Breaking barriers with common Spanish words and terms
One of the most intimidating aspects of traveling to a foreign country is the language barrier. Not knowing how to communicate with locals can be very stressful. And Spanish is one of the most spoken languages in the world, so you have a pretty good chance of meeting someone who can speak it—or at least understand it.
That being said, like every language, Spanish changes a bit depending on what country you are visiting, like Spain or Costa Rica. There are slangs and pronunciations that can make understanding it difficult; however, the general rules remain the same, as do common phrases that can help you break barriers of communication and get you what you need.
Here are the top Spanish phrases (beyond hola and gracias) that every traveler should know when visiting a Spanish-speaking country.
1. Usted vs. tú. One common mistake that often makes me cringe a little is when I hear people refer to strangers or elders as tú. When speaking to a stranger, especially one that is older than you, it’s best to refer to them as usted. Another replacement for the more informal tú is su (as in “your” or “yours”).
¿Usted me puede ayudar? Can you help me?
¿Cuál es su nombre? What is your name?
Viewfinder Tip: Latin/Spanish countries are all about the respect conveyed through communication, the demonstration of which will get you far.
2. Breaking down those larger bills. This is a huge one, especially when traveling, because you always need change for tips. I like to take advantage of moments where I am paying for meals or buying something to ask for smaller bills or change that I can later use to tip at the hotel, the taxi, or anywhere that I need to.
Necesito cambio, por favor. I need change, please.
¿Tiene cambio? Do you have change?
3. Directions, corners, and blocks. These are two important words to know when trying to understand directions. A “corner” is esquina and “block” is una cuadra. However, another term for cuadra is bloque, which is a Spanglish term created from “block.” It is used frequently in American cities where a lot of Spanish is spoken (i.e., New York) and in Caribbean islands with a strong American influence (i.e., Puerto Rico). I would encourage using the correct Spanish term, but if you hear the Spanglish one when asking for directions, at least you know what it means.
Camina una cuadra y dobla la esquina. Walk one block and turn the corner.
4. Right vs. straight. How these words are used in Spanish is one of the most confusing things for my American husband to understand. A la derecha means “to the right.” Derecho means “straight ahead.” Some countries use the word directo (direct) to indicate “straight ahead” as well.
Sigue directo. Continue straight.
Camina un cuadra, dobla la esquina a la derecha, y sigue derecho dos cuadras más. Walk a block, turn right at the corner, and continue straight two blocks more.
5. Finding help. Whether you get lost, are victim of a crime, or just need help, these key words will let others know what you need.
Estoy perdida. I’m lost.
Perdi mi pasaporte. I lost my passport.
Necesito ayuda. I need help.
Me siento enferma. I feel sick.
Llama a la policía. Call the police.
Llama al hospital. Call the hospital.
6. The beauty of permiso. I love this word. It is one of the most polite and appreciative Spanish words that you can use in almost any situation. Here are a few common ways to use it:
Con permiso (or just permiso). Excuse me.
¡Permiso, señorita! Excuse me, miss! (When trying to get someone’s attention in a polite manner.)
Permiso also means “permission,” and can be used when asking for it.
¿Tengo permiso para entrar? Do I have permission to enter?
7. Pasaje vs. peaje. Both mean basically the same thing, but pasaje means “passage” and peaje means “fare” specifically. This is especially helpful when taking public transportation.
¿Cuanto cuesta el pasaje? How much is the fare?
¿Cuanto es el peaje al centro? How much is the fare to go downtown?
8. Front and back. ?Frente and atrás are pretty easy terms and commonly used in everything from requesting a specific seating arrangement to letting the bus driver know to open the back door.
Abra la puerta de atrás, por favor. Open the back door, please.
Me gustaría una mesa para dos al frente. I would like a table for two in the front.
9. Express what you desire with quiero. We know it as “love.” Te quiero. I love you. But it’s also “want,” and when traveling, it is the perfect word to say exactly what you do or don’t desire.
No quiero eso. I don’t want that.
Quiero un doctor. I want a doctor.
10. Beyond “hello.” So you’re introduced to a new person and you say hola. Now what? These few phrases will help push that conversation forward.
Mucho gusto (or es un placer conocerlo). It’s a pleasure to meet you.
My favorite phrase is encantada, which plays on the romanticism of the Spanish language, but isn’t necessarily romantic at all. Translated it means “enchanted,” but really, it’s just a nice way of also saying “it’s a pleasure.”
The short and sweet reply to es un placer conocerte (it’s a pleasure meeting you) is igualmente (me as well).
When all else fails, I am a huge fan of smiles and friendly nods. Often times, no matter what country I visit, I find that just making the effort to connect in the local language is greatly appreciated and gets you pretty far, even if you haven’t mastered it completely.
And if you’ve fallen in love with the country and its people, you can learn to never say goodbye by simply saying hasta la próxima (until next time).
What has been your favorite language to learn while traveling?
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