If you've ever taken a Spanish class, you've learned the basics: how to conjugate verbs, word order, some key expressions, etc. But, there's a lot more to the language than just what you read in the books. Upon first arriving in Salamanca, almost 4 years ago, I had spent about 7 years studying Spanish. I had the impression that my level was pretty high, and that I wouldn't have any problem communicating. The reality is, while I was able to make myself understood, when it came to having conversations that went much deeper than "where are you from?" and "what did you do today?" I found myself struggling to not only keep up with the pace of the conversation (which is to be expected), but also to understand a lot of what was being said. How can this be? I've spent most of high school and all of college studying Spanish! Did I miss something along the way? Was there a special "colloquial language" course I missed?
I won't be able to share with you all of the different nuances of Peninsular Spanish in one quick blog post, but I will attempt to highlight some of the more frequent and therefore useful ways of communicating in Spain.
This is just a quick list of words or ways of saying things that I don't ever remember learning in a class. They're commonly used, and good to know if you plan on interacting with natives on a more friendly/ personal level.
Mis amigos no les caen bien a mis padres- "My parents don't like my friends."
Estar hecho/a polvo: If you want to communicate that you are completely wiped out after a long day, what better imagery than to say "I am made dust"? There's also the fun alternative estoy molido/a literally meaning "I am ground/ powdered".
Buff... ¡¡qué día más largo!! ¡Estoy hecha polvo!
Quedar (con): "Quedar" means "to stay". However, its uses go much further than just a simple translation. In this specific instance, if you "quedar con" a friend, you mean you've made plans to meet up with them.
No puedo ir a tu casa esta noche. Ya he quedado con Sara. - "I can't go to your house tonight. I've already made plans with Sara."
Meterse en un lío: This is a fun expression, basically meaning "to get oneself into a mess." This can be used whenever you feel like the situation around you isn't going the way you had hoped, or the way it is supposed to. There is also the option of saying "tener problemas" which is the same as saying "have problems."
Juan está saliendo con dos chicas. Me parece que se va a meter en un lío. "Juan is going out with two girls. I feel like he's going to get himself into a mess."
Ser la leche: Literally meaning "to be the milk" this expression is a way of saying something is really cool. It's basically like saying "it's the bomb." (Fun side note, you can also say that someone "es la bomba" in Spanish!)
Esta película es la leche. - "This movie is awesome/ the bomb/ cool."
Estrenar (ropa): An "estreno" is when a movie comes out for the first time. The "latest release" or "debut" of a motion picture. Well, the term doesn't stop with it cinematic reference. You know that feeling when you wear a new outfit for the first time? There's just something special about it. In Spanish, they have a way of describing that! "Estrenar" an article of clothing means just that: to wear something new for the first time.
Estreno este vestido. - "It's the first time I'm wearing this dress."
Ser un rollo: What's the opposite of something being "la leche"? Well, a "roll" of course- because that makes perfect sense (is my sarcasm coming through?)! And not the yummy ones you eat. This is a roll of materials that is used for construction. If something is a "rollo" it's a "bore" or a "drag."
Esta clase es un rollo. - "This class is a bore/drag."
No sé qué, no sé cuántos: This is one of my personal favorites. It's a way of saying "yadda, yadda..." or "etcetera, etcetera." You know, when you're rambling on about something, and you just want to fill the space to make it clear that the thought continues, but it's not necessary to finish it.
Mi amiga me estaba contando la historia de cuando conoció su novio. Iba a hacer no sé qué, no sé cuantos, y de repente... - "My friend was telling me the story of how she met her boyfriend. She was going to do 'yadda, yadda' and all of the sudden..."
¿Yo qué sé?: This is a great way to say "what do I know?" As in, if your friend asks you a question that seems ridiculous, or that there's no realistic chance of you knowing the answer to, you simply answer, "¿Y yo qué sé?"
"Dónde está mi libro? Lo deje aquí en la mesa." "¿Yo qué sé? ¿Cómo voy a saber yo dónde están tus cosas?" - "Where's my book? I left it on the table." "What do I know? How am I supposed to know where your things are?"
*This may sound like a fairly "blunt" exchange... Stay tuned, I'll address that in a little*
Currar: In school we're taught the more formal word for "work"- "trabajar". However, little did I know before coming to Spain, there's another way of saying it! "Currar."
Buff... estoy hecha polvo. He currado muchísimo hoy. "Uhh.... I'm completely exhausted. I worked a lot today."
Molar: What's more useful than knowing how to say that something is "cool"? I've already mentioned one common way of saying this, but here is another! If something "mola" it means that it's pretty cool.
Esta canción mola mucho. - "This song is really cool/ good."
Pirarse: When you're out with friends, instead of saying "Me voy a casa" ("I'm going home") another common way to let them know you're ready to call it a night, or at least leave to go somewhere else is simply by saying "me piro."
Ya tengo sueño. Me piro. - "I'm sleepy. I'm going to go."
Ser majo/a: As if there weren't enough ways to describe something as "cool" here's one that's used only for people! If someone is "majo" that means they're fun, nice, and an all around cool person.
Mi profe de inglés es muy maja. - "My English teacher is really cool."
Let's just get down the brass tacks...Spaniards are very blunt people in a lot of ways. Anglophones usually try to add a hint of politeness to everything we say. What's one sure-fire way of knowing someone isn't Spanish? Listen to them order at a cafe or bar.
Let's play out this scenario. You walk into a cafe, up to the bar and order your coffee.
In English this would go something like, "Excuse me. Can I have a coffee, please?"
In Spanish it's more like this: "Ponme un café." ("Put me a coffee.")
If you are familiar with Spanish, you'll notice the request is made in the form of a command, and a "tú" (or informal) command at that! If you're feeling like you want to be a little more polite, it's also normal to say "Me pones un café".
But the point is, in Spain it's okay to be straightforward and blunt! It's not uncommon that someone will tell you "you look horrible today!" This doesn't mean, by any means, that they're rude! It's just one of the nuances of communicating in Spain. And, to be honest, I personally prefer it to the overly polite, sometimes fake, way of talking in the US.
Not to mention that Spanish people are usually very passionate. Sometimes it may seem like someone is yelling or angry, when in fact they're just excited or having a good time with their friends.
If you're not interrupting, you're not listening
I remember when I learned this on a first-hand basis. I was sitting, eating dinner with my roommate. She was telling me about "no sé qué, no sé cuantos..." (see how handy that is?), and I, being the polite Anglophone that I am, sat quietly, trying to give her my full attention. After talking for awhile, she stopped and asked me if I was listening. Completely shocked, I said, "Of course!" Her response? "Well, you weren't saying anything."
Listening is an active activity, and you demonstrate that you are absorbing what others are saying vocally. A simple head nod won't do the trick. Another common Spanish word that comes in handy in this situation is "vale". You'll hear this all the time. It means "okay" and in a conversation it can be a way of letting the person know you are following along with what they're saying.
Don't be offended or think someone is being rude if they don't just say a quick "vale" but instead, jump into the middle of your sentence, either to finish your thought for you, or to add in their own. As I said, it's a way of letting someone know that you're actively interested in what they're saying. And for someone like me, who can literally ramble on and on about nothing, it's a great way of being sure that I'm not monopolizing the conversation, or boring the people around me.
These are just a few things that I've learned...
and there are many many more. Communication is something that isn't just about words, but about culture. Knowing the ins and outs of the mechanics behind the language will get you a long way. But if you want to dive in completely, and create bonds and relationships with people from different places, being aware of how they communicate will help to enrich that experience. There's a lot more to learning a language than you can find in any text book.