking the listener to take any action as a result.
A native speaker would just about never make requests in this way. You should probably follow their lead and avoid this phrasing.
Instead, use any one of the following question formats, which I’ve organised here in ascending order of politeness:
- Llámame un taxi por fa – “Call me a taxi would you?”
- ¿Me llamas un taxi por favor? – “Can you call me a taxi please?”
- ¿Me podrías llamar un taxi (por favor)? – “Would you mind calling me a taxi?”
- ¿Será que me puede(s) llamar un taxi? – “Would it be possible to call me a taxi?”
- ¿Sería tan amable de llamarme un taxi? – “Would you be so kind as to call me a taxi?”
3. Build up your Spanish “filler words”
When conversing in English, it is the most natural thing in the world to give yourself an extra moment to think by throwing in a little “umm” or “err”, or to pad out your speech with the odd “like” or “you know”.
This is an unconscious habit that we all have. Nobody makes a serious effort to utter these words and sounds, but they sometimes just, sort of, slip out.
In English, that’s all well and good. But when trying your hand at Spanish, if you involuntarily use any of these terms, you’ll immediately kill any chance of people thinking highly of your language skills.
Imagine hearing a foreigner say something like: “no me gusta porque es, like, muy caro, pero no es, like, muy bueno”. Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence does it?
It can be hard to completely get rid of these little quirks as they are so deeply ingrained. With practice, though, you’ll get there.
Helpfully enough, Spanish has a number of words which serve a similar purpose. Some of the most common “filler” words are: “pues”, “o sea”, “como”, “bueno”, “es que” and “digamos”.
To see how these are used, imagine that a Colombian friend of yours has suddenly put you on the spot and is interrogating you about why you don’t like his new girlfriend. To buy you a little time to think of a sufficiently diplomatic answer, you draw on all the above, and respond:
“Pues…es que…bueno, no sé. De pronto, es solo porque ella y yo…digamos, somos personas muy distintas” (“Umm, well, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just because…well, like…it’s just that we’re very, shall we say, different people”).
Not only are these terms good to have on hand for such delicate situations, they also make a big difference in how natural your Spanish sounds.
4. Limit your ‘yo’s, ‘tú’s, and ‘él’s etc.
To state the obvious, whenever we talk about an action in English we must say who is doing it: “I think”, “you run”, “she works” etc. The temptation for us is to do the same in Spanish – that is, to always say “yo pienso”, “tú corres”, “ella trabaja” and so on.
In any individual instance this is perfectly fine. The issue arises when you always use “yo”, “ella”, “ustedes” or whatever (personal pronouns, in the jargon).
For example, if when chatting about your sister’s upcoming visit, you speak a bit like this: “ella viene a visitarme porque ella dice que yo he vivido aquí mucho tiempo y ella quiere verme” (this is gringo for “she’s coming for a visit because she says I’ve been living here too long already and she wants to catch up”). Frankly, this sounds a bit odd.
The reason is that, in Spanish, the way verb is conjugated tells you all you need to know about who is doing what. As a result, Colombians, or any native speaker for that matter, tend only to use the pronoun if 1) they are referencing a new person in conversation or 2) as means to add special emphasis or contrast.
The first set of circumstances is easy enough to understand, but I’ll illustrate the second with an example: two students are leaving class together, when a third friend asks: “¿van a la biblioteca ahora?” (“are you guys heading to the library now?”).
To emphasise that they are going to different places, one of the friends will dust off his pronouns, and say something like: “No, yo voy a la biblioteca, pero él se va a almorzar. ¿Adonde vas tú?” (“No, I’m going to the library, but he’s going to get lunch. Where are you headed?”). The yo, tú and él are included only to stress that they are all doing different things.
We needn’t get too bogged down in this, but the important thing to highlight is that if you constantly use “yo”, say, when talking about what you’re up to, your Spanish is going to sound a bit off. To natives, it will almost be like you’re continually trying to contradict some imaginary third party who has cast doubt on whether you really will do or say whatever you’ve promised.
So, if you want to sound at least vaguely normal, steer clear of sentences like “yo creo que yo voy a comer más tarde”, and opt instead for the simpler “creo que voy a comer más tarde”.
5. Don’t order like a phrasebook
Discussing tips on how to order and make requests in a natural-sounding way might not seem like the most exciting of topics, but given that you’ll probably order things tens of times a day it’s important to do it properly.
I’m sure you’re already very familiar with the elegant phrases for ordering food which are found in textbooks; those like “me gustaría…”, “quisiera…” and “para mi…”.
All well and good, but you don’t hear these much in Colombia outside of, perhaps, high society dinners or stuffy, upmarket restaurants. Go to a local family run café in Colombia and I’d hazard that you’ll never hear anyone ordering the fish by saying “me gustaría el pescado por favor”.
Other ways of ordering are much more common, and therefore sound much more natural too. One of the simplest is just to say the name of the item you’re ordering e.g. “el pescado, por favor”.
To get a bit more Colombian about things, you can use the phrase “¿me regalas [tal cosa]?” to say “can I have/get [x]?”. (Technically speaking, these last phrase is a way to ask for the item in question for free, but it does not have this meaning in Colombia.)
Finally, when requesting simple services e.g. to top-up your phone credit or to make a reservation, you can just use ”para” followed by whatever you are requesting.
So, in the two cases I just mentioned, you could say “Para hacer una recarga por favor” (“I’d like to top-up my phone please”) and “Hola, buenas tardes. Para hacer una reserva por favor” (“Hi, good afternoon. I’d like to make a reservation please”).
As I say, none of this might seem like earth shattering stuff. But when it comes to speaking a second language naturally, the little things make all the difference.