As someone who
has command of frequently butchers the Spanish language, one of the joys of traveling in Latin America is the ability to talk to locals. On my recent trip through Mexico and Cuba, I noticed a few phrases that I was using often that can be a big help to anyone traveling in Spanish speaking countries.
YA [yaw] already
Pairs nicely with:
When there is a dispute on a transaction with a taxi driver, cartel boss, police shakedown, or border agent, you can say, “Ya pague” – I paid already.
example: Ya paque el soborno! – I already paid the bribe!
When a tout in front of a restaurant shoves a menu in your face and tells you to come drink 2 for 1 margaritas you can say “Ya comimos.”- We ate already. This is a polite way to tell them no.
Wait, what was that? 2 for 1 margaritas? Let’s go back.
HAY [eye] there is / are there?
So you might know about Ser and Estar, but did you know Spanish has yet another word for “to be?” You use is to ask if they have something, like in a restaurant.
CAJERO AUTOMATICO [Kaw-hair-o Ow-tow-mah-tee-co] ATM or cash machine
When asking for the location of a Cajero Automatico, I find that homeless people on the street are the best to ask. They always know where they are. Since most of them can’t speak much English, it is best to yell it loud and clear so they know what you want.
Me: Donde esta un Cajero Automatico? Necesito mucho dinero! – Where is the ATM. I need a lot of cash.
Homeless Guy: (eyes widening) Ven conmigo. – Come with me.
CAMBIO [Kom-bee-o] change, small bills
Cambio isn’t always easy to find; therefore, I recommend hoarding bills.
Say “Hay Cambio?” before getting in the cab, and hold up your 500 peso bills you just got from the cajero automatico to clear up any confusion about your needs. You want to make sure he can break your bill when you arrive at your destination.
HOLA [Oh-Lah] Hello
Mexican’s usually greet each other by saying buenos dias/tardes/noches – good morning/afternoon/evening, but during what I all the Hola Hour, when the sun is over the horizon but it isn’t dark yet, I use hola to avoid any confusion.
Hola is also very effective if a cop asks you to pay a soborno or a con artist asks for money. You just smile broadly, give a cheerful “HOLA,” act confused and walk off.
ME GUSTARIA [may gust-uh-ria] I would like
A polite way to ask for something when ordering.
DOBLE [Doh-Blay] Turn (command form)
Pairs nicely with:
Sometimes we forget the name of our hotel, especially after the 2 for 1 margaritas, or maybe the taxi driver doesn’t know where it is. In this case, giving directions is necessary.
example: Doble a la derecha a la esquina – turn right at the corner.
Also, when asking someone on the street how to find a place, they will usually rattle off directions in rapid fire Spanish with hands flailing. If you can catch a derecha, izquierdo or an esquina, you can at least get to the next block then ask someone else. This is pretty much how I get around.
TAMAñO [Tah-mahn-yo] Size
Pairs nicely with
Use when trying to find out the size of something. It comes in handy in pizza joints or when inquiring about the size of 2 for 1 margaritas.
Que es el tamanyo de la pizza/margarita/soborno/multa?
LECHE [lay-chay] Milk
pairs nicely with coffee
Hay leche? This phrase could save your life early in the morning when you really, really need coffee with milk, especially after 2 for 1 margaritas.
PICANTE [pee-kont-ay] Spicy
Probably really $%^&ing spicy for you.
MAS DESPACIO [moss des-paw-see-o] more slowly
OTRA VEZ [oh-truh vase] again
REPITA [ray-peet-ah] repeat (command form)
These three phrases form the backbone of my Spanish vocabulary. If you ask a question in Spanish, unfortunately, people often assume you actually speak Spanish and respond in kind. This is where you will need them to repeat what they just said, more slowly and louder, so you can understand.
Mexican: Hola, como estas? Hi. How are you.
Me: Mas Despacio, por favor?
Mexican: Co…mo Es…tas?
Me: Repita, por for?
Mexican: Co. Mo. Es. Tas?
Me: Otra Vez?
Mexican: CO. MO. ES. TAS?
Me: Muy bien! Gracias! (thinking: My Spanish is awesome!)
Bonus: Learn how to spell your name if it is exotic like mine.
I regularly come into contact with people – hotel clerks, Starbucks baristas, cartel bosses, and sweat shop owners – who need to spell my name. Here is what happens.
Clerk/Barista/Cartel Boss/Sweat Shop Owner: What is your name?
C/B/CB/SSO: Shcvevff? (thinking: Wow, what a messed-up name.)
Jeff: No, Jeff.
C/B/CB/SSO: (Staring blankly at the paper, having no idea what to write.)
Jeff: Jota eh effe effe.
C/B/CB/SSO: (a wave of relief washes over her. She won’t have to butcher my name) Jota eh effe effe.
C/B/CB/SSO: (She stares at the name again, forehead crinkled.) Schvevff. Okay. Your last name?
C/B/CB/SSO; Bell, ah yes, like campana. Ring ring. Schvevff Bell.
Do you have any other useful Spanish phrases to add?
Follow me on Facebook to get more
useful tips like this.