Did you learn everything you know about Cuba from “Dirty Dancing 2”?
You’ve come to the right place!
If you consider this Caribbean island to be the capital of dance, you’re certainly on to something. Havana is the birthplace of some of the most famous dances and dance is a huge part of Cuban culture. Cha Cha, Mambo, Salsa, Rumba and Bolero were all either created or refined in Cuba, and Havana is also home to the largest ballet school in the world.
But what does this have to do with language learning?
Cuba is a true fusion of African and European influences. It also uses a lot of vibrant slang—slang which you can learn here—making it a wonderful challenge for the more advanced Spanish learner to master and a great introduction to the diversity of the Spanish language for anyone who’s traveling to Cuba or who has Cuban friends.
Cuban Spanish 101: Regional Twists, Accents and 23 Slang Words for Havana Nights
Pronunciation and Speech
Much of Cuban speech can be seen as informal, a feature of most Caribbean Spanish varieties. Here are some of the relaxed pronunciations you might come across:
- If a syllable ends in r or l, the sound becomes the same as the first sound of the next syllable. This might sound confusing, but it’s a really easy one in practice. For example, Carlitos becomes Cal-li-tos.
- If d is at the beginning of a syllable within a word, it might not be said at all, e.g. dedo (finger) is pronounced dé-o.
- S at the end of a syllable is often aspirated, and occasionally it’s omitted altogether.
- Occasionally, r becomes l at the end of a syllable or end of a word.
- Consonants at the beginnings of syllables are often spoken more softly than usual Spanish pronunciation dictates.
One of the main differences you’ll find between Cuban Spanish and general Latin American Spanish is the nasal accent and rhythmic intonation. This is the influence of African settlers on the language and makes it sound very different from most other Spanish varieties.
Provinces and Language Differences
Cuba has sixteen provinces in modern day. Linguistically speaking, it’s less complicated to consider the historical six provinces of Cuba. These are:
- Pinar del Río — Here you’re most likely to hear r become l at the end of a word or syllable, and occasionally the other way around. This can be hard to understand, so you might have to train your ear to it.
- La Habana — Occasionally, speakers may be heard to speak as in Pinar del Río. The rest of the island outside of Havana is also referred to as campa in Havana.
- Mantanzas and Las Villas — These two provinces in the middle of Cuba have no special Cuban dialect.
- Camagüey — This place has some of the different vocabulary of the Oriente province but mostly follows the language of the rest of the island. They use balance instead of sillón for “rocking chair” and pluma or llave instead of faucet, which is used on the rest of the island for a tap.
- Oriente — The language here is far more similar to Dominican Republic Spanish than the rest of the island. They also have a set of vocabulary words that’s different from the rest of the Cuban island. For example, balde instead of cubo for bucket and guineo instead of plátano for banana/plantain. Here the s sound is also most likely to go unaspirated. The unusual intonation of this province may also be the last remnants of the indigenous language.
Cuban Spanish Grammar
There are some elements of Cuban Spanish grammar that are different to European and Latin American Spanish. These are some features you might want to be aware of:
- Tú comes before the verb, not after it, in a question.
Example: ¿Qué tú haces aquí? (what are you doing here?)
- Le and les become la and las when after se in a sentence.
Example: A Juana se la ve en la tienda todos los días. (Juana is seen in the store every day.)
- Decir a is used to show the start of an action.
Example: Si el niño dice a crecer, tendremos que comprarle ropa nueva. (If the boy starts to grow, we’ll have to buy him new clothes.)
- Para instead of en for saying that someone is somewhere.
Example: Carmen está para la Habana. (Carmen is in Havana.)
- The phrase ¡Cómo no! (Of course) is ¡Cómo que no! in Cuban Spanish.
- Uno (one, number or pronoun) is used instead of the indefinite article una.
Example: Está uno cansada de tanto hablar. (Is one tired of talking.)
- Más (more) comes before nada/nadie (nothing) to produce the phrase “nothing else.”
- Clarito, feo, fuerte and rapidísimo can all be used as adverbs (to describe an action) as well as adjectives (to describe a person or thing.) In European Spanish, each of these adjectives has an alternative equivalent adverb but these aren’t used in Cuban Spanish.
- -ico and -ica are used at the end of words instead of -ito and -ita to indicate a smaller or lesser version. This only applies to words ending in to/ta.
Example: Plato (plate) becomes platico (saucer.)
Cuban Slang Overview
Cuban slang, much like slang in many other languages, is a vibrant mix of constantly changing words and meanings.
Cuban slang derives some of its influences from African languages and also features quite a lot of anglicisms.
What we’ll give you has a splash of everything, and they’re all slang words that you might find useful in a Cuban club.
Basic Spanish Knowledge
Of course, you can’t just rely on slang terms and grammar to get you by in a conversation. In order to use these terms and phrases effectively, you’ll have to know basic Spanish grammar.
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23 Key Cuban Slang Words
This is something you might ask for in your mojito. Yep, it’s a drinking straw! Pretty easy one to remember—just imagine yourself absorbing your drink through a straw. This is also a great word to practice aspirating your s with.
Maybe feeling a little aguajirarse (timid) is keeping you off the dance floor? Well, stop being shy and get out there! In typical Cuban style, the j is likely to be pronounced more softly than you’d expect.
Couple of chicos (friendly term for peers) rocking the dance floor? Show your admiration by shouting ¡Alabao!
Always a good idea to take your ambia (friend) along to a club, for safety as well as fun.
The bachata (party) is where it’s at! This word can also be used for noise in a more derogatory way, so watch out for that.
If you identify yourself as a baracutey (a person who lives alone) you might not want the party to end if you’re going home alone. The r here might become an l in pronunciation.
Make sure you take plenty of baro (money) with you for drinks.
Another word for party, burumba can also mean to have fun. If last night was a burumba, it was a very good night. The r in this can also be pronounced as an l.
If you’re looking totally caché (stylish/elegant) then you’ve done a good job.
10. Candela al jarro
If your dancing isn’t quite what you’d like it to be, you must candela al jarro (persevere until you reach your goal).
Music hurting your chola (head)? Time to get a breath of fresh air!
12. Coger un aire
If you’re wearing a little dress or a light shirt without a jacket, prepare to coger un aire (going out at night without proper clothing and being pained by the cold)!
13. Dar la punzada del guajiro
Drink your frozen daiquiri too fast and you’ll definitely dar la punzada del guajiro (get a brain freeze). Don’t fret, just put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and it will go away.
14. Darse tremendo tanganazo
Be careful on the dance floor. It can be easy to darse tremendo tanganazo (bump yourself.) This phrase is a good one to practice leaving the d out on tremendo, Cuban style.
15. De carretilla
Once you’ve spent enough time on the dance floor, you might know some of the steps de carretilla (by memory).
An obvious anglicism, drinqui (alcoholic drink) has quite a fun and unusual spelling.
17. Echar un tacón
If someone asks, you might like to echar un tacón (to dance).
If you’re ready to go out dancing and you’re wearing your best clothes, you might say that you’re emperifollado (polished up).
If all that dancing has made you fachao (hungry), it’s time to try some Cuban cuisine.
20. Jugar a los bomberos
After dancing all night and starting to ache, you might like to jugar a los bomberos (to take a bath.) This one is very fun to say. Don’t forget the Cuban pronunciation of l for the letter r, and be sure to leave out the s in bomberos.
21. Machacar las teclas
It could really get on your nerves if someone were to machacar las teclas (play the piano badly). Tell them to stop or show them how it’s done!
If you find that a Cuban party is a vacilón (something you enjoy a lot), then you’ll love the rest of Cuban life.
Who cares if you’re a zurdo (a really bad dancer.) Get out there and have fun!
Now that you have a vocabulary full of dancing slang and an introduction to general Cuban Spanish, it’s time to get practicing!
Get out there, dance, enjoy.
And soak up every bit of Cuban language, culture and party life that you possibly can!
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