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Sunday, September 12, 2010

How to get by in Spanish conversation for the language-challenged

Look at that strut. It's coming from an hombre who knows exactly
what's going on.
It's been a week now in Costa Rica, and I've had countless conversations with people whether it's with a friar, an official at the school, or people at the other sites.  I'm not going to say I'm a pro now, but I will say I have mastered the art of conversation when you're not really sure what the conversation is about.  Here are fool-proof ways to get by in Spanish conversation before you're actually fluent.  The following accounts may or may not have happened to me...

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)
"Si" (Yes,)
"..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.

5. Confidence-city
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!"
"Que?" (What?)
"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.



  1. I love this, Matt. Hope all is well in Costa Rica! :]

  2. You're ridiculous - but that's one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. However, I'm pretty sure you do the head tilt thing when you can't comprehend english either... just sayin...

  3. Yo bro! I'm glad you've been able to post these so far. Keep them coming whenever you can -- you've got your boys back home who are keeping tabs on you. I'm glad to hear you guys are still very much in your honeymoon phase. I pray it lasts the entire time your there! Your way of dealing w not understanding Spanish is hilarious -- and yet very accurate with regards to how to properly bullshit your way out of awkward situations. Hopefully that's not all your learning down there ;) I think I read somewhere that your beginning your first day of work soon. Hm, since I read that a while back I'm going to assume monday was your first day - in that case, I hope it went great and you're enjoying it. The boys there probably have no idea what kind of character they've got on their hands. I'm sure you'll be having them reading The Way and climbing all kinds of shit by the end of the month. Alright bro gotta split. Not sure if this is the best place to post/comment/discuss life, so if there is a better venue for those discussions let me know. Erica is back! finally! She's actually on her way over to the apartment right now. We're gonna make home made pizza and watch a movie with Zack when he gets off work. The apartment is great, but it's no Mil South #211. That's for sure. I'm envious that your senior year was spent in that suite. What a great group of guys to go out with (like go out of the 4 years of college - not on romantic dates). Anyways, gotta go. Take care of yourself and keep close to God!

    Peace Bro

  4. Great Post Mateo! I have been there! Keep up the good work!

  5. ¡Qué chistoso, amigo! Estoy completamente segura que sigues aprendiendolo el idioma. Vas a mejorar en tiempo. Todavía yo digo la cosa equivocada, o no conjugo corectamente mis verbos. Pero como se dice en España - no pasa nada. Espero que estes bien y disfrutes tu trabajo. Cuidado, amigo.


  6. Me divertí montones leyendo esto, la risa no me paraba. Excelentes consejos Matt, especialmente la última, coincido en que cuando uno aprende, debe disfrutar y reírse de sus errores, he ahí la esencia de aprender cosas nuevas! :)