So you’re about to go on a trip to Spain or Latin America, and the only Spanish you know is whatever you picked up from watching Dora the Explorer.
I’ve traveled all over the world, and trust me: Even knowing a little bit of your host country’s language will help. Some people you’ll meet can’t speak English. Some can, but won’t. But you’d be surprised at how much communication you can accomplish with just a few words. And when you are making an effort to speak another person’s language to him, he will often appreciate that and open up to you.
Unfortunately, unless you’re a linguistic savant, you can’t become fluent in a week. You can’t even become fluent in a month. Language acquisition takes time.
But if you’ve got even a couple days, you can pick up enough to get by. Don’t even worry about learning grammar or being perfect or speaking with a flawless accent. Your goal is survival.
The basic idea of this article? Simply, you want to:
- Memorize a handful of key phrases
- Practice them
- Commit them to memory
- Plan how to string them together strategically so that you can actually communicate
The whole thing should take you about a week. Just follow these seven steps.
1. Learn how to greet someone.
When people are out of their comfort zone and need help, such as directions, they’ll approach strangers and just begin asking questions. Many people find that rude. So make it a habit to greet people before you say anything else.
First, say hello:
Second, give an appropriate follow-up greeting. In some Hispanic countries, it’s rude just to say hola without giving a time-of-day greeting. So depending on the time of day, say:
Buenos días is said before noon, buenas tardes is said from noon to early evening, and buenas noches is said after dark.
Then when you’re ready to leave, say:
ah-thyoss’ (with the “th” pronounced like the th in “that”)
I bet some of you are thinking, “This is easy. I know this.”
It is easy. You might know this. But do you know these phrases so well that you can spit them out on auto-pilot?
Say the words out loud. Get used to making your mouth form the sounds. It’s one thing to understand words. It’s another thing to actually produce them. It’s another thing still to produce them when you’re on the spot in front of strangers, when you’re on their linguistic turf. Say these simple phrases, as well as all the phrases in this article, over and over again until you can’t get them wrong.
2. Learn some manners.
You can’t go around being an ogre, so learn these basic phrases to keep you from offending the locals.
thank you very much
Disculpe can be used to apologize or to get someone’s attention.
nice to meet you
So far, you’ve only learned ten phrases that are pretty easy to remember. But you can use these right away as the basis for accomplishing some routine tasks.
For example, when you get into a taxi, you can say:
Hola, buenos días. Hilton hotel, por favor.
Then when you reach your destination:
When you bump into somebody in a crowded elevator:
This is simple communication, but these basic exchanges are important. They help you get around in an unfamiliar land and keep you from making people hate you.
3. Ask the most important question.
One of the most common things you’ll ask is:
Do you speak English?
Remember, we’re aiming for actually getting some communication accomplished. At the survival stage, you don’t have to worry about trying to impress people by keeping the conversation entirely in Spanish with your limited skills. Save that for later when you’re conversational. If you need to communicate–make a hotel reservation, get directions to the hospital, or find out when the last train runs–and the person you’re talking to happens to speak English, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Many people in Hispanic countries learned enough English in school to talk to you, but they might be shy about it. If you ask them flat out if they speak English, you’re signaling to them that it’s okay to talk to you in a language they might not be very comfortable in.
4. Ask more questions.
You’re going to be asking questions.
Now you just have to get a phrase book or dictionary (which I’ll discuss later) and look up the words for places that you might need to know the location of: hotels, restaurants, streets. You can also look up words for products you might have trouble finding in a store, such as medications or certain foods you like.
How much does it cost?
Do you have…?
You can use “¿Tiene…?” at bars, restaurants, or markets. You can ask employees if they sell a particular beer, food, brand, or product you’re looking for.
¿Me puede ayudar?
meh pweh’-deh ah-yoo’-dar
Can you help me?
Hopefully you won’t need that last one for anything too serious, but it’s good to know just in case.
5. Learn some basic responses.
There are infinite responses to your questions, but here are two that you’ll hear all the time:
Additionally, you’ll have to learn the numbers. At a minimum, learn one through ten, and it wouldn’t kill you to learn one to one hundred. That will help you understand prices when you ask, “¿Cuánto cuesta?”
6. Follow my site.
Sorry for the shameless plug, but even though I enjoy talking to myself, it’s better when other people are in the conversation too. Also, I have a lot of tips to help you get past that “survival” phase in language learning, such as my post about the materials I used to get to an intermediate level in Spanish. So let’s stay connected. Follow me on one or both of the following:
With Twitter, I try to follow back, unless you only post about One Direction and Justin Bieber. Then I DEFINITELY follow back.
7. Fill in the blanks with additional phrases.
So far I’ve recommended that you learn 17 very easy phrases. You could memorize them in less than an hour. (Learning the numbers will take a little more time.) If you were to record these in a language journal, you could drill them later and really help think sink in your long-term memory.
Obviously, though, knowing 17 phrases probably isn’t going to cut it. So you should learn more phrases with a phrase book.
“Oh great,” I can hear you saying. “You’re telling me to get a phrase book. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Well, yeah, you have a point. But I’m not telling you to buy a phrase book and do what most people do, which is fumble through it when you need to know how to say something.
I’m saying to find a handful of phrases that you think might come in useful and then learn them before you’re standing in front of someone you’re trying to talk to–before you leave your country, even.
Which phrases should you learn? It’s up to you. Learn things that might be important to you and your unique situation, like:
- I have a peanut allergy.
- How are you?
- Is there a fitness center nearby?
- What time does the train arrive?
I’d say you should shoot for learning 75 to 100 phrases, in addition to those I mentioned here. If you learned 15 phrases a day (and reviewed 15 to 30 that you already learned) you could have this accomplished in about a week. And you’d be in a good position to get around.
If you don’t want to shell out for a phrase book, there are some places online that’ll hook you up with a few phrases:
- Useful Spanish Phrases with Audio, from quizbuddy.com
- Omniglot – Useful Spanish Phrases
I picked those because they each contain audio recordings of the phrases.
Additionally, if you can’t find the specific phrase you’re looking for, go to Google Translate and translate your desired phrase from English to Spanish. Then in the Spanish area, click the button that looks like a speaker to hear the audio.
So to recap:
- Learn the 17 phrases I described above.
- Learn the numbers 1 through 100.
- Learn 75 to 100 additional phrases.
- Actually say the phrases aloud.
- Review what you’ve learned over and over and over again.
Good luck! You’ll be fine.