9 easy phrases to make you sound better at Spanish than you actually are
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Language-learning is hard. Like, really hard. But if you’re travelling within the Spanish-speaking areas of Latin America, the good news is that Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English natives to pick up. While the advanced levels of Spanish take a lot of blood, sweat and tears (ok, probably not that much blood in the grand scheme of things), coming to grips with the basics can happen really quickly if you put in the effort to commit them to memory.
Learning Spanish in Latin America is not only beneficial in terms of the monetary deals people are willing to negotiate with you (read: they might not give you full tourist prices), but also the everyday experiences you can begin to make sense of, plus the fact that it shows respect for the locals to at least try to speak their lingo.
Once you’ve nailed enough of the basics, you’ll want some Spanish phrases for travellers in Latin America to help you easily sound better at Spanish than you actually are, and to show people that you have a much better grasp of their language than the average backpacker. That’s where this post comes in!
9 Spanish phrases for travellers to make you sound instantly better than you are:
A reeeeally easy, simple word, that’s difficult to use incorrectly. ‘Dale’ (or ‘vale’ in Spain) is a casual way of saying ‘ok’.
So if you want to quickly show you understand something being said to you, a ‘dale’ is the perfect word to drop mid-sentence without interrupting the other person, or to use as a closing word to show that all questions have been answered.
2. Buen día / buenas
Let’s get your greetings straight! In the textbooks, we’re always taught that good morning is ‘buenos días’, and it is, but in most of Latin America the preferred greeting is actually singular – ‘buen día’.
Once we get to the afternoon, the textbooks say to use ‘buenas tardes’, but you’re far more likely to hear people shorten it to just ‘buenas’.
For the evening, just use ‘buenas noches’!
3. Me pone + noun
This is a more sophisticated way to ask someone to give you something rather than just stating your noun. It directly translates to ‘you put me X’, but it’s not seen as a weird or rude thing to say.
If you’re feeling less formal, you can change it to ‘me pones + noun’, whatever feels right for you.
Common uses would be ‘me pone la cuenta?’ or ‘me pone una cerveza?’.
This is a slightly divisive entry for my list of Spanish phrases for travellers in Latin America, as lots of people do not appreciate the shortening of the phrase ‘por favor’ [please], thinking it lazy and/or uncouth.
However, if delivered to the right (youngish) audience, it can make you look as though you have a lot better command of the Spanish language than you actually do.
…And that’s not necessarily just because you’re using some mild slang, but also that dropping the last syllable of por favor stops you from making the cardinal sin of pronouncing the v like an English v instead of a b as it is meant to be said in Spanish.
Note that porfa has the same meaning but a totally different vibe to porfi, which is a sickly-sweet cutesy teenaged girl way to get something out of someone who falls for that kind of ish. Don’t use porfi if you still value your dignity.
Cómo means how, but it’s important to know that when you don’t understand something someone has said to you or haven’t heard them correctly, it’s much more normal that you would say cómo, than it is to say qué/what.
6. Qué va
If you’re sick of being hassled by street vendors or pervy men (while I was comfortable most of the time, there are certain places in Latin America that are hotspots for catcalling), qué va is a really good phrase to get people off your back.
While you can say ‘no gracias’ a million times and still find yourself being pestered, a simple qué va usually has people respecting your wishes straight away.
The direct translation doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but when used colloquially it means more along the lines of a disbelieving ‘no way!‘.
It’s not a phrase that many tourists know, and it’s stronger than just saying ‘no’, so tends to be much more effective.
Great little filler. This most handy of Spanish phrases for travellers in Latin America is the equivalent of saying ‘well…’ when you’re thinking of what to say.
Spanish-speakers who use pues like to drag it out to either create emphasis or to give them time to think (usually of an excuse), so it’s a perfect word for Spanish-learners to employ, too.
‘Tu pagas?’ – ‘Pueeees, no tengo dinero’.
8. Lo que pasa es que…
The best thing about this phrase is that although it has many many words in it, in terms of the general conversation, it adds ALMOST NOTHING.
However, it’s a phrase that is used a fair bit to simply give the speaker time to think a second or two more, and to command ears in the conversation before getting to the juicy part of their sentence (important in a loud bar full of high-spirited Latinos).
It just means ‘what happens is that…’ and can be added onto the beginning of almost any story-telling or explanation-giving sentence. You can use this expression in the past tense, too.
When learning Spanish past at an intermediate level, having this phrase in your arsenal can provide precious extra thinking time.
9. Use negative confirmations
Unlike English, where we tend to check things with a ‘yeah?’ at the end of a sentence, many Spanish-speakers do the opposite, confirming with, ¿no?
So instead of, ‘¿Vamos a llegar a las 9, si?’, a simple switch to ‘¿Vamos a llegar a las 9, no?’ will have you sounding a lot more natural to natives.
Bonus tip: stop saying ‘es posible?‘
I’m going to be honest wit you… This phrase is an easy cop-out that lets Spanish-speakers instantly know that you aren’t able to (or bothered to) form a real sentence.
It’s something that almost all beginners end up falling back on – and I definitely did it too – often using it before just stating a random noun. ‘Es posible, la cuenta?’
You wouldn’t go around the UK pointing at items in a shop and asking ‘Is it possible?’, so try not to do it in Latin America. Besides, it’s not a common way for Spanish-speakers to phrase things even in relevant situations.
Instead, use the following to really up your game with some basic Spanish:
Puedo + infinitive verb?
This is for ‘can I…?’. Common uses would be ‘puedo tomar [food or drink item]?’ to make a shop or restaurant order, ‘puedo venir?’ to ask if you can come along somewhere, and ‘puedo ir?’ to go.
If you want to ask the person you’re talking with to do something, use puede + infinitive verb?
It’s not entirely sophisticated, but it shows that you’re at least capable of communicating in real sentences. That makes a big difference in trying to convince someone you’re better at Spanish than you actually are!
Now you’ve read about these Spanish phrases for travellers in Latin America, check out these helpful posts: