Spanish has two types of “you” – the formal and informal (tú and usted). While you are unlikely to cause offence using the wrong pronoun, we’ve stuck with the formal version throughout most of these phrases. This means you’ll come across as more polite and formal than if you were to use the informal version – a safe bet when you’re not sure.
Asking permission to do stuff
A large amount of your time will be spent asking people if they’re open, whether you can sit there, if you can have this, that or the other, and so on. Fortunately, a couple of catch-all phrases will help you out here, which have quite a broad meaning, but will make sense in context.
The mother of all permission-type phrases, se puede literally means “is it possible?”, or “can I?”. You can use it in all sorts of contexts – grabbing a spare seat, entering a bar, picking something up, whatever!
Literally “do you mind”, this is another one that can be used in different contexts. “Do you mind if…” I smoke, I pick this up, I sit here, etc…
Literally, “Do you let me”. Could you let me pass, will you let me in, will you let me out… Again, another phrase with multiple uses depending on the context.
“Is it free?” Could be a chair, a table, a space, or whatever. Note that free refers to “available”, not price (that would be gratis).
Me permite, por favor
“Will you allow me?” This phrase is a polite way of saying excuse me, and is most commonly used when trying to get past someone on a packed bus, for example.
Saying sorry for your clumsy blunders
You’ve just spilled your “jarra” (carafe) of oily Rioja over one of the locals’ crisp white linen suits. Or, you accidentally slammed a door in someone’s face. Or, you jumped queue without realising. Or maybe you’ve somehow offended the locals’ sensibilities with your crass cultural blunders. Either way, Spanish speakers are a pretty forgiving lot, so try out some of these phrases to get yourself out of any sticky situation:
“I’m sorry!”. This literally means “I feel it”, as in “I feel your pain”!
Perdóneme, no le ví
For when lo siento seems overkill, try this one. It’s closer to “parden me”, and a little softer than lo siento.
“Forgive/pardon me”. A good alternative for lo siento.
Fue un accidente
“It was an accident”. Useful to get you out of many a bind!
Greetings and introducing yourself
Clearly, a great way to strike up any conversation is to keep it simple and introduce yourself. Why bother with fancy chat up lines? In my experience, most Spanish people respond well to a simple introduction. So be brave, and strike up a few conversations with these phrases:
Buenos días/Buenas tardes/Buenas noches
“Good morning/Good afternoon/Good night”. When in doubt about the time, you can just use buenas.
Perhaps the most famous of all the Spanish words? It means “hello”, but don’t pronounce the silent h at the start – it sounds more like ola.
Me llamo …
“My name is”. The double l is pronounced like the “y” from “yellow”.
“I am”. You could say your name, or any sorts of adjectives! “I am happy”?
¿Cómo se llama?
What’s your name?
Keeping the wolf from the door – food phrases
Depending on where you are, customs can vary in restaurants. However, one commonality is table service everywhere. Almost all bars and restaurants will have table service, so don’t feel awkward to just go and grab a spare seat. Of course, more formal places will have reservations, so we’ve included a few phrases for both of these scenarios. Once you’re in your eating establishment of choice, one of your first challenges will be to get the waiter’s attention. It doesn’t really matter what you say, but how you say it. Aim for loud and confident – Spanish waiters are very good at looking right through people.
Another challenge may be the lack of menus. Waiters will often reel off a long list of that day’s dishes, so be prepared to ask them for a menu or whether they will repeat themselves. Finally, getting the bill can be a bit of a drag too – you may find yourself asking several times in some of the sleepier restaurants!
¿Tienes una mesa para uno/dos/tres/cuatro?
Do you have a table for 1/2/3/4?
Tengo una reserva para uno/dos/tres/cuatro
I have a reservation for 1/2/3/4
Excuse me! [used to get attention]
¿Tiene una carta?
Do you have a menu?
¿Disculpe, puede repetir, por favor?
“Sorry, can you repeat, please?” Useful for when you can’t quite catch what the waiter’s saying, or he’s giving a long list of dishes at lightening speed.
La cuenta, por favor
“The bill, please”. Be prepared to repeat this one a few times, as it can often be slow to arrive!
Charming the locals
To really make the most of your time abroad, it’s always fun to try and mix it up with the locals. This is also the best way to learn as well – genuine communication with native speakers. Nevermind that you won’t understand a lot, you’ll start flexing your communicative muscles, and will be surprised at the language you pick up. Try these phrases to create a few sparks in your conversations:
¿Me puedes enseñar a bailar?
“Can you teach me to dance?” In Spain, this will be Flamenco, and throughout much of Latin America, Salsa. Always worth a try!
¿Qué piensas de los ingleses/americanos,etc?
“What do you think of the English/Americans?” Whether the response is good or bad, this is sure to be a conversation starter!
¿Pór qué me estás mirando?
Why are you looking/staring at me?
Literally “you charm me”, or “I think you’re great”! A cheesy piropo (compliment) can get you anywhere!
Telling people you don’t understand them
And finally, perhaps the most important section! There’ll be many times when you have to explain to someone that you can’t understand them, that you’re not from that country, or simply whether they could speak a little more slowly. These are all useful Spanish phrases which could help you out in that situation:
Perdona, no le entiendo. No soy de aquí
“Sorry, I don’t understand you. I’m not from here.” Ok, a little bit of a mouthful, but this is well worth memorising.
¿Le importa hablar un poco mas despacio, por favor?
“Do you mind talking a little slower, please?”. Spanish speakers often talk at a lightening pace, so use this phrase to keep them in check and stay on top of the situation.
Lo siento, no hablo español. ¿Hablas inglés?
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. Do you speak English?”. I would encourage you to only use this phrase as a last resort, as it’s likely to kill any Spanish conversation dead. Use only in emergency!
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