When someone says something to you in Spanish that you don’t understand, the appropriate response is “¿Cómo?“. But the word cómo also means “how” — as in “knowing how to speak Spanish.” If that’s a goal that’s been on your bucket list for some time, our Spanish crash course has everything you need to learn Spanish quickly (and turn your ¿cómo? into a cómo).
We’ve broken up our guide into four key steps designed to teach you the right words — as well as give you some useful cultural context and study methods. Click the links below to jump ahead (or keep reading if you’re keen on learning some essential survival phrases first).
- Master The Most Important Key Phrases
- Immerse Yourself In The Culture Before Getting On The Plane
- Sound Like A Native By Learning The Local Slang
- Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time
1. Master The Most Important Key Phrases
You’ve got about one word down (and an entire language to go). Where do you even start if you’re feeling overwhelmed?
Many language experts agree that the best use of your time is to begin with the most essential words and phrases. There are thousands upon thousands of words in any given language, but on average, 90 percent of a native speaker’s vocabulary is made up of about 3,000 of the most common words.
First, Learn How To Introduce Yourself
Just like in English, there are a number of different ways to greet someone in Spanish. You can say hola, which means “hello”; you can say buenos días “good morning”; or if you want to be extra informal, go with ¿qué tal?, which basically means “what’s up?”
Once you’ve gotten past greetings, try introducing yourself. Say: “Me llamo _______. ¿Cómo te llamas?” which literally translates to “I call myself ______. What do you call yourself?”
Learn How To Ask Questions
Assuming you’re not trying to talk about yourself all day, you’ll want to learn how to ask questions when you’re getting to know someone. You know, like where they’re from, or if they’re single. The “who, what, when, where, why” is not just essential to the writing of a good story, but also to having better conversations.
¿Quién? — Who?
¿Qué? — What?
¿Cuándo? — When?
¿Dónde? — Where?
¿Por qué? — Why?
¿Cómo? — How?
Here’s how these words look in a typical question you might ask your new friend.
¿Cómo estás? — How are you?
¿De dónde eres? — Where are you from?
¿A qué te dedicas? — What do you do for work?
Other Must-Know Words And Phrases
You’ll also probably want to prioritize learning how to order food and drinks, as well as how to be polite in public.
Yo quiero unos tacos — I’ll have some tacos
¿Cuánto cuesta esto? — How much does this cost?
La cuenta, por favor — Check, please
Perdón — Excuse me
Gracias — Thank you
¡Mucho gusto! — Nice to meet you!
¿Dónde esta el baño? — Where is the bathroom?
¿Cómo llego a ______? — How do I get to ______?
¿Me puede ayudar? — Can you help me?
¿Hablas inglés? — Do you speak English?
Soy alérgico/a _____ [al trigo, a los productos lácteos, al marisco, a los huevos, a los cacahuetes, a los frutos secos, a la soja] — I’m allergic to _____ [wheat, dairy, shellfish, eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy]
2. Immerse Yourself In The Culture Before Getting On The Plane
It’s one thing to know the right words, but without a cultural understanding to give those words context, you might struggle with a language barrier that has very little to do with grammar and vocabulary.
For instance, a pickup line that works well in Madrid might seem a little bit out of place in Mexico City, where views on dating are still fairly traditional (in other words, you might have to play the long game if you were counting on a fly-by-night romance).
One surefire way to get a feel for culture is to learn about the food. What people eat is almost as important as how they eat it — at large family dinners, alone at one’s desk, at 10 p.m. before a long night of partying, or at 1 p.m. before a siesta. In Spain, for example, people like to eat small plates called tapas, which literally means “lids,” or “covers.” (According to legend, Spanish bars used to serve drinks covered with a small plate of food to keep the flies out, but this had the added benefit of giving patrons something to nibble on, so the tradition stuck.)
If you can’t buy a plane ticket to Cartagena or Barcelona just yet, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in Spanish-speaking culture.
Here are just a few ideas:
- Eat out at an authentic Latin American or Spanish restaurant in your town — better yet, practice your Spanish with the waiter
- Find a Meetup or group in your area so you can practice with other Spanish learners
- Spend some time in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood near you
- Learn about the history of the Spanish language
5 Ways To Put Your Spanish Into Practice Without Stepping Foot Outside The U.S.
How To Get A Date In Mexico City
How To Host The Perfect Spanish Dinner Party
Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Spanish?
Arguably, the best kind of cultural immersion you can enjoy from your couch is the media kind. One of the language-learning tips you’ll hear repeated most often is that it’s not enough to study conjugation tables. You have to watch the TV shows, read the books and keep that podcast playing in the background until you’re positively swimming in the language. Fortunately, this has a reliable way of not only boosting your language comprehension (and introducing you to the language as it’s actually spoken by real people) but also bringing you up to speed on what Spanish speakers are watching, reading and listening to.
Not sure where to start? We have a few handy guides for you.
- 5 TV Shows You Can Stream To Help You Learn Spanish
- 6 Books To Help You Learn Spanish
- 5 Best Podcasts For Spanish Language Learners
- 9 Melodramatic Soap Operas In Other Languages
3. Sound Like A Native By Learning The Local Slang
It’s the difference between “how do you do” and “what’s up” — between “please call me on my telephone” and “hit me up later.” One of the surest signs you learned Spanish from a textbook is a lack of familiarity with colloquial slang.
It goes without saying that slang can vary drastically from country to country (and even from region to region). Not only will you look wildly out of place using a Mexican expression in Madrid, but you might also encounter some logistical difficulties. For example: torta means “cake” in most Spanish-speaking countries, but in Mexico, it refers to a kind of sandwich.
Additionally, different countries can sometimes have different ways of expressing the same thing. Manejar un carro is the version of “to drive a car” that’s used most often in Latin America, but conducir un coche is what you’ll generally hear in Spain.
Here are a few fun (and useful) Spanish slang expressions to keep in your back pocket.
Estar piripi — To be tipsy
Echar una mano — To give someone a hand
No pasa nada — No worries
Otro gallo cantaría — The other rooster could have crowed (things could have been different)
Vete a freír espárragos — Go fry asparagus (piss off)
Vale — Okay (used most often in Spain)
¡Qué guay! — How cool!
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The 10 Best Slang Expressions In Spanish
The Art Of Swearing In Spanish
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Quiz: Can You Tell The Difference Between Latin American And European Spanish?
4. Get The Most Out Of Your Study Time
Obviously, this guide is just a start — a jumping-off point for your forays into the Spanish language. But how you tackle the material is just as important as what you tackle.
We’re kind of big on learning methods at Babbel, and we have a lot of practical advice to offer if you’re serious about making progress. There’s no such thing as complete overnight fluency, but with the right approach, you can learn Spanish fast (and even feel comfortable having a basic conversation in a matter of hours).
Here are a few of our favorite tips for language learning:
- If you’re struggling to perfect your pronunciation, try standing in front of a mirror and paying attention to the shapes your mouth makes. Sometimes, it’s really a matter of form.
- If you’re going to memorize vocab, go about it strategically. Begin with the 100 most common words in the language, and then move on to words that are relevant to your hobbies and interests.
- Never neglect your review sessions! Spaced repetition is a major cornerstone of the Babbel Method for teaching languages because it sends the information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.
- You’re better off learning in short, manageable chunks on a regular basis. If you’ve only got 10 to 15 minutes every day to spare, that’s plenty! The key is to keep it up and stick with a routine you can sustain over time.
- Mistakes are not to be feared (and in fact, they’re an important part of the learning process). Lean into them — don’t shy away.
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