Last updateMon, 12 Apr 2021 3pm

Learning to speak Spanish in four minutes

If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling guilty about speaking Spanglish in such a way that it sounds like it might be deep-state code for a coup.

What makes this all worse is that every language program promises you’ll be speaking Spanish in a matter of weeks or days or on the bus to PV.

So I decided to add my version of this express to bilingualism:

1. Studies of Spanish Word Frequency tell us that the 1,000 most frequent words in Spanish account for 87.8 percent of all spoken Spanish. This means you only need to learn around 1,000 words to understand everything you will hear in Spanish, including why Mexican addresses line up like Sudoku puzzles. So, learn vocabulary. Not words you’re only going to use if you become a fracking engineer or a neurologist. No, grow a vocabulary in Spanish with words you find most useful. Good words like bueno (good). You can say bueno to just about anything or anybody. And whatever the conversation, you will have become a cheery part of it. These efforts, however pithy, will be helpful in allowing you to listen more closely. Now, pith is an example of a word you don’t need ... in any language. It’s a useless word.

Baño is another good word. It needs no verbs or grammar. You say it and everybody knows you need theirs and are not asking to remodel it. La cuenta is also good to know. In a Mexican restaurant, if you don’t say those words, you will never get out of the restaurant. No bill here arrives unless requested. It’s not like north of the border, where the bill arrives with your appetizer. In a Mexican restaurant your only hint that it time to go will be waiters lifting chairs onto your table. When you go to the doctor, you really only need to know a few words: dolor, mucho dolor and voy a morir? Then you just grab that pained part of your body. You don’t need to know how to say “my prostate is the size of an eggplant.” If you think you’re having a heart attack, don’t cry, “mi corazon duele” (my heart hurts), because someone will sing you a country and western song. In the doctor’s office, it is ataque cardiaco. If it runs in your family, memorize this one.

2. You need to use your vocabulary at every possible opportunity. Get words you just learned into your conversations, no matter where you are. Even if your cab driver doesn’t care that you saw a pelican yesterday (Vi un pelícano ayer). They’re used to it.

3. The most efficient way to learn the basics of Spanish is usually with a good textbook that has audio components, so you can hear the words spoken. Sometimes, you may have the right word, but if you don’t pronounce the words properly, you can get into trouble: For example, don’t ask Mexicans about their age by saying, “how many anos do you have. You won’t get their age. That’s años. The other is an unmentionable and in that context is likely to get your car keyed.

4. Study your textbook every day. My solution to learning ser and estar is to just forget it. You’ll never get them right. And nobody cares.

5.  Another beginner technique for increasing language skills for beginners that generally never fails. Pointing. Pointing supplements your vocabulary as a universal language, better even than Esperanto. It will increase your communication skills like nothing else. If you want a couple of empanadas, but you don’t know what an empanada is, you just point at it and raise two fingers. And the clerk will say, “Quieres dos empanadas?” And you will gain more new words and, in this case, a few pounds.

6. Stay away from idioms. For example, a Mexican doesn’t “fund raise,” he “builds a cow” (arma la vaca). If you should say “ama la vaca” (love the cow), you’re in troubling territory. It’s like a foreigner calling Gofundme, Gofondleme.

As soon as you’re ready, you should make reading Spanish something you do daily.

You’ll grow your vocabulary quickly and learn grammar in a natural way. And you’ll understand all those extra words in the sentences that you’re sure don’t belong there. Just ignore them. Spanish isn’t pithy. There, that took four minutes.