learn conversational spanish

6 Big Tips for Learning Conversational Spanish Like a Regular Chatty Cathy

There comes a time in every Spanish student’s life when they have to put aside the textbook and start talking.

That’s usually the same time you’ll realize: There’s a lot to know about Spanish.

You might not know what you don’t know or what you need to know.

And it sounds confusing because…it is.

You’ve aced every test, memorized every vocabulary word that came your way. You’ve brushed up on the necessary phrases and grammar. You’re feeling pretty confident.

Then, as soon as you get into a real conversation with a native speaker, you realize that you’ve still got a ways to go before reaching conversational fluency.

Just like in math or science, learning the basics of a language is incredibly important, but the conversations you have in real life aren’t always going to follow the chapters of your textbook. No matter what you say, you can’t control what someone is going to say back.

Whether you want to blend in as a local on your South American vacation, use Spanish for business or practice your vocab by chatting with your neighbors, there are a few conversational situations you may not know you needed to know…until it’s too late and you’re wishing you already knew.

Be prepared for anything! Below is a great overview of some grammar and vocabulary that you might not know you need to know.

Learning by Doing: 6 Key Elements of Conversational Spanish You Need to Know

1. R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The difference between formal and informal conjugations in Spanish might have been one of the first things you learned, but it’s also quick to be forgotten. In many Spanish classes or lessons, you’ll be practicing with other students, meaning that you’ll almost always be using the informal “you,” . You might forget how often the formal usted conjugation is used in conversational Spanish.

Since using usted with your conversation partner is a way to show respect, knowing when and how to use it can be very important in order to not disrespect those you meet and converse with.

When to Use Usted(es): 

  • When you are meeting someone for the time.
  • When you are interacting with an authority figure.
  • When you are addressing a group or audience.
  • Anytime you want to show respect for someone (someone older, someone high up in your career, an employee helping you at a store, etc).

When to Use Tú:

  • When you are talking to a friend or classmate
  • If your conversation partner uses it with you, or requests that you use the informal tense (remember, there’s a verb for that! Your partner may use the verb tutear, which means to use the informal tense, if they want you to switch over to tú.)

Remember, it’s always best to defer to usted if you aren’t certain. If you’re too formal your conversation partner will let you know, and they’ll probably appreciate the display of respect anyway.

2. Y’all Come Back Now

Remember vosotros? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.

The vosotros (or 2nd person informal plural) conjugation is often forgotten—even crossed out—by teachers, since it’s only used in Spain, Argentina and a few other places, and that’s only a few Spanish-speaking countries of many, right? Maybe so.

Still, it isn’t unlikely that you’ll travel to Spain during your studies or converse with a native, and if you do…you may hear some unusual words.

Even if you’re used to crossing out the vosotros conjugation, it’s still quite commonly used in Spain. It’s certainly worth knowing at least preliminary vosotros conjugations so you can truly be prepared for anything.

Just so we’re on the same page now, vosotros is the 2nd person plural tense, or the plural version of or informal “you.”

When to Use Vosotros

  • Informally referencing two or more people, similar to using “you guys” or “y’all” in English.

Conjugating vosotros:

                                     hablar (-ar)                  correr (-er)                escribir (-ir)
Present Tense:           habláis                        corréis                       escribís
Past Tense:                hablasteis                    corristeis                  escribisteis

3. Up, Down, Turn Around

You probably learned how to ask “¿dónde está _____?” on your first or second day of Spanish class…but are you prepared for someone to respond?

If you’re traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, knowing how to ask for directions is only half the battle. In order to put the answer you get to use, you’ll need to know the right vocabulary.

Not hopping on a plane anytime soon? Remember—directions aren’t just for getting lost in a foreign country. If you’re learning Spanish for professional reasons, you may need to give a native speaker directions yourself, and the more prepared you are to give directions the more you can help them.

Below are just a few important direction words to know:

Left — la izquierda
Right — la derecha
Up — arriba
Down — abajo
In front — adelante
Behind — atrás
Above- encima de
Below — debajo de
Across — a través de
Turn around — darse la vuelta

4. What Did You Just Call Me?

Even if you never have that fling you dreamed might happen abroad, you still might encounter terms of endearment used in Spanish. These terms of endearment, similar to words like “honey,” “sweetie” or “dear” in English, are used commonly, and not just to be romantic.

Just as an older relative or a nurse might call you “sweetie,” you might hear someone use one of these terms of endearment to refer to you. Don’t be caught off guard if you hear one of these words: You can be sure if you hear one of these words they aren’t calling you something nasty, and know that their use doesn’t necessarily imply romance.

Common Spanish Terms of Endearment:

Sweetheart — cariño
Dear — querido(a)
Love — amor
Friend — amigo(a)
Buddy — cuate

You may often hear people add the ending suffix ito(ato people’s names, nicknames and to adjectives that describe them. Any word, really, can be made to sound little and cute by adding this suffix.

5. I’ll Have What She’s Having

You might know your Spanish food vocabulary from arroz to zanahoria, but knowing words related to the process of eating out as a whole is just as handy. There’s always a menu to help with questions about the plates, but knowing how to address a waiter or talk about dietary restrictions can be just as important.

Below are a few words you might not think about needing for your night on the town:

Tap water — agua del grifo (In many foreign countries, ordering water at a restaurant automatically means bottled water, and that automatically means it’s going on the bill. If you’re looking more for water of the free variety, you’ll need to specify that you’d like tap water)
Waiter (waitress) — camarero(a)
Vegetarian — vegetariano(a)
Dairy — lácteos
Lactose intolerance — intolerancia a la lactosa
To have an allergy — tener alergia
Cash — efectivo
Credit card — tarjeta de crédito
Can I pay with a credit card here? — ¿Puedo pagar con tarjeta de crédito aquí?
Can we split the check? — ¿Podemos dividir la cuenta?

6. How to Ask for Help

Remember, whether you’re talking to a native in your home country or traveling abroad, it’s totally okay to ask for help or let someone know you’re a beginner. They’re likely to be appreciative to know that you have a better shot at understanding if they slow down and make things easier to understand.

Below are some key phrases you can use in order to ask for help or explain your level of Spanish. I have provided the tu and usted forms where necessary, in that order.

I do not speak Spanish very well. — No hablo español muy bien.
I am still learning. — Todavía estoy aprendiendo.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand that sentence/word. — Lo siento, no entiendo esa frase/palabra.
Can you please repeat that? — ¿Puedes/puede repetir?
Can you please speak slower? ¿Puedes/puede hablar más despacio?
I have been studying Spanish for _____(how long). — He estudiado español ____ años/meses.
I have only just begun to study Spanish. — Acabo de comenzar a estudiar español.
I don’t remember the word for… — No recuerdo la palabra para…

These are some great phrases to be prepared for anything that may come your way in conversational Spanish, but remember, there will always be words you never think you’ll need until you need them.

In most cases, the person you’re speaking with will be patient and happy that you’re devoting so much of your time and effort to learning their language.

After all, every new conversation is a chance to learn a new word…and there’s no better way to study than to start talking!

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