Illustrations by Teresa Bellón
Spanish is not the easiest language to learn, but with the right learning methods and consistent conversation practice with native speakers, you’ll end up speaking it like you’ve always wanted to. That is, with a bit of salero (charm, vivacity), employing some of the most useful Spanish phrases you could ever think of.
Here are some key sentences to speak like a genuine Spaniard. But beware — lest you start growing a beard, increasing the volume of your voice and kissing everybody you randomly meet on the street.
Meaning: If only
The origin of the word ojalá traces back to Arabic and means, literally, in sha’a Allah, if God wants to. It’s a pretty unique word, since not a lot of languages have one word that sums up the feeling of “Oh… if only it were sunny today!” Spanish people are daydreamers and non-conformists, so get ready to hear it pretty often.
2. Somos uña y carne.
- Meaning: To be hand in glove with someone.
- Literally: We are nail and flesh.
“Luisa and Pili are uña y carne, you will always see them together”. To be uña y carne is pretty self explanatory… It is said about two people who get along really well and usually do everything together… the Spanish version of BFFs.
3. ¿Me lo dices o me lo cuentas?
Literally: Are you telling me or are you narrating it to me?
- “I wish it were Friday already…
- ¡¿Me lo dices o me lo cuentas?!“
This sentence is usually said when something is obvious for more than one person, and can be translated as “Tell me something I don´t know”. The question is always asked rhetorically, since the verbs decir and contar basically mean the same thing.
4. ¡Déjame en paz!
- Meaning: Leave me alone!
- Literally: Leave me in peace.
It’s always good to have a less friendly sentence tucked away in case you find yourself in a less friendly situation (¡Ojalá que no!). I still remember when I learned the German equivalent, “Lass mich in Ruhe!” which already sounds a bit aggressive but, when that intense guy came over to me in the subway, the truth is that the sentence came in really handy. If someone is stressing you out and you want to let them know that they should stop, use this sentence, but please take into account that it’s not very polite!
5. Hacer una bomba de humo.
- Meaning: To leave without saying goodbye.
- Literally: To do a smoke bomb.
Have you ever been at one of those parties that’s so crowded that, when you want to leave, you feel like doing so without saying goodbye to anyone? Well, I must admit this is kind of common practice in Spain and it’s known as “doing a smoke bomb,” just like a magician would do! Poof! and I’m gone. We usually like hanging out in big groups, and it’s so exhausting to have to say goodbye to everyone individually (usually followed by small talk and the mandatory two kisses) that escaping without giving any explanation is sometimes needed and widely accepted. You just need to apologize the day after, but you know, mañana, mañana…
6. ¿Estudias o trabajas?
Literally: Do you study or do you work?
This is an almost vintage thing to say nowadays, but the fact that it is, makes it cool. This was the most common and clichéd pick-up line from back when our parents were flirting. ¿Estudias o trabajas? was the easiest, least genuine and most practical/boring thing to ask someone. If you use it today, the person you are trying to flirt with will probably appreciate your old-school Spanish knowledge and will find it cute.
7. Tener salero
- Meaning: To be vivid; to have charm and grace.
- Literally: To have a salt shaker.
As I already hinted at in the introduction, having salero is something very important in Spain, especially if you are in Andalucía. Being saleroso/a is almost as important as being friendly or kind, since it implies that you do things lively and with charm. What else can you aim for?
8. Nos tomamos la penúltima y nos vamos
- Meaning: To have one drink… after another.
- Literally: We drink the penultimate, and then we leave.
This is one of my favorites: It’s a projection of our wishes and/or intentions, but it usually never comes true. The proposal itself, to drink the one before the last one, is already quite vague, imagining that the penultimate is also not the first… It’s a nice way of saying, “I don’t want to leave yet, I’m having a good time and this probably won’t be the last drink!”
9. Hacer algo en cero coma.
- Meaning: To do something really fast.
- Literally: To do something in zero comma.
I think this sentence was thought of really fast as well… so fast, they forgot to add the decimals!
Zero comma what? Anyways, it is used widely and it’s usually a lie, since I would say we Spanish enjoy a slower pace of life. Even so, it’s a declaration of intent, and that’s what counts, right? “Let’s finish this Excel sheet en cero coma and then we can go for lunch”.
10. Hacer la 13 – 14
- Meaning: To trick someone.
- Literally: To do the 13-14.
“Hacer la trece catorce” is basically our name for a practical joke, but it can apply to any situation where you feel that you were fooled. It is most commonly used among young people, but I think everyone will understand if you say, “My friends said this bar would be cool, but when I got here it was almost empty and the music was awful. ¡Me hicieron la 13-14!” The origin of this sentence goes back to garages. Car mechanics would ask new apprentices for the wrench number 13-14, knowing full well that wrench numbers only go from 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15, 16-17, etc. So the poor apprentice was fooled into searching for a wrench that simply didn’t exist. It’s the Spanish equivalent of telling the new kid at school to check out the swimming pool on the roof.
Learning these useful Spanish phrases is essential if you want to avoid being seen as just another “typical tourist” during your trip to Spain. Plus, the more Spanish you learn, the greater the likelihood you can successfully break down those cultural barriers and smash some stereotypes! And who doesn’t want that?