|Look at that strut. It's coming from an hombre who knows exactly|
what's going on.
1. Smile and nod
It's the sure way to let the person you're talking to know that you're understanding every word they're saying. Be happy and agreeable. Add some "Si's" in there. A sure "Yes" interjection in between thoughts show even more that you're in the in. It worked in the following convo I had with a friar about his family.
"De donde es?" (Where are you from?)
"Ah, si si. Tiene hermanos?" (Ah yes, yes. Do you have siblings?)
"Si, mi hermano mayor esta en San Jose." (Yes, my older brother is in San Jose)
"..y mi hermano menor esta en Nicaragua." (And my younger brother es in Nicaragua.)
"Si. Y sus padres?" (Yes. And your parents?)
"Mi padre murio" (My father died)
"Si, si" (Yes, yes)
"...y mi madre esta cerca." (...and my mother is close.)
"Si. (nod) Si." (Yes, yes)
Wait, did he just say his father died? Why are you smiling, Matt? That's horrible. Shake your head, don't nod. No, don't do that. What would that give off? Uh, quick change the subject.
"Lo siento. Permiso. Donde esta el bano?" (I'm sorry. Excuse me. Where is the bathroom?)
2. Context, context, context
Who says you need to know every word to get what someone is saying? Catch whatever vocab you can get from what they're saying and you should get the whole thing. Prime example:
Yami, one of the directors at the school, asked me if I was the one working at St. Francis.
"Va a trabajar en el colegio?" (You are working at the school?)
Ah, wha'd she say? I think I heard colegio. Context caught. She must be asking me what school I went to.
"Estudie a la Universidad Catolica de America." (I studied at The Catholic University of America.)
(Blank stare from Yami.)
Smile and nod, Matt. "Esta en Washington, D.C."
Jelly, beside me says, "Matt, she just asked if you were working at St. Francis."
3. Hm, I didn't hear you?
This is a little trick I coined myself throughout the week. When someone says something and you're not quite sure how to respond, tilt your ear towards them, pretending like you didn't hear them the first time. This will buy you more time for the two-second delay to translate in your head, figure out a response, and conjugate your verbs all in one.
I ran into my boss Jenny at the school in her office the other day, and this technique worked like a charm:
"Que va a hacer hoy?" (What are you going to do today?)
OK, I think I heard her, but tilt the ear anyway, so you can come up with a response, Matt.
She leans in and slows it down. "Que va a hacer hoy?"
OK, I think she's asking me what I'm doing today. Hm, I'm not sure. And if I did have a response, I'd have to use the future tense. How do I do that again? Tilt ear one more time, Matt, you'll get it.
She looks at me blankly and says in plain English. "What are you going to do today?"
OK, she definitely is asking about my plans for today. But I'm not really sure. And do I respond to her Spanish still or should I just speak English since she gave me English. Tilt your ear one more time, Matt...
4. Don't know the word you want, another one will be just as good in its place
Sometimes in the heat of the moment, you're flustered, and you just have to give them something. In the same conversation with Jenny, things were getting bad, and I needed an escape plan. I wanted to tell her that I had to leave (Tengo que irme), but I forgot the phrase for it. So I threw in the next best thing.
"Puedo que ir."
Jenny just looks at me.
"Puedo que ir."
I left. And then I realized, "Puedo que ir?" That doesn't make any sense, literally. And what I said is very close to "Puedo ir?" Did I just ask her, "Can I leave?" Yes, you can leave, Matt. You can leave.
The most important thing to have when speaking a foreign language is confidence in yourself that you know what you're talking about. When you have a phase that you know that works, say it confidently and proudly. It's the sure-fire way to deflect any doubt any local could have on your speaking capabilities.
When Jenny gave me a tour of St. Francis, she introduced me to many teachers. I was in confidence-city, smiling and nodding, shaking hands firmly. I was excited. And I wanted to say it, over and over again.
"Mateo es nuestro voluntario nuevo." (Matt is our new volunteer)
"Si. Mucho gusto. Tengo emocionado!"
Tengo emocionado. I said those two words to everyone I met, and to Jenny at least three times. I thought I was saying, "I'm excited" and it's a phrase that doesn't literally translate. I mean, literally, I'd be saying something close to "I have exciting" or "I have excitement." That sounds silly and wouldn't make sense.
I was talking to a friar yesterday and he asked me about my service. I told him the sure-fire, confident phrase I had been using.
"Tengo emocionado." I slowed it down for him. I'm excited for my work, can't he tell?
"Tengo emocionado? I think you mean, 'Estoy emocionado.' I am excited. Use 'Estar' "
"Estoy emocionado. I am excited. So, don't use tengo?"
"No, it does not make sense."
Well, that's all my secrets. And that's only from a week of speaking. Oh, maybe I forgot a crucial rule as well.
6. Be able to laugh at yourself.
If you make mistakes, it's healthy to roll it off with some self-amusement. Not that I made any mistakes. I'm just trying to help others who need it.